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

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!”

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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.

Creating Characters: Their Actions Drive the Plot!

April 25, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

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IMG_4304Next time you look at a row of books on a shelf, think of how the authors of these novels had to figure out what was going to happen in these stories to keep you turning the pages—in other words:  the plot.

When I was in the process of planning out my next novel, That Summer in Cornwall, which is a stand-alone sequel to A Cottage by the Sea (a book I’d written a decade before), I remembered the words of a very experienced storyteller that once said, “What do your characters want, and what are they willing to do to get it?”photo-7

After going the distance on six 100,000-word-plus novels, I finally get it:  doing something to get what a person wants implies action…and action and conflict are elements that drive a plot.

It’s not that complicated, when you think about it, but figuring out what “they” are willing to do to get what they want requires imagination, for we all know that people will do all sorts of things—either admirable or despicable–to get what they want.  It’s the author’s job to figure what a character would do, depending on—well—their character…what sorts of folks they are.  (We can take up the all-important “biographical sketch” many authors write, early on, in another blog post here…)

Image-20-199x300Meredith 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.Finding-the-Right-Dog-Obedience-2

 

 

 

 

Added to that, Meredith, who ran a pet therapy program at her hospital, wants to help raise much needed cash by founding the Barton Hall Canine Obedience Academy, to say nothing of trying to turn her computer-addicted, eleven-year-old “Beverly Hills Brat” legal ward–whose mother has just died in a plane crash–into a decent human being.

And what does the hero want?

13980_10151339222221781_863939389_nSimple.  To be left in peace–far from the woman who betrayed him before he departed for Afghanistan as a member of the Royal Army’s bomb squadron—and to avoid his mother who lives in a Cornish village near the castle, a woman who virtually abandoned him and his two brothers when they were young.  Now a newly-minted veterinarian and large farm animal manager, the only living creature he likes and trusts besides his employers is his Border Collie, T-Rex, who is his partner on the local Cornwall Search and Rescue Team.Image 8

And what do the canines want?  To stay as close together as possible, which is how the two protagonists in That Summer in Cornwall meet in the first place!

See how this works?  Ask what the main characters seek, and the rest practically takes care of itself!

Ciji at work in Portofino Office 4-07

 

The hard part, of course, comes when the author has to start typing….

 

Creating Characters: What Do They Want?

April 22, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

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Image-20-199x300When I originally had the notion for That Summer in Cornwall, my plan was to have my heroine, arriving in late May at shabby chic Barton Hall from Wyoming, get involved in the nursery business that had saved her cousin’s family mansion from bankruptcy a decade earlier in the prequel, A Cottage by the Sea.images

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ella-holding-Targhee-sheepHowever, Meredith Champlin, an emergency room nurse at a children’s hospital, is no gardener like her cousin, Blythe Barton Teague.  She was born and raised on a western sheep ranch, so I began to ruminate on what her life goals and desires might be, recalling what a wise person in the writing business once said.  “Ask what your characters want—and what would they be willing to do to get it!”

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First I had to ask myself: what elements are common both to Wyoming and Cornwall?  The latter is a place where many immigrants came  to the American West from Britain’s tin mines and fields to work in the copper and coal mines in Pennsylvania, Wyoming, and Montana and till the vast open stretches of land, raising animals for the nation’s food supply in the years following the pioneer days.

 

corgi_1Cattle and Sheep need herding, I thought, which meant dogs. Meredith, 35, is a pediatric nurse, so what if she had raised Corgi herding dogs as a rancher’s daughter, and also developed a pet therapy program at her hospital?url-1

Bingo! Corgis are known as “The Queen’s Dog”—so obviously they would exist in Cornwall, too, especially because a lot of sheep are raised in the beautiful fields and on the moors in the West Country.

 

 

 

 

So, I had the answer to “what does Meredith want?”  She wants to be deeply involved in the world of working dogs and would never leave her beloved Corgi, Holly, behind when life’s circumstances land her six thousand miles from her home. It was a natural fit that she could help keep Barton Hall solvent by founding the Barton Hall Canine Obedience Academy on the castle grounds.

 

images-1And what about her past?  She also wants to forget an unhappy love affair with a charming, alcoholic rodeo rider and forge an entirely new life away from injured and dying children after a decade of intense, worthwhile, but exhausting service.  In other words, she wants a new beginning and a way of re-inventing herself and her life’s work.Image 12

And as it happens, in Cornwall, working dogs are also trained in the field of search and rescue, due to the type of terrain where “holiday makers” routinely fall off cliffs that skirt the dramatic coastline facing the English Channel, or get lost on the remote moors, or disappear down deserted mine shafts left over from the previous century’s tin industry.

 

article-1362275-0D710BF7000005DC-485_468x365Then one of those “Eureka!” thoughts struck.   The hero could be a veteran of a dog bomb-sniffing unit in the British Forces, late of Afghanistan, who, along with his Border Collie T-Rex, has returned to Cornwall and is now a veterinarian and a member of the Cornwall Search and Rescue Team.  All he wants is to be left alone to nurse his psychic wounds that vastly predate his service in the Royal Army, though at his core, he yearns for a sense of safety, connection with kindred spirits, and “home.”

So, through the magic of asking (and answering) “What do the main characters want?” I could begin to write Chapter One of That Summer in Cornwall.

The question “What are the characters willing to do to get what they want?” is the engine that drives the plot…a subject that I will probably discuss another time for readers who speculate about such things.  It’s a subject I am certainly wondering about as I prepare to start work on That Autumn in Edinburgh..a sequel two hundred years after the conclusion of my first novel, Island of the Swans

Scotland on my Mind: Then & Now

April 11, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

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Island of the SwansNow that I have launched That Summer in Cornwall, I was astounded to realize about two months ago that I began the research for my first novel, Island of the Swans, exactly thirty years ago this summer!  It was also my first historical novel—a fictionalized retelling of the life of the amazing eighteenth century figure, Jane Maxwell (1749-1812), 4th Duchess of Gordon, about whom—I soon discovered–no full-length biography existed.

I was such a novice, it never occurred to me that merely ferreting out the details of both her public and private lives was a book in itself, let alone the task of teaching myself–a nonfiction writer  at that point–how to create a novel!7757334344_48179fa517_z

So why choose Jane Maxwell?  Well, not only did she marry the largest landowner in Scotland, though passionately in love with someone else; wed her five resulting daughters to the dukes of Manchester, Richmond, and Bedford, the Marquis of Cornwallis, and a baronet named Sir Robert Sinclair—she also served as flamboyant hostess to Prime Minister Pitt, the Younger, during the Madness Crisis of George III—AND….

 

5 generations of McCullough Women copy…my great-grandmother, Elfie McCullough, who lived into her 90’s, swore  to my mother on the family Bible that our McCulloughs of Ayrshire–poet Robert Burns country–had married into the Maxwells of Monreith a generation or so before the future duchess was born, “making you, my dear, a direct descendant of a duchess!”  (I tried, but trust me, I could never prove this without a shadow of a doubt).03_Duchess_Jean

Even so, I grew up on stories that the beautiful Jane, a powerhouse of a woman like Elfie herself, was also celebrated for recruiting on horseback fellow Highlanders into her brother’s regiment that fought for the British in the American War of Independence and surrendered with their Commander, Lord Cornwallis, to George Washington at Yorktown.

02_cijiNow, I freely admit that during the 1980’s I became rather obsessed with Jane’s life, even performing some of my lectures about my heroine dressed in full court regalia.  In the course of more than six years researching and writing and selling this version of “Gone with the Wind of Scotland”– a story of Jane loving one man, a soldier reported to have died in the American Colonies, and marrying a duke, only to discover her lieutenant had not been killed as reported– my husband took to calling me his very own, little “Scot-o-Maniac.”Abbotsford-bartholomew-bust

Recently, I discovered that in the years following Jane’s death, a member of the Maxwell Clan married into a Lowland family by the name of Scott—as in the famous Scottish novelist, Sir Walter Scott.  This little historical nugget immediately triggered an idea for a contemporary sequel (to be titled That Autumn in Scotland as part of my forth-coming 4 Seasons Quartet series), set two hundred years later than Swans.

 Kilted SoldierWhat if, I mused one day in early February this year, a female American relative of the “lost lieutenant” (who had eventually abandoned Scotland at the end of the eighteenth century to settle in the Mid-Atlantic Colonies), met by sheer chance a male member of the Maxwell clan on a tour of Abbotsford, the famous baronial mansion owned by Sir Walter Scott?

And what if the pair discovered during the course of that autumn that they were direct descendants of the star-crossed lovers and were driven by curiosity and a growing attraction to each other to unravel the tale of what eventually happened to Jane and the man she could never stop loving?

From such questions a hundred thousand word novel can spring…sc001a1163

…and so, after three decades, it’s back to Scotland…but this time, not the Highlands, as seen here in 1983, but rather the Scottish Lowlands, land of my own Clan McCullough forebears, even if I can’t (yet) claim a “direct” connection to my eighteenth century heroine.

 

52b1a160e2719a73fb132418aa5b15faTony and I are off in June to explore the modern Scotland of tartan mills competing with the Chinese knock-off artists, castles whose land-poor owners can barely keep their heads above water, and some cultural changes that I like to imagine my savvy Duchess Jane would somehow take in stride.

 

 

 

 

 

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