Thursday, April 1, 2010

Guest Blogger - Mary Daheim

WHAT A CHARACTER!

When I was growing up, one of the words my family’s adults used to describe someone was that he/she “…was quite a character.” This could mean anything from amusing, intriguing, gregarious or just plain weird. The only way I could ever tell the difference was the tone in which the words were spoken:
“My, she’s quite the character.” Translate as offbeat, borderline nut job.
“Oh, he’s a character, alright.” Translate as he ought to be in prison or maybe an insane asylum.
“Have you ever known a character like____?” followed by gusts of laughter. Translate as fun-loving, quick-witted and a joy to be around.
When I wrote the first few chapters of what would turn out to be Just Desserts in the B & B series, I asked my husband to read them and tell me what he thought. He complied, and said, “The writing’s fine, but who’d want to read about a bunch of characters based on your family?”
The criticism gave me pause, so I shipped the chapters off to my Aunt Helen (also my Godmother) in Lincoln NE and after she read them she called to say she’d just about laughed her rear end off at the way I described her siblings and some of the other family members, especially Gertrude, the mother of my protagonist, Judith Grover McMonigle (later Flynn). “That sounds just like my sister, Kate!” she said. It suddenly occurred to me that most people have families, everybody has a mother, and maybe there actually were people out there who could relate to my relations.
I’d already chosen my cousin, Judy, as the protagonist. Judy doesn’t know any more about running a B & B than I do (though I’ve had to learn some of the tricks of the trade for the sake of authenticity), but she’s a nurse by profession. As such, she shares many of the same skills as an innkeeper has: likes people and taking care of them, is a good listener, has abundant curiosity, and an ability to elicit confidences. In real life, Judy had recently been widowed, and her late husband weighed over 400 lbs. when he died at 49. Judy and son Mike moved back home with Aunt Kate (no tool shed—but Mike, then a teen-ager, chose to live in the garage).
As for the sidekick, who else but your author who, like Judy, was an only child and grew up two blocks away. It was a close-knit family. Grandpa and Grandma Dawson within a block of our two houses, and another aunt and uncle were two doors down. Renie was fated to play second fiddle to Judith, even though in real life I’m four years older. But then, as now, everybody always liked Judy best. The name of Renie (as in meanie) was a family nickname for me. My full name is Mary Rene (as in mean), as I was named for my maternal grandmother, Mary Dawson, and my paternal grandmother, Emma Serena, called Rene. In the B & B books, Gertrude and Aunt Deb are sisters-in-law, but they were actually sisters, the first two of the six Dawson children.
And that brings us to Alpine. After I’d sold the B & B books to what was then Hearst/Avon, I learned via the grapevine that an editor with whom I’d worked early on in my publishing career wished I’d offered the series to him. Thus, I decided I’d do a second series and chose the once-real town of Alpine WA for my setting.
I wanted to try a first person narrative, so I delved into my background as a reporter on two small-town weeklies and created Emma Lord, a single mother who’d inherited enough money to buy a small newspaper. Many readers think I am Emma, but I’m not. Yes, she reflects much of my thinking and attitude toward life. She also looks like me and if you read both series, you may notice that Emma and Renie b ear a physical resemblance. That’s because I couldn’t write a first person narrative from a blond, gorgeous, tall, graceful, etc. female point of view. I had to settle for 5’4”, 120 lb. brunette with impossible hair who’s spent a life-time never knowing what’s on top of the refrigerator or in the upper shelves of the kitchen cupboards.
As time and the Alpine series went on, there were occasional references to actual residents who’d lived in the small logging town. Sometimes they were ancestors or at least people my parents and grandparents knew intimately. Then, in The Alpine Obituary, I wrote a back story from 1916-1917 that tied into the contemporary narrative. I included actual events, though I had to compress some of them for the sake of the narrative. I also used real names of real people—with the exception of one family who might have had descendants who would take offense and sue me. Everybody else in that segment was an actual Alpine resident, and many were somehow related to me. If you have seen my web-site, you probably noticed the photo I posted of my mother, Monica (nicknamed Babe) and Aunt Kate in their teens standing on the railroad tracks. (I always wondered why they posed Aunt Deb and Gertrude on those tracks…)
I based Vida Runkel on what was then known as the society editor of the newspaper I worked for after I graduated from college. The real Vida didn’t wear funny hats, but much of her is authentic, including the all-knowing, all-seeing scrutiny of her fellow residents and the habit of rubbing of her eyes until they squeaked (I can still hear them inside my head). Ironically, I named her Vida for the wife of another small-town newspaper editor and publisher whose daughter ended up married to the real young Doc Dewey who didn’t practice in Alpine, but was closely connected to many of the town’s former residents.
Let me point out that nobody in any of the books is an exact replica. The weirdest part is that the indomitable Gertrude really doesn’t look like my aunt in my mind’s eye. Don’t ask. I can’t explain it. Her inspiration, my Aunt Kate, had that sharp and sometimes stinging tongue, but a wonderful sense of humor as did everybody in our family. Once created, no matter how they’re conceived, characters take on a life of their own. Even Emma can sometimes surprise me. (Renie, however, never does—she’s eternally impossible.)
As for Dave’s comment about my relatives, he not only changed his mind about other people not wanting to read about my family’s characters, but would come up with his own ideas of how they should act and react. Still, I think Dave felt his in-laws were…characters.

2 comments:

  1. They say real life is stranger than fiction and I have found it to be true...mostly (I discovered the new genre of Bizarro fiction and that blows the adage out of the water)

    BUT that said - people are fascinating. Their quirks and oddities (good and bad) and limitless potential for stories.

    And it's fun to learn the roots of our favorites. Thanks Mary for a wonderful blog

    Terri

    ReplyDelete
  2. Mary,
    Your family sounds fun and since I've read all of the B&B Series to date and I am working my way through the Alpine Series I have a question for you.
    How do you choose your victims? Have you ever had to do away with a character you actually liked? Okay that is two questions.
    LOL

    Pamela

    ReplyDelete

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