When writing Gene Genie, I met a number of MP’s and while Michael Barton’s character is not based on any one of them, MP’s do share common traits. A certain imperious manner brought about after many years of being surrounded by flunkies and an extraordinary level of deluded self-belief in both their effectiveness and significance. Followed ultimately by certain despair when they finally recognise the hopes that they had for ‘making a difference’ have come to nothing. Political careers do not end well. And even after the bashing of the past few years they remain firmly on planet MP, a very different planet to the one that the rest of us inhabit. MP’s have a sort of blindness to the consequences of their actions not unlike small children, both in their private life (or not so private life) and in the legislation they inflict on the hapless population. They also go to extraordinary lengths to cover up their misdemeanours, often failing in that task, as Michael Barton does in Gene Genie. Once the press get the sniff of a story it is hard to keep personal failings and duplicity hidden. So it is not particularly difficult to construct a believable character with the attributes of a member of parliament.
More complex characters take time. Sometimes I fix a character in my head by cutting out a picture from the local paper of some unknown individual who looks the right type. It isn’t always necessary to describe your character either; you can let your reader conjure him or her up in their own imagination. What you do need to get across is the psychology of the individual and you do so in a sentence or two. Your reader needs to understand what makes them tick, and there is an art in that. It is worth plucking a few books from your shelves and seeing how the greats do it. Somerset Maugham is very good at succinct description, nailing the character completely.
In her biography of the author Elizabeth Taylor, Nicola Beauman, The Other Elizabeth Taylor. Persephone Books, found evidence that Elizabeth used her neighbourhood and acquaintances as inspiration for her remarkable fiction. If you haven’t read any Elizabeth Taylor, then you really should, you’re in for a treat and her short stories are outstanding. Elizabeth destroyed much of her collection of notebooks and letters in the months before her death, she disliked intrusion and one suspects these notes might have had more impact on the living than she would have wished to inflict. And Elizabeth Jane Howard has used incidents in her life to create fiction, most notably in her novel Falling.
My writer friend, Sheridan Winn, author of The Boy with Hawk-Like Eyes - out now on Kindle, the sixth in her very successful Sprite Sisters series, used her family home and an amalgam of homes she knows in Norfolk as the inspiration for Sprite Towers. As the eldest of four sisters she understands the rivalries that occur and uses that knowledge for the fictional sisters’ conflicts and alliances.
It is neighbourhoods and environments that I plunder for my writing. Making up an actual village seemed a pointless and time consuming exercise when I was looking for a setting for Casting Shadows. So I drew out a childish map of the village and coloured it in with colouring pencils as young Sally might have done. It is based on the village that I was brought up in, but with important differences. It was essential for the plot that the Doctor’s surgery back onto the Meads, the magical stretch of land where Sally spies on the Gypsy camp and builds dens, so I moved it. Place is very important in this novel, and as it is a mystery, what happens in what order and where is extremely important. One character, Farmer Chapman is inspired by a lovely old farmer who let me roam, ride his horses and hang about all summer, a time when the land was teaming with people, not the arid, mechanised prairie of today. I also keep notebooks with cuttings, pictures and ideas that come to me about my characters and gradually I build their personalities and distinctive quirks. I like to know a lot about my characters, what car they drive, what would be in their shopping basket, what type of school they went to, who they would confide in. Gradually this builds into someone unique.
Friends have a habit of seeing themselves in my characters, particularly men. If there is a good looking man in the narrative, most of the men of my acquaintance believe it to be based on them. I am sorry to disappoint, but one of the joys of writing is the opportunity to do what I call ‘knit your own lover.’ There is nothing I like better than fashioning my very own Mr Rochester; it is one of the perks of this isolated enterprise called creative writing, and I get to meet more men that way!