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!”

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

 

Dateline: 200 Years Later…

May 2, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

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Island of the SwansI’ve realized recently, preparing for my trip to Scotland in June to research the second in the 4 Seasons Series ,that the next book—That Autumn in Edinburgh—may be the “ultimate sequel.”  That’s because the story it continues, Island of the Swans, left off at the end of the eighteenth century. The new books starts in 2013!  Crazy idea? Here’s how it happened…Image 2

Not too long ago, my husband and I were driving the two hours from the Bay Area to Sacramento to see our Godchildren and tossing ideas back and forth as the California scenery sped by.  During the previous twenty-five years, I had written the words –The End–on seven 130,000 word historical novels, along with two weighty nonfiction books and was feeling, as my late novelist father Harlan Ware was wont to say, “that the well may be running pretty dry.”

Image 3Like my dad, (seen on the right in a portrait by Donald Teague) I love reading as well as writing fiction, but producing historical novels to the standard I think the reading audience deserves takes a commitment of a couple of years, each, and I had hit a very significant birthday recently.  To launch into another big project like one I’d been mulling over in the middle of the Great Recession would require living with no income during the time it took to produce the book, to say nothing of the expensive and extensive travel required to truly do the subject justice,

SAMSUNGAnd then there would be the huge struggle to get it traditionally published in today’s ever-changing and tumultuous media industry, not to mention the effort required to promote an historical novel set two hundred years earlier to audiences who were less and less likely to have studied history prior to World War II!IMG_6140

“I’m running out of runway,” I recall complaining to my writing pal, Michael Llewellyn. “The readers who like my stuff are as old as I am!  Maybe I should hang up my spurs?”

Then a thought struck:  why not write some sequels to those same historical novels, but set them in contemporary times?  I was yearning to try a new direction in my writing life, but as a practical matter, the good news was that I already “knew the territory” of each book’s setting; knew the characters from whom their modern-day counterparts descended, and I grew excited to accept the challenge to develop stories that echoed down from the distant past.

Ware Family, circa 1915I have long been interested in the idea that events far back in a family’s line filter down and affect later generations.  I’d seen this in my own family where my ancestors had originally sailed across the Atlantic from various parts of the United Kingdom to settle in the American colonies in the eighteenth century, pushing West in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  My father, who’d never traveled to Europe, was nevertheless about as British as they come, serving tea each day, promptly at four o’clock.  Why was that, I’d always wondered? Could having a cuppa be encoded in one’s DNA?300px-Battle_of_Shiloh_Thulstrup

On my mother’s side, her four-times great grandfather and his son had been officers in the American Civil War on the Union side, captured at the Battle of Shiloh and put in a prison camp, and returned to Missouri broken, self-medicating men, with repercussions that were felt down through the generations—even to my own day.

03_Duchess_JeanSo, I wondered, why not tell the uncompleted story in my biographical historical novel, Island of the Swans.  Reveal to the readers what ultimately happened much later in their lives between Jane Maxwell, the 4th Duchess of Gordon, and the “lost lieutenant” Thomas Fraser who had been reported killed in battle and came back to Scotland to claim her as his bride shortly after she was married to the Duke.  How had Jane’s losing the love of her life impacted the Maxwell-Gordon-Fraser children?  (Yes, there is quite good evidence that one of Jane’s offspring was not by the Duke!)

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What if two descendants of the star-crossed lovers happened to meet in Edinburgh, Scotland in the first decade of the twenty-first century and–

And thus, as with That Summer in Cornwall a modern-day sequel to an historical novel is born: That Autumn in Edinburgh. So watch this space…

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