“Where do you get all these ideas?” I am often asked. Like many writers, I am always at work on a project, with at least two or three others in some stage of development. Julie Garwood said once that she will start out by writing on a few different projects until one of them swept her away. I was greatly heartened when I read that.
Many of my ideas stem from characters. For example, in my book Silent Music, I began with two people who, on the surface, could have very little in common and possibly little wish to interact – and then I made them. Because I’m an author and I can do that. In another book, I just wanted to see how someone’s spiritual journey might run and how a comparative innocent would respond to them. (That book is Summer’s Music, in case you’re interested.) With yet another story, I have a hero whom many are finding (in my ventures into the land of beta-readers) to be unsympathetic in the initial stages of the novel. In my head, I know all about him and I feel he is totally lovable — once one understands him.
These characters do not become fully-fleshed overnight. They turn into people, for me. People whom I take about as I do the laundry, put away dishes, sweep floors or drive my son to school. I do not spend valuable writing time drafting character bios, though I understand these can be valuable tools for writers. Instead, I let them percolate over time, giving them backstories, habits, phobias, quirks and turns of phrase. One heroine might say, “Pickles!” when she is irritated. A hero of mine resorts to Spanish epithets when taken by surprise. I have a heroine with an entire courtship of a former sweetheart that never makes print…but it is part of who she is and so I know all about it.
They tell me, you see. And I tell them. And together, the voices in my head and I have lengthy conversations. Lengthy, revelatory conversations.
Getting to know these characters contributes hugely to writing believable dialogue. I have been told that I “give good dialogue.” (I guess this is better than saying I am good with tongues, though I do often have dialogues peppered with different languages.) One of the reasons for this is that I know my characters so well.
Sometimes, to the point of distraction.
“Oh, yeah, you know that really reminds me of something Rhiannon would like,” I have been known to tell my mother.
“The heroine from Making a Diamond. You didn’t like her in the summary, so I’ve got Kathie and Wendy reading my manuscript for me.”
Mom looked at me with a strange cast to her features. “You really do have all these people with you all the time, don’t you?”
I blinked. “Of course. How else can I know them?”
“And so they had a delicious time,” I caught myself saying out loud just today as I pulled away from my son’s school after dropping him off. “He really appreciated her ability to handle his friends and she was totally excited that the other women didn’t blow her off like she was some kind of untouchable nerd.”
“He was so caught up in handling the responsibilities of his job that he forgot to check on how she was handling her new roles. She got it, she did, but it made her feel kind of cut off, you know? Like she had to do hooks and eyes on the back of a dress that didn’t quite feel comfortable and she wasn’t allowed to ask for help. She never considered herself a contortionist.”
“Nope. I don’t want to try that. I’m scared. What if we spend a fortune and nothing happens? What if we push to try for something we’re not meant for? What if we fail?”
“Then we fail. But could you bear looking back at our lives in fifty years and thinking we could have changed things if we’d been willing to take a chance?”
She pressed her lips together. “Yes.”
This is my life inside my head today. All of these scenarios, from three different stories, hit my brain at one time or another. Interspersed with this was a curious idea about writing a short story inspired by the rows of feet I saw at the library. Rows of feet with sparkling toes in flip flops as opposed to rows of feet dressed in sneakers and dark dress socks. Florida Feet, I’d call it. Or Flip Flops & Funky Socks.
I don’t know how typical I am of other novelists, but I get to know my characters by building imaginary relationships with them. Conversations, declarations, observations. Sometimes, the observations are cued by what I see around me, sometimes by what I find when a rabbit trail of my brain beguiles. But it’s always done in my head. Nothing of this goes to paper or a file. It’s all…just…there.
Like Grand Central Station, there is a constant drone in my creative space, punctuated by new discoveries and surprises. It’s a fun place to visit, but you might not want to live there.
Originally posted here in February, 2011