Posted by Sheila Connolly
Lorraine's post last week started me thinking about how I choose what my characters look like. The thing is, I don't have a single answer. And for some of them, I have only a vague idea what they look like, even when I've written an entire book about them.
My first heroine was easy: she looked like Jodie Foster. In contrast, her love interest in that (shelved) book I never did quite visualize. I think he was Mister Average, although maybe a little taller. He wouldn't stand out in a crowd.
For the orchard series I'm working on now, the heroine resembles a woman I used to work with a few years ago (we're still friends), and the plumber-neighbor looks like the man we bought our house from in Swarthmore in 1988. He was a volunteer fireman, and he died of a heart attack in his forties. And he wasn't sexy at all, so I have no idea why my character decided to look like him. Maybe it was his consistent cheerfulness. Anyway, no one is going to accuse either of them of being drop-dead gorgeous. Just "nice." That's probably a good thing in cozies.
But I do look for inspiration outside of the people I know, directly or indirectly. In fact, recently I have started collecting old pictures. If you've ever been to large and slightly seedy antique shop, I'm sure you've noticed stacks of old photos, usually jumbled with ancient postcards, promotional materials and other ephemera (isn't that a great word? It refers to things that weren't meant to last). Usually they make me feel sad, since somebody's family album has been ripped apart and scattered to the winds, most often without any names or dates attached. All those people who somebody cared about once, lost.
So I take it upon myself to rescue them. Not all of them, of course, since I'd never find room. That means I have to settle on some criteria for selection, which narrows the search only a little.
First: items of specific interest, such as old postcards of places I have lived or I am using in books. Hence the hand-tinted views of the Arizona desert and Philadelphia City Hall. Not to mention the one of the coyote in a cage, the main attraction in the 1950s at a gas station in the town where I now live. Did I mention it's a small town? It must have been even smaller back when a coyote in a cage was worthy of a postcard.
Second: The ones that speak to me. The ones who stare out across a century or more and challenge me. Like one of my recent finds, an elderly man holding the hand of an overdressed toddler. What grabbed me was that they shared the same crabby expression–clearly related. Or the one of two women, dating from the 1880s or 90s, which is perfect for the sisters who lived in the house in One Bad Apple, my first Orchard Series book.
And then there are the puzzle pictures. In case I haven't mentioned it (fat chance), I am a genealogist. Yes, I know I call myself a writer now, but once a genealogist, always a genealogist. Therefore I am drawn to those pictures that have even a hint of identification (ideally something better than "Mrs. Smith, 1905"), because I immediately want to track them down. And sometimes I can.
One recent example: a studio portrait of two children in shabby-nice clothes. On the back is the logo of the photographer, and the inscription "Frank and Maud for Aunt Josie." That's it. No surname, no dates. Just two young people, presumably related, staring out at the photographer. But I am both a mystery writer and a genealogist, and of course I decided I could figure who they were. And I did.
The photographer was based in Tucson (another reason I had to buy this one), and the address was given as "Tucson, A.T." That means Arizona Territory–before Arizona was a state. This designation was used for a limited time (Arizona became a state in 1912, and looking at the style of the photo and the clothes, the picture had to come from 1900 or earlier. One step forward.
Arizona wasn't very thickly populated in 1900, as compared to, say, Massachusetts. I could estimate the ages of the children, and I made the logical assumption that they were brother and sister, and that he was younger than she was. So next I turned to the on-line censuses for Arizona, and looked for a family with young siblings named Frank and Maud. And there they were: Frank and Maud Seymour, children of Michael and Annie Seymour. Frank was five years younger than Maud, born in 1883 and 1877 respectively. They were living in Tucson in 1900, and the picture must have been taken between 1890 and 1900. They all were born in Canada, and Maud was married by 1910, although still living with her parents.
So now I know more about this little piece of history that I hold. A family moved from Canada to wide-open Arizona, and made the kids get spiffed up have their picture taken to send back to Aunt Josie, wherever she was (I'm still working on her). They've become real people.
And isn't that exactly what we want from our characters? We start out with an idea, a shadow, and we give them the details that make them real to us, and, we hope, to our readers.
Frank and Maud, I hope you led long and happy lives, and I'm pleased to know you. .