A Blast From the Past

Yesterday, I had an unusual surprise. HH was out running around, and a car pulled into our driveway that I didn’t recognize. A woman got out and came to knock on our door. I didn’t recognize her. But I greeted her and she said, “You won’t remember me. I’m the mother of a boy you taught the very first year you were at Waynedale Elementary.”

That was fifty years ago, at least. But the thing is, once I could place her, I did recognize her, and I remembered her son. Jeff. A bright, funny, neat kid. Jeff’s run into some health issues, and he’s having a hard time. His mother’s worried that she’s going to outlive him. She started going through things of his that she saved.

When he was little–like in kindergarten–he started keeping short, little journals. His first kindergarten teacher was STRICT, and he hated school. Didn’t want to go. My first year, I taught first grade, so Jeff was in my class. His mother said Jeff wrote, “My new teacher’s young and energetic and fun. I’m going to love school.” And she said he loved it from that time on. She stopped at my house to let me know what I difference I made in Jeff’s life. And it made me happy.

But mostly, I think she stopped because she wanted somebody out of the norm to talk to. She stayed for more than half an hour, and she told me all about Jeff’s life. He lost his way when his wife divorced him. Got into some bad habits. And then he recovered, but she’ll always wonder if his slip caused his health problems. She’s a good, loving mother who didn’t pull any punches or sugarcoat anything. And I’m glad she stopped. I really like her, and I wish her and Jeff the best.

It made me think about how I create the characters in my books. None of us truly escape our pasts. We might put them behind us, overcome them, but they always help shape us. That’s why that’s where I start when I create a character wheel. I start with family. The mother–what did she do? what was she like? did they get along? what was their relationship? What about the dad? Same questions. Brothers? Sisters? Aunts, uncles, cousins? Did any of them affect my main character? Childhood friends? Enemies? Was he bullied?

Once I work my way past childhood, I turn to education. Did he love school? Hate it? Did he go to college or take a training course? Did he have a mentor? What’s his career now? Is he a success? Struggling?

Now, I’m current. And I ask, “Where does he live? What does it say about him? What does he drive? What does that say about him?”

Is he in a relationship? Happy or not? What were his past relationships? Why did they end?

I like to give him two friends. One, a reflector he can talk to, share things with. One with a different take on life than he has so that they disagree sometimes.

I want to know his quirks. habits, fears, and hobbies. Does he always run his hand through his hair when he’s thinking? Does he rub his jaw? Does he have a quick temper? Or is he easy-going? Does he putter on a used car? Is he obsessed with his lawn?

Then, if possible, I want to know his enemies or competition or opponents. How do they get in his way? Annoy him?

And finally, I like to know what the character wants and why.

And I always list his name, age, nickname, eye color, hair color, height and build. So that when I describe him in the story, or five books later, I don’t accidentally change the way he looks.

Once I finish the character wheel, I pretty much know that person, and I can start writing him.

Every author uses a different system for bringing their characters to life. This is mine. It works for me and better yet, gives me ideas on things to do with him. Hopefully, you’ve found what works for you.

Memorial Day

When I was a kid, growing up, my parents loaded the trunk of our car with pots of geraniums and we went to plant one at every grave at every cemetery a close relative was buried at. It took most of the day, since a few were in small towns close by instead of in town,, and while my dad dug holes for my mom to pl;ace the geraniums in, my sister and I would run around the cemetery, chasing each other and having fun. When the trunk was empty and every grave was decorated, then we’d head downtown to Coney Island to eat hot dogs for supper. I can’t say it was one of my favorite days. It got pretty long after a while. But Mom and Dad were so happy with what they’d done, and we got to eat out (which we hardly ever got to do), so it was a meaningful day that ended well.

Once I grew up and got married, HH and I didn’t decorate graves for Memorial Day. But we bought an old bungalow on a street that our community uses for their Memorial Day parade. Cop cars and fire trucks line up and turn on their sirens to start off the celebration at nine a.m. You can’t sleep through the noise. (Though one time I tried. I had the flu and was miserable and cussed the parade more than it deserved). People line the sidewalks with lawn chairs, laughing and calling to each other. Two school marching bands are interspersed between floats, vintage cars, tractors, and horses. They make their way down the street, and people throw candy to the kids watching on the sidelines. Neighbors wave at each other and stop to talk once the parade is finished. And we end up with lots of small American flags to line the walk to our front porch.

For a long time, I didn’t value any of it. I enjoyed seeing people at the parade, but grumbled that I couldn’t sleep in. I wasn’t fond of visiting graves. After all, nobody’s there, just a plot of earth and someone’s remains in a box or urn. But since I’ve gotten older, I like cemeteries–quiet places that hold memories. They even make me think about people I’ve never met. I read dates, like 1873-1875 and think about a small child who had a short life. Sometimes, five or six people in a family die near the same time, and I imagine there was a disease. I read the words “Loving mother” or “Taken Too Soon” and conjure stories and images to go with them. And I see the military gravestones of soldiers and think about which war they died in. (In old cemeteries, there are many, many of them).

I knew that Memorial Day was important to my parents, but I never fully understood why. Now, I do. I still don’t decorate graves, but now I visit them. And they help me see myself as part of a long line of history and people. And that feels good. I understand why people are interested in genealogy these days. It’s nice to feel that you’re part of something. It’s nice to know your roots. They help you understand yourself a bit better.

However you celebrate (or don’t celebrate) Memorial Day, I hope you have a nice one. Family, picnics, grilling out, relaxing…whatever. Enjoy the last day of May. And have a great June!

Only the memories are left

Yesterday, my husband and I joined my friend and her husband to walk through the high school that Cheryl and I had attended.  The school system shut down the building in 2010 (I think).  It’s sat empty ever since.  And now, a business has bought it, and they’re going to tear it down.

It was sad enough when Fort Wayne closed Elmhurst.  It was a good school.  The building was just old.  But it was depressing when the newspaper reported that it’s going to be demolished soon.  The company that bought it kindly led guided tours through it one last time before the building is destroyed.  The four of us went, but the tour mostly covered the new section of the building that Cheryl and I had never been in.  The only rooms we really remembered were the cafeteria, gym, and the offices.

I was never very active in school, wasn’t a joiner.  I was more of a brainiac geek who loved my classes and did a lot of homework.  But that school shaped me.  I had one of the hardest and most wonderful English teachers in the world.  If she assigned a five page paper, you were allowed five grammatical mistakes–one for each number of pages.  If she hit a sixth error, she circled it and quit reading your paper.  You got an F.  I learned to pay attention to grammar.  I took Latin for four years.  My Latin teacher made a dead language and its myths come to life.  I still love myths to this day.  They showed up in my EMPTY ALTARS urban fantasy series and some of my urban fantasy bundles.

Lots and lots of people stood in line to take one last tour of Elmhurst.  I know time moves on and things change, but it’s going to hurt the first time I drive past that corner, and the building’s gone.  Some things have more impact than others.  Elmhurst is a memory that made me happy.  I’ll still have that memory…, but that’s all.