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Christopher M. Lawson

Writer's Corner

Questions about writing (and answers)
If there is a question you don't see here that you would like addressed, feel free to e-mail me at cmlawson725@comcast.net. I can either answer it direct or if there is a "popularity" in questions, I'll post it here.
Another question that is fairly easier, but still requires some thought, is the matter of characters.
I'm sure we all face the inevitable: "Did you base this character on yourself, your husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend/next door neighbor, etc.?"
  • I must say that I rarely base a character completely on myself. I'm too boring to want to write a character that is 200% me. I write fiction, not autobiographies. I mean, yes I do write essays about myself, but that's different. Most of us would like to think we are a certain character, but just because a novel is written in the first person, doesn't mean necessarily the author is that character. Take for instance Wally Lamb's acclaimed best-seller She's Come Undone. He wrote that novel from page one to 465 in the voice of a feisty yet loveable girl named Dolores Price. He didn't write one flawed page of that book, either! He never lost sight of his goal and it paid off big time. He said in an interview that he was more influenced by women in his life and that gave him the opportunity to try this.
  • Third person novels are a little different, at least I think so. I mean, I think we like to put a little of ourselves in a character. It's all a matter of how we would (or wouldn't) react to situations as they are presented to us. I don't think any one of us would want to be the villain in real life, but we sure as heck would love to pretend, just like gentlemanly Sir Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter got to do it. I wrote some of my personal insecurities in Laurie Rappaport in No More Lonely Days and even one of my own fears in Jocelynne Chett in the same novel. I won't go into those "flaws" here, but I will say that I think we like to put ourselves a little so it doesn't take over the novel, though it might not be a bad thing. I personally don't want myself to be revealed all in all within the limitations of a novel.

One thing I will note also. We sometimes do base characters on people we know. There's probably no way around that. In fact, I know for a fact that (unless we're totally isolated and hate people) someone has to have had some impact on us and we imagine that person as we write them. Jackie Goodwyn in my first novel Hello...and Goodbye was a composite of a couple of women I knew (unbeknownst to them), but it wasn't a direct steal. Nor would it be. Usually we have an idea of this person we're writing about, and if the writing is going well, they become their own person. I loved it when Jackie Goodwyn grew out of who she was modeled after and became her own person! Same holds true for most of the other characters I've created.

I think also that in the case of villains, we write our worst nightmares. Need I say more?

Always get permission if you're going to use someone's name in your novel as a character. I can share an anecdote about how someone was willing to go to the length of "suing" me for using his name in my novel Hello...and Goodbye when I thought I was being nice for paying homage to him. Wrong! If you want to know more about this, please e-mail me. I refuse to use someone's first (or last name, often the case) without permission now. First names are different; you can't help some of them, especially the common ones. However, be like me and come up with some clever names like Dudley Gerstenberger, Devan and Jocelynne Chett, or (in my new book For Her Eyes Only) Lucas Roberts. Nothing wrong with the "common" names, just don't overdo it!

TIP: Just remember the idea that as the book's creator, you're an actor/actress playing a role. Let you also be the director and encourage the actor/actress in you to give it your full potential!

One question I frequently have a difficult time answering, but given enough thought, I can concoct a reasonable answer is, "Where do you get your ideas?"
How many of us have heard that one before? More than often than not, I am sure.
To be honest, I don't think any good author knows where they get the ideas. Sometimes it's an idea that is torn directly from our personal "photo album/scrapbook"; then there is the inspiration drawn from someone else whom we know and relays to us something so enticing we cannot pass up the opportunity to write about it; and last but certainly not least, there is the idea that we dream up because we may have read something in the paper, saw a movie, read a novel, listened to a song on the radio/CD player/record player (etc) and it just sparked the creative juices.
  • My first novel, Hello...and Goodbye, as has been mentioned previously, was torn almost directly out of an incident in my own life. It was not tit for tat what happened, but the basic idea was there and from that point, Point A, I made it all the way to the end. Of course there were some instances where I did borrow from my own life, like Dudley Gerstenberger graduated from high school the same day I did (June 3, 2001) or that he was awkward around girls. Other than that, the novel was pure fiction, even if it did have its roots in a real life experience.
  • With No More Lonely Days, I was inspired by a friend of mine who told me about what it was like to be a single mother at the age of sixteen. Her experiences touched me deeply and I was so moved to write about it, albeit in the magical world of fiction. Though what happens to Kathryn Galen is not completely like that of what happened to my friend, the seed that planted this novel just completely took shape over the course of time and became what it is, even if again it had its beginnings with someone's real life experience, and not just my own in this instance, even though I did throw in some of my own experiences within.
  • Now with my current novel I am writing, it is purely out of my own imagination. Jade Collins had a small (but hopefully memorable) part in No More Lonely Days and I figured she deserved a starring role. Little of what happens in this novel has happened to me or anyone I know (the exception at this point being that her five year old son had been born with the Ventricular Septal Defect, something of which I am familiar, since I have the same medical problem). The novel is also currently unlike anything I've ever attempted to date, a love story/thriller/crime novel. Sometimes I think it is a lot more fun to write something completely from scratch and see where the characters go and take you.

Will I write another novel featuring my own life or that of someone else's, or will my future novels be purely from imagination with a little bit of the first two in them? I have no idea. For now, I am just eager to work on writing For Her Eyes Only and see how far I can go with it.

A question that should be addressed, though some might find it unimportant, is the location of where the novel takes place.
I write contemporary/mainstream fiction. That is not to say that I don't like other novels that have locations that are exotic, fantastic, or just "plain" scary. In fact, I admire authors who can write these places and make them come to life within the pages of a novel, so real that you wish it were on the map and you could take the next car ride, bus ride, flight, etc, to this location. In fact, after reading (and seeing) the Harry Potter books and films, I was so impressed and wanted to visit Hogwarts!
Even so, I am compelled to draw from personal experience when it comes to this issue, as has been true with the previous questions.
Mark Twain once said (taken from John Grisham's #1 New York Times bestseller The King of Torts) that he [Twain] often moved cities, counties, and even entire states when necessary to help a story along. That is where we as fiction writers (not biographers, travel agents, or historians) are given the lovely term "poetic license" to do just that. When a writer uses a real location, such as New York City or a town in North Carolina (i.e. Nicholas Sparks), I'm sure that there are real similarities between these places in the real life and in the writer's life it is another view. With that in mind, I have learned too that place names are often changed, but aside from that, the authors retain the name of the town/city and populate it with their own characters.
Nicholas Sparks completely bowled me over when he created Boone Creek, NC, in his back-to-back #1 New York Times bestsellers, True Believer and At First Sight (2005). The town is completely fictional and yet it had such an air of authenticity, you wanted to visit there and see what it was like! My gosh, I was so impressed (and a little envious, I admit: shame on me!)
In the same vein, Karin Slaughter created the ficitional Grant County, Georgia, for her chilling crime novels (aside from Triptych, which takes place in Atlanta, Georgia). She states on her website that people often give her a hard time about this, because it's not "geographically correct." That is where I would tell these people, "It's a novel; don't worry about it. Just focus on the characters and if they're going to catch the killer or not!" Like with Mr. Sparks, I applaud Ms. Slaughter for her willingness (and boldness) to create a fictional area where characters can live and breathe, as well as exist only in the writer's and reader's minds!
  • Hello...and Goodbye did not take place in any particular town/city. I modeled it after my hometown, but I never gave it a name. I made up place names, like SuperMart and Rawlings Pool and Spa, but never gave it any thought of where I would place these. Back then (2001/2002) it wasn't a big deal, but if I had written the book today, I would have considered giving the town a name (or borrow someone else's hometown/city other than my own; after all, I still live here and don't need any grief).
  • No More Lonely Days was the first, and certainly not last, novel that features the name of a town in one of my books. Belleville, Massachusetts, which was named after Belleville, Ontario, Canada. As a bonus to readers, I also created the fictional town, Cole, New Hampshire, just for this novel only. It may come back in a future book, but only time will tell. I was very inspired by the above-mentioned authors and knew I had to create a town, give it life, and allow characters to breathe in there as well as work and what other small townspeople do. It is definitely specified within the book, but I'll put it here just for the sake of curiosity. Belleville, Massachusetts is located in the Western Massachusetts region, perhaps the town right outside of mine, even if there are still a few that already exist there.

TIPS

  1. Just remember, if you're going to use a real place, don't sweat over getting complete accuracy. No one should care or if they do, remind them that it's a novel, it's in the writer's mind and should not be taken too seriously. Focus on the novel, not whether it's accurate or not.
  2. If you decide to be bold and create your own town/city, have fun with it! Stay true to your vision, not someone else's! Remember, this is where you live for the duration of the creative process!
"A writer's job is to always entertain in the best sense of the word."
Sue Grafton
The Armchair Detective
 
 
(C) 2007-2008 - Christopher M. Lawson