When Cathy Holton asked if she could do a guest blog, I jumped at the chance to host her. I had read and reviewed her book, Revenge of the Kudzu Debutantes. I loved it. So, now, it's my pleasure to introduce you to Cathy's fun guest blog. Thank you, Cathy.
No, That Character Is Not You
By Cathy Holton
“Am I in your book?”
I wish I had a dollar for every time someone asks me that question. With the launch of a new novel, my phone rings off the hook for a few weeks with people claiming to recognize themselves or family members as characters in the novel.
One woman emailed me from California and said, “I knew Eadie Boone. I grew up with her. But how did you know her? She died in 1962. And by the way, you spelled her name wrong.”
I suppose it’s a compliment that my characters seem like real people. But the reality is, none of them are ever based entirely on people I know. And there’s a reason for that. Most people lead quiet, monotonous lives and in order to come across as three-dimensional on a page, they have to be drawn “larger than life.” They require a touch of imagination, an amalgamation, to become living, breathing characters in a novel.
Writers are like big sponges. We like nothing better than to sit quietly observing a crowd. We soak up mannerisms, bits of dialogue, the way a woman wears her hair, or a man jiggles his knee nervously as he talks on a cell phone. All of this information gets stored in some dark, musty crevice in the brain, and years later, when a character begins forming on a page, comes spilling out. There’s a moment when a character takes on a life of his or her own, when the writer realizes she’s lost control, not of their fate but of their forming, and it’s usually then that these spongy bits spring into consciousness. It’s the mannerisms, observed and then forgotten, that make a character “real.”
I’ll sometimes take a small notebook and jot down snatches of overheard dialogue that is simply too good to pass up. (Remember this if you ever sit next to me in an airport or restaurant.) I once sat next to two elderly Southern ladies in a tea room. They were wearing fur and discussing another woman’s garden.
“How do you think she gets her roses so big?” one asked the other.
“It’s her Cambodian yard boy,” the other answered. “Don’t you think Cambodians make the best yard boys?”
Bingo. I knew instantly who these women were, their backgrounds, their marriages, their archaic view of the world, just by how they were dressed and what they said in a few short sentences. (And yes, I did use this dialogue in a future novel.) If I tried, I could even imagine their childhoods; private schools, a prestigious women’s college, marriage to a boy from the “right family.”
Writers are Dr. Frankensteins. A bit of hair, a stutter, the way a character laughs and hides her eyes when in the presence of another. We painstakingly build our creatures. But it’s those long-forgotten observations that come tumbling out when we least expect them that give our characters life.
So if, by chance, you recognize a physical trait or a name or a snatch of dialogue, don’t assume the character is you. It’s just a phantom using your words to transform itself into flesh and blood.
As my lawyer advises me to say, “It’s all fiction, folks.”
Cathy Holton’s website is http://www.cathyholton.com/
Summer in the South by Cathy Holton. Ballantine ©2011. ISBN-10: 0345506014; Hardcover, 352 pages
Thank you, Cathy. And, here's a brief summary of Summer in the South. SUMMER IN THE SOUTH by Cathy Holton (Random House, ISBN-10: 0345506014 $25, hardcover, May 24, 2011, Fiction.) A Chicago writer fleeing her troubled past stumbles upon a sixty-year-old murder mystery in a small Southern town. As a guest of the prominent Woodburn clan, keepers of a violent past, Ava Dabrowski soon finds herself entangled in the tragic history of a mysterious Southern family whose secrets mirror her own.