This is a good rule in general, but it has failed me at the most inopportune times. For example, my grandmother, Nancy Elizabeth McClellan Shirley, was in many ways a self-made woman. Born in 1888, she had a career as a teacher long before she married my grandfather because, as he said, she “needed someone to take care of her.” How he missed the fact that she had managed 8 grades in a single schoolhouse, I’ll never know. What I do know is that she spent 50 years taking care of 7 children plus two invalid inlaws plus an entire farm that involved raising those children, feeding those children plus hired hands, plus relatives plus growing her kitchen crops plus supporting a husband who ran for political office, plus being active in the community and church. I just knew there was a great story there, but when I began to research it, here is all I got:

  • she seemed to enjoy having her family around her
  • she gave us socks for Christmas
  • she had yellow cornsilk hair that was past her waist which she wore braided around her head
  • she combed her hair every night 100 strokes
  • she thought her yellow hair was too bright, so she had it “grayed” at the beauty parlor “which was more seemly…”
  • she taught me how to turn milk into butter by working the butter stick up and down, saying the magic words “Come, butter, come…”
  • I never saw her cry
  • she rarely showed her teeth in a smile but she just might push out her dentures!
  • I never heard her sing
  • she was a listener
  • even after I graduated college, we never discussed religion or politics or sex
  • she said she never ate anything twice that belched her once
  • she was an advocate of “early to bed, early to rise…”
  • she loved to garden and was taught by Indians how to plant and harvest
  • she liked fresh air in the house, so she slept with the windows open
  • she kept peppermint candy under her pillow
  • she was an excellent cook
  • she said you should ‘winter and summer’ with a man before you married him
  • she rarely went to movies or any other forms of entertainment
  • she never bought anything on credit, saying that if you wanted something, you should save for it.
  • she took snuff
  • she took rock candy and whiskey for winter colds
  • she raised chickens and had no problem axing off their heads for Sunday dinner
  • she had practical solutions for every problem. For example, at age 2, I still had not learned to tie my shoes and my mother asked her mother what to do. Grandmother Shirley put me up on a high stool and said “You can get down when you can tie your shoes.” It worked.

I may yet write about the woman for whom I am named. I realized that I only knew Nancy the grandmother, and hadn’t a clue about the girl/woman she was. Yet when I began interviewing her contemporaries, I got a picture of her true identity. I learned from her cousin Percy, who was deeply in love with her, that she “had jet black hair to her hips, blue eyes, and a waist so small that you could touch your fingertips if you put your hands around her waist…” I had asked him what she looked like as a girl. Then I asked about her essence, what she was like as a person. He said she “sang in church and around the farm and was a dancing’ fool! No man could keep up with her or out dance her. She didn’t drink but had “high spirits.” He said he was hurt pretty bad when she married Bard. I asked why she married him and he said “because Bard told her that she needed somebody to take care of her…”

The takeaway to this is that sometimes you can know too much about a person to be able to share that with your writing public. Taking a step back and seeing them through another’s eyes is helpful. But my favorite thing to do is to fictionalize factual situations through imagined conversations and comments. You’ll know when your characters are  IN character by the way your copy reads from the printed page.  Are they in the room with you? Perhaps looking over your shoulder to see if you got it (them) right?