Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Falling in Love

It is not unknown for a writer to fall in love with one or more of her characters – possibly the most notorious was Dorothy Sayers' passion for Lord Peter Wimsey. I know that I become fond of many of my characters, possibly because early in my writing career I read that the afterlife of an author consists of spending eternity in a small room with the characters she has invented. There’s a warning to make them at least interesting if not actually likable.

But sometimes I develop an equally keen pleasure in spending time in a setting I have invented. When I set out to write my first mystery series, I chose to set it at a horse farm. I chose the Arabian horse because the first time I saw one in person, lost my heart to the breed. But the most fun with the setting I had was the beautiful Queen Anne house my heroine lived in. I found a photograph of one I really liked, and drew up a floor plan. A rather clumsy one – floor plans are harder than they look! – but I explained that by saying the original owner had a wife with a whim of iron who kept making demands for changes as the house went up. I subscribed to a house and garden magazine, perused Architectural Digest in doctor's and dentist's offices, and visited high-end furniture stores to interview decorators. I even started a scrapbook with clippings of furniture and architectural details.

Because the nearby town was terribly corrupt, I invented it, too; even drew a city map.

For the Dame Frevisse medieval series, I mostly used two books as sources: Eileen Powers’ Medieval English Nunneries, and Dorothy Hartley’s Lost Country Life, though there was a great deal of secondary reading, too. Having spent two years in England helped as well. Gail had her own sources (down to the names of sheriffs and weather reports from the fifteenth century!). She and I immersed ourselves so deeply in medieval customs and attitudes that I, at least, found coming back to the twentieth century at the end of a book a bit of a shock.

Now I’m writing about an actual small town, Excelsior, Minnesota, with an imaginary needlework shop in it. I have based the layout of the shop on an actual one, unfortunately now closed, and I frequent needlework shops in the area for ideas and methods. One of the pleasure of using a real town is that when I go out there for lunch or shopping, it’s a tax-deductible expense! One small problem is that, because it’s a real town, changes occur that I don’t always like. I have decided, for example, that there is a micro-brewery where the Waterfront Cafe used to stand, when actually it turned into a sushi restaurant. And I’ve kept the hardware store where actually an Irish pub now occupies
the building. But Leipold’s is still there, and Antiquity Rose, and Jim Penberthy still has his law office on Water Street.

Whenever I want to send Betsy out of town, my editor objects on the grounds that Excelsior is another of the running characters in the books. Are there books you read as much for the settings as the plot?


Shel said...

I had never heard that comment about an author's afterlife, but ...I do remember thinking when I heard of Charlotte MacLeod's battle with Alzheimer's that I hoped she was mentally spending her time with Peter Shandy, the Bittersohns, and the Grub & Stakers and having a ball. I would imagine that anyone you spend that much time mentally "living with" you'd better like!

Linda O. Johnston said...

I always adore my protagonists or I wouldn't write about them, Monica, so if I run into them in person someday--even if it's in my afterlife--I'll be happy. Most of my mysteries are set in Los Angeles, which has so many different environments that, yes, it's a character itself!

Betty Hechtman said...

I love all my characters - even Adele - who always causes trouble. Place is important to me, too. My series takes place in Tarzana - or my version of it. I have purposely left out the tattoo parlors and the naughty lingerie and sex toy shops.