Monday, July 26, 2010

When characters find you

One of the fun things about writing for the newspaper is getting to talk to so many different people and ask them all about their lives, etc., without it being weird or stalkerish.

All of my interview subjects are interesting, but occasionally, I'll get someone whose personality or world view is so unique. Naturally, my little writer's brain is all fired up by the end.

For example, I interviewed this lady once who said she moved from Colorado to Biloxi (Mississippi) one summer in a black car with no air conditioning.

What a great image! I've never been to Colorado, but I can imagine it's nowhere near as hot as the almost 100-degree temps and 100-plus humidity Biloxi gets in the summer. Not to mention the topography...

Even more, I think about the car with no air conditioning, the young woman "running away from home," the 20 year-old adventure seeker. It wasn't her car, she said. She moved with a friend and eventually made her way to New Orleans.

Another time I interviewed a local farmer who was receiving an award. He has more than 600 acres that he's worked since the early 1970s.

This man was so interesting to talk to. He told me his first job was at the local dairy until one day he decided to start his own place. He said looking back it was a bold move.

At 19, he'd married his sweetheart, and when he left his job at the dairy, the (very) young couple had four kids. He put them all to work and now theirs is one of the biggest farms in this area. One of his sons is gradually transitioning to run the place, following in his father's footsteps.

I asked him what it was about farming he loved, and he told me it was the hard work, the connection with the land, working with the animals, growing his own food.

He's currently raising grass-fed cattle, and he was very knowledgeable about organic farming and methods.

He was so thoughtful. He said farming was hard, sometimes heartbreaking work. He said, "You go to bed disgusted and then wake up the next morning optimistic again."

Then he laughed.

It's tough to write for my "day job" and then attempt to be a novelist in my break. But what a lucky gig.


Scarlett said...

I always look forward to reading your section! I find people very interesting too, and you have such an awesome portal for character ideas! Yes, your job is a blessing and such a great way to meet interesting and influent people. Keep up the good work!

Karen Jones Gowen said...

Yesterday someone told me about the oldest married couple, ages 104 & 106, married 86 years. Oh how I would love to interview them!

Unknown said...

I love when my real life characters cross paths with me! When I was on the plane this summer, I picked colorful people out of the crowd. In my notebook, I described them physically, then gave them names, jobs, fears, ambitions, and of course, why they were flying that day. Sort of a LOST exercise in character sketching!

LTM said...

@Scarlett--thanks, hon! :o)

@KG--you should! At that age, no telling what all stories they could share. I interview veterans sometimes, and it's just fascinating. :o)

@ND--I LOVE that! What a great way to pass time on an airplane! And then you've got all those fun notes for later. good stuff~

Cruella Collett said...

This is so true. Sometimes real life characters seem much more fascinating than the fictional ones. When I come across really interesting personalities I am tempted to include them in my fiction writing. If I find myself thinking this, though, I try to shake it off. First of all, I think I owe it to real people (especially the living ones) to leave their life stories alone. Secondly, I need to think of this as a challenge rather than a limitation. Surely I can push my imagination to come up with equally believable and likable characters?

I find that writing about real-life characters in my blog helps, though, as I don't feel as compelled to use them in fiction later. Perhaps you can take advantage of the same in your job?

I hear you on the difficulty of writing both on work and on your break. I sometimes feel the same way with my thesis. At the moment this means that the fiction writing suffers. Eventually I hope to have a different job, so that the majority of my writing will be either blog or fiction.

LTM said...

@CC--omigoodness, LOL! THANK YOU for giving me the op. to clarify. I was in no way meaning to imply one should go all J. Peterman and steal (or buy!) real peoples' stories for one's literary works.

My point was that occasionally I'll come across a real-life person who is inspirational enough to serve as a jumping-off point for a fictional character.

E.g., in WiP2, MC's boyfriend wants to be a farmer (this is related to a later plot development). As I don't know any farmers, wasn't raised on a farm, never lived on a farm, etc., I have no real basis for knowing why this character is so in love with the notion of farming. (I.e., What makes farmers "tick"?)

Interviewing this man gave me such a unique (and unexpected) window into the soul of a true farmer.

My fictional character *of course* is having different experiences (esp. since this is my SciFi attempt! ;o), but I certainly don't see a problem with using my "research" as a jumping off point for finding his voice.

I think it adds a definite level of authenticity to the writing. Yes?

(Besides, I already got paid for my feature on the farmer. That'd be double dipping! ;p )

good stuff~

Cruella Collett said...

I feel a little bad now, because I did in no way mean to imply that you were stealing real life people to use as characters! I just feel that sometimes I am tempted to...

It sounds like you've got a great opportunity to do research for your fiction in your day job, though :)

LTM said...

No no no! Do not feel bad! I really needed to clarify--both to let folks know that *isn't* what I'm doing, and also to let folks know that isn't a good idea for anybody! :D

I like blog discussions. :o)

DL Hammons said...

That is a great gig! And a wonderful way to add depth and dimension to your fictional characters based upon real life impressions. :)

LTM said...

Thx, DL! It's how I motivate myself when I'm feeling overwhelmed or burned out. At least I'm writing every day, it's research, it's publishing... ;p

Arlee Bird said...

I like the way you have expressed this.

I think everyone's life is interesting in some way and can make a good story. Translated through the mind and in the hands of an adept writer is where the level of interest is drawn out. I enjoy reading about common people whose lives would be considered to be extremely boring by many when a writer has extracted details and made interpretations or used quotes that make that "boring" person bigger than life, magical, and ultimately interesting. I've always had a fascination with watching people work, listening to them talk, or just seeing them alone with their daydreams. Everyone has their own story.

Tossing It Out

Unknown said...

What a great gig indeed!!!! I love your posts, they are always awesome!!!

Come by and see if you were right about Stella! Also be prepared for an upcoming blog fest of fun too, I'd love for you to join!

LTM said...

@Lee: Nathan Bransford had a great post about what all comprises "voice." He included people we know, people we've met, ourselves, etc. It's all a big amalgam of experiences filtered through our imaginations. For me, this is part of the process.

@Jen: Thanks! And you bet~ here I come~

Ex-pat Odessa said...

Leigh, can we switch lives for a couple of days???? Seriously, today has been a nightmare, after reading this, I want your life!!!

LTM said...

wah wah waaahhh...

seriously, though. You'd be disappointed. Currently the children are writing lines: "I will not fight with my sister."

sorry you're having a bad day. :o(

Ex-pat Odessa said...

Thanks - here is what happened yesterday to make it such a nightmare:

Dr. Mohamed said...

Wow; those interviews are certainly a fast and indepth way of getting to know a person; what great source material for your own!