Creating Characters Before The Novel Is Written

June 6, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

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Image 46In an previous blog I talked about the task facing authors beginning a new work to figure out what was going to happen to keep readers turning the pages of one of those novels sitting in the library or on your bookshelf.

The central question a writer must ask before typing page one is: “What do your characters want, and what are they willing to do to get it?”That Summer in Cornwall

As I mentioned in an earlier post, in That Summer in Cornwall Meredith Champlin, the heroine in blue jeans and Wellington boots, basically wants to re-boot her life. With her service dog, Holly, trotting at her side, she escapes a dead-end relationship with a charming but alcoholic rodeo rider, along with her grueling job as a pediatric emergency room nurse at a children’s hospital in Wyoming to spend a few months at the “Money Pit” belonging to her cousin who has married an impecunious British landowner with a castle and an estate that is reeling from the current economic crisis.

Caerhays_CastleSo what is she willing to do –in other words—what are the actions she’s willing to take to affect these changes in her life? The actions–whatever they may turn out to be–constitute the plot of the novel, and in Meredith’s case she A) takes a leave-of-absence from her nursing job in Wyoming; B) prompted by being unexpectedly awarded the guardianship of her deceased cousin’s young daughter, she and her ward get on a plane to spend the summer in Cornwall with another cousin; and C) she co-founds a dog obedience school on the grounds of the Barton Hall estate with a British veteran from the Royal Army’s Canine Bomb Squad–and he quickly becomes the other protagonist in the story.images

So now, on the eve of my research trip to Scotland for the next novel in the Four Seasons Quartet series, I am faced with those same questions in That Autumn in Edinburgh: what do the principle characters want and what are they willing to do to get it? An obvious “want” for heroine Fiona Fraser (an American with Scottish roots who is a home furnishings designer for a well-known firm based in New York) and hero Alexander Maxwell (a Scot struggling to keep the family woolen mill out of bankruptcy due to the unholy competition from manufacturers in the Far East) is to succeed in their difficult chosen professions…and they must fight to do that against a number of serious obstacles.

cottage_at_dornie_lochalsh_scotland-1920x1080Along with these material wants, each also yearns for a feeling of “home” in their respective lives due to certain aspects of their past that are revealed as the story goes along. That quest to find an emotional center in their lives, as well as the discovery early on that they descend from a pair of star-crossed lovers in the eighteenth century, fuel their journey in the Scottish Borders region south of Edinburgh to uncover “the rest of the story” regarding their mutual Scottish connections.images

The plot of the new book will be driven by the actions that these two main characters are willing to take to get what they want. For instance, what steps will Alex employ, in the wake of Scottish mills like his that are struggling to stay afloat, to triumph over his Chinese competitors who are selling tartan fabrics for 75% less than he can make fabric on his traditional looms? What chances will Fiona take at the risk of losing her job to fight for the quality of products she wants in the design company’s “Scottish Home Collection” that she’s been sent to Scotland to research by a boss who increasingly only cares about his bottom line?

Given the protagonists’ previous shaky relationships with “significant others” and the fact that they were born in two different cultures with the Atlantic ocean separating them, how far will they hazard their hearts or make a permanent commitment as they are drawn inexorably closer by the tragic story of their ancestors–the “lost” Lieutenant Thomas Fraser and Jane Maxwell, the 4th Duchess of Gordon–whom readers met in the first novel I published, Island of the Swans.

1087_33_8_webFrankly, I do not yet know the answers to these questions, but I’m hoping that my upcoming trip to the land of my own maternal ancestors will yield some exciting clues! Off I go…

Creating Fictional Characters – The Magic of “Who?”

May 29, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

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imageWhen starting a new project–as I am doing with That Autumn in Edinburgh, a novel that follows the previously published That Summer in Cornwall in my Four Seasons series—I fall back on twenty-five years experience as a working reporter.  I have always found asking those journalists’ questions: who, what, where, why, when to be rather magical in the way they find me the answers I need to get started.

“Where?” is obvious for this novel: Scotland, and more specifically, Edinburgh and the territory south of the city known as the Scottish Borders where the Maxwell Clan held prominence since the 1400s. (Caerlaverock Castle, here,  was one of their strongholds).

But once the setting is decided, Question #2 becomes:  Who is this novel about?Image

For me, the only way to figure this out is to start with a name,in this case “Alexander Maxwell,” and then do a “handmade” fictional genealogy chart for the protagonist that goes back at least four generations on both sides of the person: parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great-grandparents.

Island of the SwansSince this book is a contemporary spin-off of the first novel I ever published, Island of the Swans, I had to create a genealogy chart that went back a couple of centuries!  The trickiest part has been that Swans was a biographical historical novel based on an actual  historical figure, Jane Maxwell of Monreith, 4th Duchess of Gordon (1749-1812).  Figuring out how my modern-day fictional hero could be related to the Duchess’ branch of Clan Maxwell 250-plus years later took some serious research, especially as I discovered that most of the various branches of the Scottish Maxwell clan and the Dukedom of Gordon died out with no male heir.Country_house_rescue_ruth_watson_Monreith_House_Scotland_Sir_Michael_Maxwell

Fortunately, there was one branch of the Maxwells descending from Jane who had made it into the 21st Century: Sir Michael Eustace Maxwell, 9th Baronet of Monreith from a region southwest of Edinburgh in the Scottish Borders.

Sir Michael, however, at 70, remains a bachelor with a 150-year-old manor house in serious need of refurbishment—so much so that he was profiled on a “reality” program in Britain, Country House Rescue with Ruth Watson, seen here, in which the presenter’s best recommendation was for the last heir to marry a woman with some interior design talents and a considerable fortune!  If they somehow produced a male heir, so much the better.  (At last Google-ing, this had not transpired…). Sadly, various areas on the estate such as this crumbling, moss-covered lodge were near to collapsing.

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So what to do…what to do?  And then I had a stroke of what I can only consider semi-brilliance! Duchess Jean on horseback recruiting

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jane Maxwell– seen here on her horse recruiting Highland soldiers to fight in the 78th Fraser Highlanders against the colonists in the American War of Independence– had seven children, one of whom was most assuredly not by the Duke of Gordon.

What if, in the early twentieth century, there was born to a housemaid in the employ of the Maxwells of Monreith a baby boy whose features had the unmistakable stamp of several of the Maxwell males of that pre-World War I era—but whose father always remained a mystery?

Typical of the times, the baby–who could never inherit the title nor the estate– could have been placed with a childless couple in a neighboring village to raise, and only later, upon receiving a deathbed bequest of funds from his guilty sire, does my hero’s great grandfather discover he’s a Maxwell of Monreith–even if born “on the wrong side of the blanket.”

9f008d2643a8a3ea5db8ceaa354542b8See how deviously we spinner-of-tales can work around any factual problems?

But I want my modern-day hero, the 35-year-old Alex Maxwell, to be the owner of a tartan mill in the Scottish Borders that’s teetering on the edge of bankruptcy due to unholy competition from textile manufacturers who are under-cutting his prices in the Far East by using cheap labor.

But hold on a sec!  How could the descendant of an illegitimate child of the Maxwell clan have advanced far enough in three generations to be owner of a substantial woolen manufacturing enterprise?

Ah, remember that bequest?  Well, therein lies the tale…but first I need to learn about the “what” in this who. what. where, why, & when novel-writing equation: the tartan weaving industry.

At left is a model at one of the prominent Scottish woolen firms whose good looks I find quite inspiring, so it’s off to the Scotland  I must go….IMG_4828

Scotland by the Yard

May 26, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

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glen_affricThe first thing a person learns about Scottish woolen manufacturing—an industry which will figure in the background of the next novel after That Summer in Cornwall in my forthcoming Four Seasons Quartet series—is that the vibrantly patterned cloth for which Scotland is so renowned may be called “plaid” by the uninitiated, but in the region of Scotland where much of it is made, you’d be well-advised to call it “tartan”—as in “family tartan.”url-4

In the novel I’m currently researching, That Autumn in Edinburgh, an American home furnishings designer named Fiona Fraser determines to rely on her Scottish-American heritage to create an entirely new Home Collection for the legendary fashion and lifestyle tycoon she works for. I spent a great day recently cruising around the Worldwide Web, peering into the stately homes north of England and searching the pages of shelter magazines that offer the kind of inspiration that fires my heroine Fiona’s imagination as she travels around Scotland.

18th c. Reproduction Furniture Display RoomIn the process, she battles to rescue her brother’s failing furniture company in North Carolina, as well as a tartan mill in Scotland (where, of course, we meet our hero, Alex Maxwell) that’s on the brink of bankruptcy due to Far East competition stealing traditional designs and making cheaper versions with labor that’s paid less than forty dollars a month.Image

In the process of preparing for my upcoming trip to the Scottish Borders region to steep myself in the Scottish woolen and cashmere trade, I encountered a website called “The Tartans Authority” — and what a world it opened up to me!  This non-profit organization created the “Tartan Ferret” –a little critter who attempts to match the name you type into the search box with the correct color version of “your” family tartan.

1489bell_of_the_borders_name_Instead of immediately delving into the tasks I’d assigned myself, I couldn’t resist looking up the various tartans that are linked with the plethora of Scottish surnames I have on both sides of my and my husband’s family.   My initial foray into exploring officially-recognized designs was made rather easy since both Tony and I have the names “Bell” and “Alexander/McAlister” in our  family tree.  I typed in “Bell” and bingo! There it was in all its rather muted glory.Cook family portrait2 12-63

One of the great moments of our marriage was when Tony’s late father, seen here with his five children, was visiting from New York and corrected my husband’s belief that the Cook family was pure English on both sides, a notion reinforced by living with his proper, tea-pouring English maternal grandmother as a tiny boy when his dad was fighting in the Pacific theater in World War II.

3910mccook_cook_name_“Oh, no, Tony! “ Howard Cook exclaimed.  “Our name was originally MacCook, but some ancestor wanted the family to sound more American than Scottish and so lopped off the ‘Mac.’”  I typed in those names for the Tartan Ferret to seek, and Hoot Mon, the right version came up on the screen in a nano-second!3646_10151617821981882_982607433_n

 

 

 

 

 

You never know what you’ll learn when you begin looking into all this ancestor business. Tony’s mother’s name was “Pattison”  (with an “i”…not an “er”) and his grandfather, Lee Pattison, was a celebrated half of a concertizing dual piano team, Maier & Pattison.   For some reason I thought his name might be Scandinavian, as in Peterson, but lo and behold, I put “Pattison” into the Tartan Authority search box and up came a tiny swatch of the Lowland family’s very own named tartan.

1801aberdeen_1819_district_So, my heroine, Fiona, clearly has her work cut out for her as she explores the country of her forbears and begins to understand Scotland by the yard…

And that goes for yours truly, as well.  I can’t wait to see what the MacCook tartan looks like in the flesh.  Don’t you think a waistcoat made out of that fabric would make a great Christmas present?  Shhhh….don’t spoil the surprise….

Are Ancestors “Fair Game” in Fiction?

May 20, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

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Ciji Ware, ABC RadioI remember when I was a young consumer reporter in my early days at ABC—long before I’d written or published novels like That Summer in Cornwall —when the subject of one of my radio assignments became very angry that I revealed that his company was pumping air into its ice cream to increase the bulk (and hence the weight) which, of course, meant they could charge-more-for-less.suppliedsmallcone

I told a veteran newspaperman about the significant blowback I received from Mr. Ice Cream and the head of the station’s ad department after the story aired, given that the chain where this tasty treat was sold turned out to be one of KABC’s biggest advertisers…oops! The old media hand gave me one of his droll looks and said, “Oh, I guess I forgot to warn you, Ciji.  People who think they are important only want to be described in the noblest of terms.  However, you’ll just have to ignore that and tell the truth.” That, he added, was my purpose as a reporter.

Island of the SwansI ran into an alarmingly similar problem when I was researching my first historical novel, Island of the Swans, a kind of a Gone with the Wind of Scotland saga that was based on the life of an historical figure, Jane Maxwell, the 4th Duchess of Gordon.images

I had contacted a descendant of one of the other “true-life” figures in this biographical novel, Baron Simon, the 15th Lord Lovat of Fraser, a celebrated World War II hero (played by Peter Lawford in the classic The Longest Day) who, along with his wife, Lady Rose, eventually hosted my son and me as guests at Balblair House for a few days on one of our trips to the Highlands to track down the important details of the amazing Duchess’ tumultuous life.Lady Rose, Lord Lovat, Jamie, Ciji BalBlair House, Scotland

I had landed on the Lovats’ doorstep—literally—in search of information about the “lost lieutenant,” Thomas Fraser of Struy, who had erroneously been reported killed in the American Colonies while serving with the Black Watch regiment at Fort Pitt—now Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.william-hogarth-portrait-of-simon-fraser-lord-lovat

I soon began to get that same, uneasy feeling when an eighteenth century Lord Lovat, painted here by Hogarth, was beginning to emerge as a slightly villainous figure in my story, preventing, it turned out, the lovely Jane Maxwell (from whom my own great grand-grandmother claimed our McCulloughs descended) from marrying the great love of her life, the aforementioned Simon Fraser’s ward, the handsome soldier, Lieutenant Thomas Fraser of Struy, later in the 78th Fraser Highlanders, as shown here.soldierb

I nervously explained to the present-day Lord Lovat, who had been so kind and helpful to me in my researches, that his ancestor Simon Lovat, son of “Simon the Fox” who had been beheaded for his nefarious deeds, was truly a dark force in the novel. The current Lord Lovat threw his head back and roared with laughter.  “Oh!” he exclaimed to Lady Rose, “how frightfully amusing!”

Spean-Bridge-Monument

 

 

 

 

Here he was—a genuine war hero and nobleman, memorialized during his lifetime with an enormous statue on a hill in the Scottish Highlands—and he wasn’t going to give me grief just because the truth lead me to an historical figure in my book whose selfish, frankly despicable actions truly drove the plot.  I realized in that moment that creating a compelling story based on the facts as best as can be discovered, especially in a biographical novel dealing with “real-life” people who once walked the planet, is my purpose as a writer.

103373516_271138cThat formative experience with Lord and Lady Lovat, seen here on their wedding day in 1938, taught me a great lesson:  whether writing fact or fiction, my job is to let the evidence take this writer wherever it will.  Simply tell the story–and damn the torpedeos!

But what if a character in my upcoming novel, That Autumn in Edinburgh, a modern day sequel to the historical novel, Island of the Swans, is based on a descendant of my own ancestor who—it turns out–may not have behaved so nobly?  What will my family say….?Ciji at work in Portofino Office 4-07

More on that sticky subject another time as I knuckle down to the next task at hand…and head for Scotland in June.

Researching a Novel–Honestly!

May 16, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

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envelope IMG_6338In less than a month I’ll be heading off on what, to an outsider, probably looks like a lark.

Researching a work of fiction might sound like an oxymoron, but as a reporter with more than twenty-five years of experience in the world of “fact checking,” I’ve discovered after seven novels that getting the details right about the real world aspects of a story is just as important in a piece of “make-believe”  as it is with “breaking news.”  If a novelist screws up the data, believe me, you hear from your readers.

And that’s just as it should be.IMG_4903

In That Summer in Cornwall, the first in the 4 Seasons Quartet series, I’d been to Cornwall several times previously as my English cousin, Gay North, has hosted me in the West Country several times over the years, and especially during the research for an earlier novel, A Cottage by the Sea.  

Image 7However, as I embarked on That Summer in Cornwall, I knew virtually nothing about the world of search and rescue, nor about the amazing canines trained to find visitors who fall off the cliffs skirting the English Channel or down abandoned shafts that dot the beautiful countryside. So my trip to Cornwall last October was fun and exciting, to be sure, but it was also spent interviewing the Dog Unit Manager of the Devon and Cornwall Police, to say nothing of tramping up moors, along fast-running rivers, and peering down dark, forbidding mine shafts clinging to remote parts of the local landscape.Ciji in Chinatown

Whatever the setting of a novel—even one that took place in my own backyard of San Francisco–as with A Race to Splendor about the rebuilding of the legendary Fairmont Hotel atop Nob hill after the 1906 earthquake and firestorm–the reportorial skills of “who, what, when, where, and why” are essential to getting the facts right so the world that a novelist creates for the reader rings true.

Jamie, Helen Mirren-Taylor-Tony-Ciji-Scotland wedding

 

 

 

 

That Autumn in Edinburgh will be the third book I’ve set in Scotland—Wicked Company being the second and Island of the Swans (the prequel to my next project there) the first. And each research trip to the land of my mother’s ancestors has been a joy–but also involved some rather arduous work as well.

Edinburgh_Castle_Scotland-Wallpaper

However, this time, the action is set not only in the spectacular city of Edinburgh, which I know well, but also in the Scottish Border country between the capital and the often-contested area of land where England officially begins.

glen_affric

 

 

On my upcoming research adventures, I’ll be learning about present-day factories producing ancient tartans; about cashmere manufacture and the struggle to stay afloat in a global economy where operations in the Far East have been allowed to pay their workers $37 a month—and where conditions are so unsafe, entire buildings collapse, killing a thousand women in their wake.

Ciji Jamie McCullough Castle

Oh yes…given my experience on trips past, I expect to have a wonderful time visiting a part of Scotland I’ve never seen, but, to me, this story I have percolating in my brain night and day right now is also serious business—and I’ll do my best to get the facts straight.

 

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