Stories and back stories
I like to think my stories are character driven. What I mean is that the plot is not a puzzle like a murder mystery where the question is “Who did it?” The plot is what happens when someone has a problem, the problem is a result of that person’s behavior conflicting with someone else’s behavior or expectations, so we find out soon why Nate left Dad and Dad’s repair business to work in a traveling carnival, but we don’t know why, when that doesn’t last, Nate is desperate to get back with Angie. The back story involves Nate’s and Angie’s desire for a stable home life, Nate’s friendship with Hiram Silberman, and Angie’s escape from abuse. If you read the book (when it’s finished and published) you’ll find enough details so (I hope) their actions make sense, but I know not only why Hiram and Angie make their decisions, but why their parents acted as they did, but of the parents I’ll only hint. Do you, as reader, care whether Hiram’s father finished college? I suspect that’s why he expects his children to do the same, but I won’t clutter up the story with that detail.
Are these characters real people?
Fiction writers are often asked if their characters are “real people.” To me, they are. I hope when you read about them, you’ll believe they are. But are Derek and Nate our kids? Are Sarah and Jon our grandchildren? Is Aunt Tabby my traveling relative?
Anyone who knows my family could see some resemblances, but the answer is no.
First, I won’t embarrass anyone by repeating their childhood or adolescent missteps, so I do not retell actual incidents. Of course, some of the things they did, or other children I have heard about, did give me ideas…
Second, when I’m writing, I must know what my characters are thinking. I have to get inside their heads and recognize their most private feelings, That’s not possible in real life. Any mother who tells you she can read an adolescent’s mind is kidding herself.
Third, when a character does resemble a living person, it’s probably someone I admire, or a combination of people. Aunt Tabby, for instance: She looks like my father’s cousin Hoylande—don’t ask me how I know—I just know. She thinks and talks like my mother’s Cousin Mabel and lives in her house, but she’s as unconventional as an antiwar folk singer whose concert we enjoyed decades ago.
Nonfiction is another matter. The letter writers and other persons in Panama and Beyond were real persons, and that is why I don’t try to tell you what they were thinking. Some of those persons died before I was born. Others, I saw only once or twice during my childhood. With the exception of Cousin Mabel, I know only as much as you will know from their letters and their behavior. Would that I could decipher their minds along with their handwriting!