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….