Most of the characters who populate my fiction arrive unbidden. I’m fascinated by them and let them reveal themselves gradually, as the story unfolds. I keep track of the details of their lives—physical features, family, education, and other information—on note cards. I have a ready list of things I should know about them and go through it, filling in the blanks as I go. The settings can be somewhat real, such as the lovely town of Mellingham and its harbor, but not the people. I avoid using real people, and make a point of checking names, to avoid selecting one that belongs to a known person. But there is one group of characters I have intentionally kept out of my fiction.
Right after college I worked for a year as a case manager in a rural area that was designated as a hunger region by the US government. When the survey was published, municipal officials across the country pounced on it, and the map of the country according to access to food was loudly debated. Most of my co-workers didn’t argue with the conclusions about our area. We’d been out in the field every day since we were hired. We saw what was happening with our clients. These are the people I haven’t forgotten, and the ones I haven’t been willing to let into my fiction. At least not knowingly. I put them in the same category as relatives—people I know intimately who haven’t agreed to be used in this way.
Every writer has had the experience of seeing someone do something a little outrageous, and think, “That would make a great story.” It’s easy to take a piece of someone else’s experience, and use it as a springboard for a story because the real person is left behind, unknown. But a person whose trials in life are vivid and pungent can emerge to take over a story, and claim it as his or her own. And that’s the challenge I found myself facing this week.
The spring brought thoughts of warm weather and summer at the nearby beach. On a recent walk I smiled at the number of early beach goers determined to get in at least one beach day before the cold and drizzle of the season returned. The light sparkling on the calm tidal pools brought a story idea, and when I finished writing it two days later, a neat 5,040 words, I was pleased. And then startled. I knew the main character. I recognized him at once. He had been one of my clients almost fifty years ago, when I was a newly minted case manager and he was a difficult teenager. I don’t remember his last name, and I’m confident I wouldn’t recognize him if I passed him on the street. But I remember that personality, and the trouble he brought. And there he was on the page, the unintended consequence of thwarting my imagination for all those years.
What do I do with the story now?
A couple of years ago I returned to my experiences as a case manager to write about a farm wife who took in a teenage girl. The story was more about the farm taking in someone who didn’t belong in that environment, and I was confident that I hadn’t drawn on any real individuals. The story appeared inAlfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine last month. But the story I’ve just finished is different. I remember the character and his two families, foster and birth.
I’ve rationalized that I’ve moved far from where I used to work. Most of the people in my former office are dead by now (the other women were all much older than I was), and my clients have long since forgotten me. I’ve persuaded myself that I’m past the time when I can violate someone else’s privacy with this story, so I’ll send it out and hope it finds a good home.
And now I wonder what other characters have been waiting in the wings for their chance to emerge in a new world.
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