Do you listen . . . ?

2 Mar

. . . when your characters talk to you? Do your characters talk to you? The first few times that happened to me I was astonished. What did this mean? Authors hear voices in their heads all the time, but usually the voices are not coming from the person you’ve just created on your typewriter or computer. Are the voices real? Are they some kind of electronic phenomenon?

None of the above. I think what it means is this. You’ve done a great job in creating a character who talks, walks, thinks, and has a personality just like real people do. As such, they won’t put up with any nonsense from a creator who thinks they should do something totally out of character for them.

The first time this happened (at least the first one I listened to) was Windsong, the mother of the hero in Secret Shores. As I wrote in my piece about creating that story, I knew going in that the hero’s mother would be an Indian and his father French-Canadian. They matched the demographics of the time and place, so why not? What I was NOT expecting was for her to try to take over the book! I couldn’t believe it, actually, and I was the one putting those words on the paper!

My writing method is to write for several days, then print, and when I have 15-20  typed pages, I sit down and read it, make corrections (edit), then print again and put the pages in the proper binder for the book. I won’t read them again until the book is done. Thank goodness for computers, if I need to check on something, I can search electronically a lot faster than re-reading 60-100 pages looking for that missing factoid or whatever.

It didn’t take me long to realize that what I was reading was not what I thought I’d written. Oh? After several days of saying to myself (and sometimes out loud) ‘where did that come from?’ or ‘why did she do that?’ I finally tumbled to the fact that these instances always seemed to revolve around Windsong.

Of course, I did like her – a lot. She was an early feminist, to be sure, but within her time, and with a husband who dearly loved her. (Lucky girl!)  She was strong-willed, knew her own mind, and what she wanted out of life. Oh, and did I say ‘forceful’?

Finally, I came to realize that she was taking over my book! And this book was NOT about her, it was about her son, Jacques Little Otter Nicolet. So, one night while I was at the computer, and she started pushing her way into places where she had no right to be, I finally stopped and said to her, “Stop that!” I spoke out loud, just to be sure she’d hear me. “This is NOT YOUR BOOK!” I continued. “This book is about your son, Jock. And you know it, so just bug out!”

And then I had a brainstorm.  “I’ll tell you what. If you behave and do as you ought in Jock’s book, I’ll do your book next, okay?”  I smiled at the computer. “And if you don’t behave? I’ll have to start over again, and eliminate you completely!”  It was probably that last sentence that captured her attention, and she silently vowed to be good. She kept her word, admirably.

So, once Secret Shores was finished, and I asked my editor about the next book, she replied they were looking for Indian romances.  I said, “Oh! What about Windsong’s story?” She agreed, and so it came to pass that I wrote Windsong.  And this impetuous couple (Windsong and Etienne) just completely took over the book, totally ignored my very nice synopsis, and proceeded to do just exactly as they wished. From the time they met on page 6 of the book, it became their story, not mine. I just sat back and typed the story I was seeing in my mind as it  just zipped right along, in the most unbelievable way. I still get chills just thinking about it, and that was more than twenty years ago! (The story of Windsong will come along in a few weeks. But first, I was interrupted by the creation of Ardenwycke Unveiled, which—much to my surprise—was written between these other two other books. And — in three weeks, yet!)

Here was another character talking to me. Yelling, actually. (And I can’t say as I blame her!)  The actual story about writing Ardenwycke, will be along in a week or two, but it’s a weird one, to be sure. The book is set partially in both the 1790s and today, in a house built along the Hudson River in upstate New York, where I’ve still never been. I’m not at all sure where the idea did come from, but I knew that in the late 1700s, the Dutch settlers in that area kept slaves.

So, the young daughter of the family, Marike, had a maid who was a slave whose name was Clarissa. These two young women were the same age, and had lived their entire lives (to that point) together. They were 17 or so at the time of the story. For whatever reason (probably ignorance on my part) I had Clarissa talking in dialect. There was absolutely no reason for this – she’d never lived in the South. If anything, she should have had a Dutch inflection, as that was the language of the area.

Well, Clarissa did not like speaking in dialect. Not one little bit! And so, one night, very suddenly she yelled at me. “What are you doing, making me talk like that?” I could see her in my mind’s eye shaking her finger at me. “I don’t understand you. You know I went to school with Miss Marike — YOU sent me there! – and I can talk every bit as nicely as she does, so don’t you go making me sound ignorant. You hear?” Her voice softened a bit as she went on, “Now Jamesy (the outdoor slave and her husband-to-be) is not educated, so he does talk that way. But I don’t, and I never did, either, so you fix those words.” She stood there, hands on hips and raised her voice to be sure I received her message. “Do you hear me?”

I was so embarrassed. Truly I was. I promised to amend my stupid ways, and did indeed go back and fix all the places I’d messed up. Apparently Clarissa approved of my fixes, as she never came back again. But she was always proud of the fact that she’d been taught to read and write – and speak properly – right along with Marike.

Sometimes, however, when characters ‘come to life’ like this, they turn out to be someone I don’t know and/or can’t like. So, I put the manuscript away and go on to the next thing. That’s probably just one of the reasons I have so many unfinished projects.

I really need to learn how to assert myself and not let characters take over my books! And that’s that.


4 Responses to “Do you listen . . . ?”

  1. Jodi Kanter March 2, 2011 at 1:53 am #

    Always enjoy your writing, and esp. since I read these books.

    • bookmechanic March 2, 2011 at 2:05 am #

      Thank you! Your comments mean a lot to me.

  2. Cathy Jo March 2, 2011 at 4:09 am #

    Kelly, I know exactly what you mean about characters talking to you. I first heard of that phenomenon from J. California Cooper at a Writer’s series at the Cleveland Public Library. I thought it was the weirdest thing I had ever heard of, and I even doubted her sanity–until it happened to me! I don’t always listen, but most of the time I do.

    Thanks for such wonderful posts!

    • bookmechanic March 2, 2011 at 4:15 am #

      Thank you! It’s weird when it happens, I must say!


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