News from Eureka Springs, Arkansas

Friday, January 17, 2014

Where Do Writers Find Characters?

All writers use bits and pieces of people they’ve known to create characters. Your mind “collects” memories, scenes and bits of dialogue that show up when you’re in the middle of a story. At least that’s the way it happens with me. I have a closet full of notebooks with observations and people I’ve met throughout my life. If you want to write, start with a notebook.
For instance, here is a fragment about someone from my army basic training days at Ft. Lee, Virginia, September of 1950. Someday she will be in a book.
     The Women’s Army Corps was still in its infancy when I joined. Recruits were women wanting something different, recently released from foster homes, or escaping poverty or abuse and had nowhere else to go. Remember we didn't have the job opportunities available today. We were expected to live at home until we got married. This was before Ms. Magazine changed all that.
New recruits lived in old wooden barracks, one long, narrow room, twenty-five cots on each side. No privacy. A recruit’s “area” consisted of two feet on either side of the cot and room for a footlocker at the foot.  A short pole on the wall was for hanging uniforms. The inadequacy of the housing, however, didn’t deter our enthusiasm. Cultural shock is an efficient bonding agent. Most of us bonded quickly. We looked out for each other. You need to know this to understand how we all banded together for the “re-making” of Private Kierkgaard.
      Alice was a Wisconsin farm girl, about twenty, who was so shy she never talked. She was awkward, physically clumsy, knew nothing of “female things” like ironing her clothes, shaving her legs, etc., and bathing. We decided she must have lived in abject poverty because she had never seen a flush toilet. She was terrified of the communal shower in the latrine, convinced she’d drown under the water, and refused to have anything to do with it. After about a week, this became a crisis. The whole platoon pitied her, and six of us who had become good friends, decided to take her in hand. We assigned duties: one would teach ironing, one bed making, one shoe shining, etc. It took all of us to get her into the shower, kicking, and screaming, but we persisted. A miracle happened. Once she felt safe, she gloried in the hot water, the soapsuds, shampoo, the whole thing. She became obsessed, spending every available minute there.
Our biggest challenge was teaching her how to march. Alice had two left feet.  We devoted hours to marching up and down the barracks, chanting, “left, right,” but by God, we succeeded. By graduation Alice was a real WAC, and proud of her new assignment as a cook. It was all she ever wanted.
Alice taught me a lot. I learned about compassionate leadership, group loyalty, and never, never to pre-judge. No matter how hopeless you think someone is, they have something of value. When we were packing to go to our next assignment, Alice’s battered paperboard suitcase was open on her bed. Inside were dozens of blue ribbons and small trophies from state fairs—awards for baking. Alice was a champion pastry chef. Who knew?
So what’s the message here? The possibilities of a novel about Alice are endless. The story of women in the military has never been told, especially women in combat. We don’t behave like men when we're in a group. I have dozens of stories from that period of my life that I’ll never get around to telling. 
Open yourself to the people around you—at a party, a shopping mall, or a restaurant. Get inside their heads. Who are they? Fantasize then write it down. Gideon, the hero from my novel, Maddie’s Choice, is the result of thousands of conversations I’ve had with men, in the military, on air planes, standing in line at the supermarket, and memories of those days drinking beer at the NCO club. There are characters everywhere. Find them, and then write the book.

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