A writer’s influences

Yesterday afternoon, I enjoyed a wonderful conversation about writing, fiction and the hero’s journey via a speaker phone with professor Melissa Studdard and her English 2341 students in “A Study of the Journey in World Literature” at Lone Star College in Texas. Readings for the course included my 2010 contemporary fantasy The Sun Singer.

When one student asked whether the novel’s supporting character Grandfather Elliott was based on a real person, I had a ready answer. No, but I was strongly influenced by my Grandfather Joe Gourley who lived in Decatur, Illinois where the initial parts of the novel are set.

My grandfather and me

Imagination With  Dash of Reality

After the Q&A session was over, I started thinking about what I would say about characters’ role models in fiction if I were teaching a creative writing course. First, I would clear away the misconception some readers have that novelists can’t possibly dream up characters from scratch, that characters must be based on real people.

That commonly held belief is a long way from the truth. Characters are created out of authors’ imaginations with a dash of reality. In the case of Grandfather Elliott in The Sun Singer, my fictional character is not my grandfather with a pseudonym. If my grandfather had been alive when the novel was published, he wouldn’t recognize himself in the character.

What he would see is a character who, as he did, took his grandson on a day trip to the nearby Allerton Park where they saw wooded trails, formal gardens, and sculpture including the famous bronze Sun Singer statue. Joe Gourley would also see that my novel was set in the house he owned when I was a child and that the characters visited the parks where I once played.

Everyone is fair game

Joe Gourley in Decatur in the 1940s

I think there’s even a tee shirt out there that says something like “if you aren’t nice, I’ll put you in my next novel.” When novels focus on real towns, the author’s neighbors try to find themselves in the book. They did it with Peyton Place and when The Help was released, they were still doing it. Since I tend to “meet” my characters as I write in much the same way all of us see people in our dreams that we didn’t know before, I seldom think of real people as role models. My grandfather Gourley played a role because, like my character, he visited the Sun Singer, lived in a neighborhood that made a strong impression on me from the time I was born through junior high school, and loved practical jokes.

When I’m writing about a character with certain traits, I often think of people I know who have those traits. The title character in Sarabande is a good-natured individual who expects the best from other people and loves learning new things and traveling to new places. She shares these qualities with a co-worker I knew forty years ago. If my former co-worker read the book, she might like seeing those qualities in Sarabande, but she wouldn’t for a moment think I was writing about her.

Those old familiar places

Buses and street cars came and went from this transfer house in Decatur's Lincoln Square when I was a child.

Decatur, Illinois made an impression on me because our family was there so often during my formative years. The Florida Panhandle made an impression on me because I lived there from the first grade through college. Glacier National Park made an impression on me because I worked there while I was in college. So, I know these places. They influence me whether I consciously think of them or not. The same is true of family and friends. Since I like blurring the line between fiction and “real life,” I take the influence of places one step further and put real places in my books.

The Sun Singer is set in Decatur and Montana. So is Sarabande. My magical realism novel Garden of Heaven: an Odyssey is also set in those locations as well as north Florida and the places I saw when I was in the Navy. The three short stories I’ve written so far this year are also set in those places, perhaps because Decatur, North Florida, and Glacier National Park fit me like old shoes.

My memories influence what I do, just as they influence everyone else. When I write, most of those memories are part a figurative vat of stew. As I dream up characters, they often remind me of people I knew—or know now. Bob Hope’s signature song was Thanks for the Memories. If I wore tee shirts with slogans on them, they might say “Thanks for the Influences.”



5 thoughts on “A writer’s influences

  1. Smoky Zeidel

    Grace and Otto in On the Choptank Shores have the personalities of my aunt and uncle. But Luther? Nothing like my grandfather, although while I was writing the book I had a difficult time convincing my mother that character was NOT going to be like her father. (When the book was released, she understood why.) Who knows what it is about people that make us weave aspects of their personalities into our characters. I think it’s the unique quirks, their foibles and flaws, that are most interesting. I’m shutting up now–I’m about to write an entire blog post of my own in your comments section! 😎

    1. Those quirks (good and bad) are a boon to comic impressionists and political cartoonists. We might as well use them, too, in our books. As for your Luther character, I hoped he wasn’t like anyone you actually knew.


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