Monday, March 26, 2012

Today's Inspiration: people in my life

I remember a scene from the comedy series "Kids in the Hall": a writer is struggling with his work when the image of Queen Elizabeth (Scott Thompson, of course) appears above his head advising him to "write what you know."  After all, when requiring advice we Canadians always turn to the Queen of England.  I'm not sure if I am remembering the scene correctly.  Regardless, the sentiment has value: writing what you know is good advice.  In developing characters for my stories, I often draw from the people that I know.  Often this takes shape as the character interacts in a particular scene of a story.

The characters in my books are never based on a single person, though some people may see themselves or someone they know in the actions or descriptions portrayed in a particular scene.   For example, the main character of Socialite,  fourteen year old Elle Amis, is an amalgamation of some of the most important people I know, my wife, and my kids.  I wrote her character description years ago for a very different story that I didn't finish.  When I decided to begin writing again, after my wife's passing,  I was reviewing some of my previous notes and became reacquainted with Elle and realized immediately that she was the femme fatale of my books.  I still find that her character drives the creation of her own scenes as I am writing.

One of my favourite minor characters in Socialite is Mrs. Therese Austen.  She is an older woman, who lives a few doors down the street from the main characters, and is often seen walking her little dog Bixby.  She was partly inspired by my sister-in-law's mother, who talked very softly and had a way of making you feel like you were the most important person in the world.  In the books, Mrs. Austen treats Jacob in exactly this way: to her, Jacob Liebe is the most important person in the world.  When I was writing the description of Mrs. Austen the image that kept coming to mind was one of the Queen mum in a green cloche hat - I couldn't resist how exquisitely Canadian it felt to describe her as I saw her in my head.  I liked the character so much that I decided in the early stages of preparing Socialite 1 that she would play a major role in the ending of this series, as you will see when you read Book 4: Unless Rules.

None of the characters in my books are exact replications of people I know.   Instead, I tend to see a scene play out in my head, and imagine how the emotions or reactions should be described.  In the process a memory of someone acting similarly will come to mind, and often that imagined person is someone I know.  Sometimes, the process happens in reverse: I'll remember how someone handled a particular situation in a clever or unusual way and make a note to use that memory at a later time.  The ordinariness of everyday life is often interrupted by one of these brilliant, living vignettes - unfortunately we tend to forget them all too quickly.  When looking for inspiration as I'm writing, I kick myself sometimes for not heeding the advice given in another Kids in the Hall, Scott Thompson skit: speaking as the character Buddy Cole he ends a comedic monologue with:
"It all reminds me of something that Moliere once said to Guy de Maupassant at a cafe in Vienna... That's nice. You should write it down."
Here is a small scene with Mrs. Austen meeting Ray Amis for the first time from S1B2: Mission to Mission.  After fourteen years of seclusion in his house, all the while watching and learning about his neighbours by watching projections from the many cameras that his daughter's chauffeur, Morse, had installed around the neighbourhood, Ray Amis is finally going for his first walk outside just after dawn.  He doesn't get far before his peaceful solitude in interrupted by Mrs. Austen and Bixby.

He was alone in his thoughts as he walked past the sleepy houses lining Homedale Street.  As he reached the end of the block, he noticed an old woman walking her dog coming toward him.  He recognized her as Mrs. Therèse Austen.  “Good Morning,” he offered, smiling cordially. 
“Where’s your dog?” she kindly asked.
“My...what makes you think I have a dog?” he asked puzzled. 
“No one comes out at this time without a dog,” she reasoned.  “Here you are, so what happened to your dog?  Did he get off his leash?”  Ray looked curiously at her.  He had seen her many times on the AmisVision screens, walking her dog to and from her house.  His curiosity had prompted him to ask Morse to install additional cameras along her route, so that he could learn more about this strange behavior.  For hours, some days, he would watch her slowly walking, sometimes to the grocery store, sometimes to the diner, but usually, just casually walking in circles, cleaning up after her pet.  She always wore the same lime-green coat, with a matching Cloche hat.  She was also constantly talking to her dog.   
“I have no dog, nor have I ever felt the compulsion to subject a creature of this planet to subservience or confinement,” he confessed. 
“No dog.  Well, that is new.  And you live close by?” she continued, undaunted by issues of animal slavery. 
“I live at the yellow house down there,” he said, pointing down the street, no longer afraid of being identified by his neighbours. 
“You mean the house across from Jacob’s?” 
“Yes.  Are you one of Jacob’s friends?” asked Ray. 
“Oh ye-e-es.  I am,” she said, enthusiastically.  “Ever since he was a little boy.  I used to watch him sometimes when his mom would go shopping.  A wonderful, kind, intelligent boy.  Are you a friend, too?” 
“My daughter is.” 
“I hope she’s pretty.  Is she pretty?  I was hoping that Jacob would meet a pretty girl.” 
“I am her father, of course, so my opinion may seem biased.” 
“Are you new here?” she asked, moving on to another subject without completing the previous one. 
“No,” said Ray.  He was becoming tense due to his lack of control of the conversation and the inquisitional verbal delivery of his neighbor.  He didn’t want to be rude during his first, real conversation with an outsider, so he answered, “I’ve lived here for many years.” 
“You don’t walk much.  I’ve never seen you.  I guess you drive instead.” 
“No, I don’t drive.  As it happens, this is the first time that I’ve taken a walk around here.” 
“You don’t have a car and you don’t walk, how do you get around?” she asked, looking concerned and confused. 
“I have a car, but it’s just for my daughter.  She has a driver who takes her places,”  explained Ray, trying to direct the discussion in a new direction. 
“You don’t go with her?” she asked, still confused. 
“No, I don’t go with her.” 
“Poor girl, all alone.  Well not quite alone, now that she has Jacob.  Then, how do you get around?” Mrs. Austen repeated. 
“I must confess that I don’t want to seem rude by avoiding or refusing to answer your benign question.  I absolutely don’t condone dishonesty.  So, perhaps we should conclude our discussion for now and continue some other time on a different subject.” 
“Perhaps you could borrow someone else’s dog for your walks,” suggested Mrs. Austen. 
“Why would I want to do that?” returned Ray. 
“Then we could talk about our dogs,”  said Mrs. Austen plainly, without a hint of sarcasm in her voice.     
“You are very astute.  I look forward to speaking with you again some time,” said Ray.

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