What’s in a Name?

I’ve been thinking about names and how they inform our lives. When we’re born, our parents select a name for us that starts us on our journey. It might have some mythical weight to it, like Adam or Naomi. In that case, we’re already embedded in an archetypal story. The Biblical Adam makes me think of a male archetype, one who is grounded in masculine stereotypes of responsibility and obedience. With Naomi, there is another Biblical connection. A woman whose life is filled with strife, she is fortified by Ruth her daughter-in-law. Continue reading “What’s in a Name?”

Where do characters come from?

Readers who aren’t writers themselves tend to think that most aspects of a novel come directly from an author’s imagination. Some novels do arrive in that fashion, but most don’t. These readers don’t understand how characters can appear and then evolve during a narrative, learning and growing through their actions and the resulting events that unfold. Continue reading “Where do characters come from?”

Where Do Characters Come From?

Where do characters come from? I’ve been asking myself that question for as long as I’ve been writing, but the complete answer still evades me. The process is as mysterious as the origins of life itself, maybe even more so. At least we know that life on earth evolved from some primordial soup. But what concoction serves as the foundation for those who inhabit our stories?

Seeds come to mind. Seeds give birth to plants and other living things. Humans start as a kind of seed. And so do our creations. As writers, we have experienced multiple settings and experiences. We’ve connected with many different types of people. All of those contacts can provide us with matercharacters copyial that we sift through, plant in our fictions, and watch grow.

For me, often what helps me find my characters is their name, an essential way for me to discover who these individuals are. In my novels Fling! and Bone Songs, I couldn’t have uncovered the protagonists if I hadn’t first found the words to set them free. In Fling! 90-year-old Bubbles and her daughter 57-year old Feather come alive because these designations depict so accurately these women’s personalities. Bubbles actually lives in a kind of bubble, but she also has a feisty nature and an enduring curiosity that allows her to take adventures, even as an elderly woman. And Feather is a former hippie as well as an artist whose interest in the Goddess religion leads her to some intriguing adventures in Mexico, the place they visit together. Once I found their names, it was easy for me to follow them on their quest.

When I was writing Curva Peligrosa, the name I first chose for the heroine, a larger-than-life woman (she’s over six foot tall and full-bodied) from Southern Mexico, was Lupita. I knew that the novel started with a tornado that hit the small Canadian town of Weed, Alberta. But I couldn’t get inside this female. She evaded me.

Around that time, my husband and I visited Mexico City. When we landed, a driver was waiting to take us to a resort we had booked into in Cuernavaca, a small town a two-hour drive away. At each curve we approached, I noticed the words “Curva Peligrosa” and recognized the Spanish for dangerous curve. That’s when it hit me that this was my character’s name. Once I found it, her personality blossomed immediately. I could hear the sound of her voice, her laugh. I knew what she looked like (she resembles Katy Jurado, the once-famous Mexican actress that appeared in High Noon) and the book took off.

That’s my story of how my invented worlds become populated. Have others had a similar experience?






The Writer as Magician

Fiction writers have been called many things, but magician seems to me the best description.  They dip into the black hat of their imagination and produce an endless variety of characters, situations, images, genres, events, and styles.  The effect on readers is nothing less than magical, the reader also becoming a magician, assisting in making visible what wasn’t there before.

Writers and magicians depend on their skillful fingers for their art.  Slight of hand has considerable value in a writer’s bag of tricks—the ability to juggle numerous characters, settings, scenes, and themes simultaneously, rivaling the most accomplished conjurer.  The reader’s willing suspension of disbelief is sometimes necessary for the writer’s art to be fully realized.

But trusting in these magician’s skills also requires that the writer suspend her disbelief, and that isn’t easy.  Each time I start a new story, a new chapter, a new novel, I must trust that the seeds of words take root in the soil of the page and continue to grow, watered and fertilized whenever I open my computer and put fingers to keyboard.  I must trust each work I create will grow within my imagination as I write, that I’ll read and experience things that will feed the book, just as a child grows in the womb.  Slowly.  Stage by stage.  If I can trust this, I can have the confidence to proceed.

So much of writing fiction is searching for the right tone, the correct voice.  I probe the prose I’ve written over and over to try and find what the passage needs, what’s hidden between syllables, under words.  It’s an ongoing search for the story, for the meaning, letting the imagination lead.  Something clicks within me, as with an emotionally accurate dream interpretation.  I can sense when I’ve hit the vein, when the path becomes clearer.  It must be similar for a musician who can hear when a pitch is off.  There’s a physical reaction when something doesn’t sound right.  So I constantly reread what I’ve already written until the material shifts and something new comes into view.  But the process itself can be agonizing.  Each day I have to prove to myself again that I can do it—that my imagination will come through.

I fondle, tussle with, twist, and stroke the words, willing them into action, like a magician looking into a crystal ball.  I approach them contritely, humbly, realizing that they have all the power, the authority here.  I’m merely a handmaiden, doing their will.  I’m their instrument.  The story makes me become more visible as I tease out the strands of plot, image, character.  It works on me as much if not more than I work on it.

This is so much like sculpting, reminding me of when I worked on the elephant that emerged from the rock I chiseled for months.  I had to concentrate on the stone and nothing else, letting it become my guide, like language.  The stone was my language.  Writing is like painting too.  First I sketch in foreground.  Then I have to spend a long time filling in background, working the shadows, a touch of color here, one that will stand out like yellow or red.  A deeper tone there so it will recede.  Burnt umber or sienna.  A moody deep blue.  Oh yes and the moods, the way color shapes that part of a scene or passage.

This reminds me of Jacob wrestling with the angel, and it seems to me each time I sit down to work on a novel or story I feel like Jacob.  That’s one reason why it’s harder to write fiction.  It takes extra effort and I resist it more.  Writing essays—travel articles, personal narratives, whatever—comes easy.  No problem.  But the other, the invention, takes much more from me.  It requires a heroic effort.