Writing “Real” Characters

One of the nicest compliments I’ve gotten about my books is that the characters seem real. Well thank goodness, because sometimes I forget and think they are!

One of the most common pieces of advice writers hear is: Write what you know. That works great for me. I grew up in a family of storytellers—the seventh generation to live on our farm in West Virginia. Dinnertime was filled with tales of our days, sometimes with a little embroidery thrown in, and if we ran out we could always ask Dad to retell one of our favorites. It’s those stories of his growing up that are almost mythical for me. So many of the characters—my grandparents, great uncle, great grandmother, Dad’s childhood acquaintances—were gone by the time I took an interest. Even so, they live on through his stories. Now I have a chance to go back to that “simpler” time when life was pretty well confined to a small community of people who supported each other. I know I romanticize it, but I think that’s okay. My stories are a love letter to Appalachia.

Grandmas and me

So over the next few weeks, I thought I’d introduce you to some of the “real” characters who inspire my books. The photo above is of me in my Grandma Burla’s lap. (Burla . . . Perla). I did get to know her well. She died just a few years ago at 97 and she was a great resource for stories about other family members who had gone on before.

The lady on the right is my Great-Grandma Jane. Now she IS mythical. She died when I was ten or thereabouts. I remember her, but was too young to appreciate what a wealth of information she carried. Here are a few of my favorite tidbits about Grandma Jane courtesy of my dad:

  • She once took a partial deck of cardboard playing cards from Dad, ripped them in half, and threw them in the coal stove.
  • When she prayed aloud in church, she prayed, “Lord, if I have sinned, forgive me.”
  • When books from the community’s bookmobile were being damaged, Dad discovered the culprit when he saw her tear a page out because there was a “bad” word on it.
  • She was once interviewed for the newspaper and was mortified that they quoted her as if she talked in a country, colloquial style. She did not.
  • She didn’t roll up her sleeves when washing dishes or clothes so as not to be unseemly in showing too much skin.

Now, I cannot attest to the truth of all these statements. Dad IS a storyteller. But, oh, what a rich picture they paint!

7 thoughts on “Writing “Real” Characters

  1. mom

    She always wanted (claimed) the fattiest piece of meat on the platter.
    When she stayed with us, you kids had to be silent while she listened to the local obituaries on the radio.
    She refused to change to DST, saying she would just live on God’s time, thank you!

  2. Vicki Shields

    Grandma Jane never had her hair cut. I would love to have lived through the things she lived through. She was born in 1882, so she saw an enormous amount of change over her lifetime. She was 94 when she moved out her house, which did not have a running water, and was heated with a coal stove.

    She told me the day Charles, my son, would be born. She did it with the moons on the calendar, and she was correct. She offered me a nickel for him, also. She was one of a kind, and I’m so lucky to have known her so well.

  3. Vicki Shields

    I’m still mad at Mom for not naming me after her. Grandma was so very special to me. Uncle Judd and I went there almost every day when I was little. She also taught me the respect I have for older folks, cause she was always old, to me. I was born on her 78th birthday.

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