Do You Write About the People Your Life?

Do You Write About the People in Your Life, and do They Mind?

The key to a great novel is character development, right? Absolutely. You can start by knowing your character’s backstory, giving them mannerisms, writing out what their thoughts might look like if they kept a diary… the list goes on. Some of what you create during this process you’ll use in your manuscript, some you won’t.

But have you ever wondered where the inspiration for these multi-layered characters comes from in each writer? I’m sure for each writer it’s different. Friends and family who’ve read something I’ve written sometimes tell me they recognize a character, with a knowing cluck of the tongue. I just scratch my head and say, “really?”.

When I write, I think of my characters as new, unique beings. The suggestion otherwise made me think. Do I really write about the people in my life, subconsciously? YIKES! If so, should I be embarrassed? Should I apologise? The thought intrigued me.

So, the next time I sat down to create a new character for my new project, I tried to keep a critical eye as I went through what is now a routine process for me. My answer as to whether or not I write about the people in my life? A resounding…

Sort of!

Of course, like most writers, I do go through the lists of things about my character that help me to get to know them. For a small character I might write a single page of notes that only I will ever read. For a main character, the notes might almost fill a book themselves as I nail down just what I want them to think or feel.

So, do my characters look and act like the people I know? Surprisingly, no. I’m more likely to choose a celebrity at first, rather than someone I know to define my character’s looks, accent and mannerisms, just for ease of recall. For example, if my character is supposed to be middle aged, ghostly pale and from Australia, I might write Nicole Kidman at the top of my first character page, just so I don’t have to create each and every physical trait for her from scratch. That character may end up nothing like Nicole Kidman when I’m done exploring her, but it’s a starting point.

In fact, when I think about my latest completed project, young adult (YA) novel THE FOUNTAIN, I know exactly what each character would look like if I met them on the street. Strangely, they are like nobody I can remember meeting before, though their appearances are very clear in my mind. Actually, if I actually ran into someone on the street that matched the image of one of my beloved characters in my mind, I think I would go into shock.

So, if it’s not their looks or their actions, what is it that I draw from people I know?

I copy the feelings they evoke. I want the reader to feel the main character’s disgust when her unfair teacher enters the room. The protagonist’s longing for the new girl in class must be palpable when he talks to her. I think of it as their “theme”, almost like a theme song that follows my characters around my novel, though with less fanfare. If I don’t feel their theme arrive when they do when I’m reviewing a scene, I do it again until I get it right.

The mood I want the reader to feel when they experience a scene is something that I draw from things I’ve experienced. What it’s like to lose first love. How it feels to have your innermost thoughts exposed. These are things that must feel real to the reader. And they are.

My intense memory of feelings is what compels me to be a writer. I write YA because I think that the discovery of who you are and who you want to become is such an exciting and individual journey. I let my characters borrow my feelings about certain people because I want the reader to experience this bitter sweet journey in a convincing way.

So go ahead, comb my manuscript for a glimpse of yourself. But know that it might be in how I felt when we said goodbye that time, and nothing else.

Memoirs of a Book Club

Memoirs of a Book Club

So, what have you read lately?

My answer is always the same, “anything and everything!” My philosophy for the last few years has been to read anything that people are talking about, regardless of genre. I must say that this philosophy is serving me well – a huge improvement over choosing books at random off the bookshelf at the airport bookstore. Most importantly, this method has given me lots of inspiration for my own writing.

At the end of the day, I love to write – but I’m a business woman at heart and I can’t shake that off. I read popular books not to be cool (because I know that only my husband is ever going to think I’m cool!) I read them to figure out the “Why?”, so that I can try to learn. Why do certain books become a breakout success? Do they have a great hook, like 50 Shades of Grey (E. L. James)?

My aspirational reading list should include absolutely everything that is currently making a splash. Sometimes, my list gets pretty long, though the books that make my “Must Read” short list are the ones that my mom, the guy who works at the bookstore, and a neighbor have all recommended, like Cutting for Stone (Abraham Verghese). Books being invited into so many different lives are the ones I want to get my hands on.

I also read two books a month for book clubs. One of my book clubs meets over breakfast with the kids and one meets in the evening with wine and cheese. Occasionally, these both happen on the same day during the month. Those days rock. I get to sit around with smart friends, talking about what they like and don’t like about reading. Who could ask for better market research than that?

My morning book club has shared with me stories by some of their favorite authors, like Love Anthony (Lisa Genova). I’ve been able to share with them some of the coolest voices I’ve ever had the privilege to read, like the voice in Room (Emma Donoghue). This week, I requested Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn) for next month’s meeting from my Overdrive App, which lets me borrow eBooks from the Calgary Public Library for free. To my dismay, I’m number 81 on the waiting list, but that’s the kind of successful book I can learn from.

The ladies in my evening book club push the boundaries of what I’d normally pick up and for that I’m grateful. This year, our reading has taken us from Montreal, with The Imposter Bride (Nancy Richler) to the South Pacific of WWII in Unbroken (Laura Hillenbrand), and even thrown in a little Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy), in anticipation of its film coming out. I definitely wouldn’t have chosen this list on my own, but I learned a little something from each.

Then, if I have any time left at the end of the month, after having read everything I’ve put on my list, I come back to MY classics. These books are the Young Adult novels that inspired me to finally become a writer. They are the books that have opened young minds to the sport of reading. You know the ones. Harry Potter (J.K. Rowling), Twilight (Stephenie Meyer), The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins). These books get to stay on my nightstand while other books come and go. Odd choices for my repeat reads, perhaps, though the lesson of having written the right book in the right place at the right time is the one that I hope to get right.

Why Writing a Novel is Like Having a Baby

Why Writing a Novel is Like Having a Baby
I had a boss once who liked to say “nine pregnant women couldn’t grow a baby in just one month.”  And after having just finished my first book, I can guarantee that nine writers couldn’t write a novel in just one month.    

I have three beautiful, healthy children and I had three long, exhausting pregnancies and I can honestly say that when I did my final pass of my book and decided it was ready, it felt much the same as I did bringing each of my children home from the hospital, ready to meet the world.   

When I started this project, I did my research.  I met with writers who told me that me I’d probably write ten times what I’d end up using during the creative process.  I nodded and smiled.  In my head I thought I’d be different.  I had a secret – I had a plan.  I’ve done things way harder than this, I thought.  I’ve helped build companies.  I write in business every day! 

But they were right.  Despite my maniacally detailed outline that I started with, my book took on a life of its own.  Characters formed as I wrote, as if they came alive themselves as I put the words on the page.  I, the quintessential planner, thought I knew how the story was going to end, until I started writing the ending.  Then it seemed all wrong. 

One important thing I’ve learned by being a parent is that sometimes kids come hard wired with personalities – the old nature vs. nurture argument.   Writing the words were my responsibility.  Making sure that there was a clear and interesting voice was all me.  But the story and the twists and turns it took felt much like meeting each of my children for the first time.  No matter how well I think I know them, they can always surprise me.    

Throughout this two year process, I’ve had to find it within myself to make the time.  I pushed through writer’s block.  My book is why I’ve skipped workouts, why my husband so often took the kids to the science centre on Saturday mornings without me.  It’s why you might have seen me sitting alone in the corner at Starbucks in the evenings and why no, I’d rather you didn’t sit with me and chat.

Well, the pregnancy’s over.  The book is “done”.  Now I just have to make sure it gets into the right schools and makes the right friends, and becomes what it wants to be when it grows up.  Let the parenting begin.