Characters: We read books usually to follow them.
If your characters are well-defined, you only need to plot the destination and they'll find the way there for you. #writingcommmunity—
Dan J Reid (@danjreid) September 25, 2019
There is some truth in that: “Okay, friends, so what are we going to do today?” is what I say to myself at a start of a writing session. I always try to follow the writing formula that “they” are doing what “they” do and I am simply the “stenographer,” keeping a written record of what happens to “them.”
But from where do those characters come? Unless he/she is a direct lift from some actual person, even as the author I find it may be hard to recall precisely how I thought of him/her. It is amusing to take some time, sit back, and ask yourself: “How did I invent you?”
I thought I’d offer here examples of important characters in my coming book – which is a “stand alone”, meaning you don’t have to have read the previous book to understand what is going on – and its predecessor and my recollections on how “they” came to be. So let’s have some fun. First, of three central women in the soon-to-be released Tomorrow The Grace, two of them appear first in its predecessor, Conventions: The Garden At Paris.
“Carolina Beckington”: Pronounced Caroleena – as was not uncommon among English women with that name in the 18th century – “Miss Beckington” appears on the scene first as a seventeen year old. One inspiration for her I know is the famous real-life British writer Mary Wollstonecraft (mother of Mary Shelley). In France in the 1790s, Mary became involved with an American man (even having a child by him outside of marriage… Oh, the scandal!). Mary’s experience with him was, to say the least, not a great one. (He abandoned her and their child. He was also from New Jersey. Not that the two are in any way related, of course. LOL!)
We all also know lots about Jane Austen’s heroines. I love Austen and freely admit “Carolina” is my small effort to dip into that world too. My larger aim with her, though, is to take her beyond needling, writing letters, attending dances, and sighing over handsome gentlemen – although she does do those things particularly early on in Conventions.
Importantly, due to her father’s military background and family relations in France, I decided she would travel widely. “Carolina” comes at least partly from all of that. Her mannerisms and speech patterns are borrowed from various Englishwomen (I took a few of my wife’s traits) I know personally or have seen in media – especially social media.
“Marie-Thérèse Durand”: It’s the French Revolution, so French had to be in the middle of everything. I settled on a woman as a pivotal character. French/Swiss history from the 1770s to the early 1800s is full of “assertive” women, with Germaine “Madame” de Staël being probably the most famous now. In the late 1780s and early 1790s, there were also less visible educated and aristocratic young Frenchwomen – sometimes daughters of French officers who had fought in America with the Americans between 1777-1783 – who spoke English passably and often acted almost as “go-betweens” between young Americans and powerful French (usually older) men.
Young Americans adrift in France naturally gravitated towards French who spoke English (or at least were willing to try to speak it). Given 1780s-90s travel required more money than travel does today, those young Americans tended to be better off than most back at home. Unsurprisingly many of those in France who caught their attentions were young women (and vice-versa), and because they were better off they tended to mix with “better offs” in France, usually liberal aristocrats. Any pre-revolutionary idealism in those women often gave way to the reality of the brutal upheaval in which some of them would become victims, including imprisonment and even worse. Later, former aristocrats of the old regime of King Louis XVI were “courted” by a Napoleon craving to create dynastic and regime “legitimacy” for himself, and some of those who had made it alive to the first decade of the 1800s came to embrace his rule. (Although Germaine de Staël was one who did not.)
I wanted “Marie-Thérèse” to be one of those young and liberal women. Introduced to us at age 19, she is not based on any single historical woman. For many of her mannerisms and her speaking style, I have drawn upon a mishmash of Frenchwomen, including some I have known personally.
“Doña Ana Sánchez”: Half-Spanish/half-South American, she is a new character in Tomorrow The Grace whom we meet at age twenty-two in 1797. Fictional “Ana” and her fictional Spain-born father are from the Viceroyalty of New Granada (in what is today Colombia) and are among South Americans who have visited the new United States. He is a South American independence agitator.
It may be tough to imagine this nowadays, but back in the 1790s and early 1800s the new United States was politically actually immensely popular in Central and South America. The 1776 Declaration of Independence was seen as a model document: an anti-imperialist David taking on an imperial Goliath… and winning. South American wannabe liberators looking to free their regions from the Spanish Empire traveled regularly to Philadelphia and the new U.S. capital city, Washington, D.C., to seek advice from American leaders, including Thomas Jefferson. (It was only after the 1846-48 war with Mexico and 1850s incursions by mostly southern and southwestern American “filibusters” who sought to expand “the South” by expanding slavery into Mexico, Nicaragua, and elsewhere, and who were often supported by businessmen looking to make a “quick buck” – like Charles Morgan – that saw U.S. popularity start to wane noticeably in Central and South America, with Anglo-Americans increasingly coming to be seen as rapacious, double-dealing new imperialists.)
The idea of bringing Spanish and South Americans into the story had hit me thanks to social media… when I saw an October 2017 Instagram post pop up in my timeline from Spanish-Venezuelan Wimbledon champion Garbiñe Muguruza…
…but that there is not the actual post. Her posting that one yesterday from Geneva – Geneva, of all places – was, I thought, perfect to use to illustrate this blog post. Suddenly that day in later 2017, as I was really beginning to get into writing what would become Tomorrow The Grace, I had thought: “How did I not think of that before?! South Americans sailing for Europe seeking help against Imperial Spain! Fantastic! So many new things to discuss and add to the tale!”
I was then off and
…and “Ana Sánchez” (and her father) came into existence.
As for three of the men:
“Henry Beckington”: Trying to write aristocratic English young men of the 1700s-early 1800s is dangerous territory. There is an image in many readers’ minds already: “Mr. Bingley,” “Mr. Darcy,” or “Mr. Wickham.” But I wanted “Henry” to be coping with issues of the day beyond romancing the daughters of the landed gentleman of the neighboring estate.
Britain had lost America for good in 1783, but it is also on the verge of becoming the world’s greatest power. “Carolina’s” older brother and the future baronet eventually to succeed his father, “Henry” is the only surviving son of that army officer (“Sir Samuel”) who had served in America – fighting in alliance with the American colonists – in what was then known as The French And Indian War (1754-63). We often think now that the American War for Independence of 1775-1783 was “The British” vs. “The Americans.” In reality it was far more shades of gray. A vocal minority of British here in Great Britain supported American grievances and loudly opposed the war; perhaps 1/3rd of the American population (at least in 1776) were still loyalists and opposed the “usurpers” in Philadelphia declaring independence. Many a British officer in America had an American wife; many an American had British relatives and friends in England. Like those British officers who outright joined the Americans – Horatio Gates, Charles Lee, Richard Montgomery, to name just three – while he did not remain in America, after returning to England “Sir Samuel” sympathized with the Americans. Now in his young twenties, “Henry” too is coming to his own personal conclusions on all of that.
As for France, “Henry” holds at the outset a pretty standard British upper-class attitude towards that country. It was common among his age group and in his class that he thinks of France as sort of a playground (especially in terms of, shall we say, “intimate relations” with ladies). Eventually, though, he learns it is most certainly not.
Like other characters, Henry is no one in particular. He is “himself.” He is just my pulling together of various young men I have read about from his era.
“Edward Floyd”: Like “Ana,” he is new in Tomorrow The Grace. Thinking of how perhaps to pay homage to Long Island, New York, where I had actually grown up, William Floyd, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, came to my mind: he was from Mastic. I quickly ruled out using the historical Floyd as he had not traveled anywhere and I could not see how he could be fit into the tale. However, the idea of creating a fictional younger relation of his popped to my mind.
“Edward” became his fictional nephew. Being fictional, I could do pretty much whatever I then wanted to do with him. I decided “Edward” wants to tour Europe and eventually see the Alps before returning to America – and of course that was not uncommon among American young men then much as now.
While in Europe, though, a young lady alters “Edward’s” life course – and that is not uncommon either, as we know.
“Robert Rutherford”: In what might have been a scene from an action-adventure film, having grown up idolizing (as did many American young men) the Marquis de Lafayette, whom he had met in his childhood in South Carolina, in real-life in 1794 a 21 year old American in Vienna studying medicine named Francis Kinloch Huger hatched a scheme to help the Marquis escape from an Austrian prison (in what is today the Czech Republic). Briefly the Marquis was indeed freed, but matters became confused on the road in the darkness and timings went awry and the Marquis was recaptured. Huger got caught too and found himself also thrown into an Austrian prison; but unlike the Marquis eight months later he was released on the condition that he returned to the U.S., which he did.
As with Mary Wollstonecraft’s France experience, that “weird” historical episode has long stayed with me. Historically Americans like Huger began to appear in Europe after the war of independence ended in 1783. They toured the continent for leisure, or were there on business, or – as Huger was doing in Vienna in 1794 – were attending university.
Thus murkily from where “Robert Rutherford,” who became “the star,” at least in part likely comes. He is NOT me; but I would be lying if I said I did not borrow bits of myself here and there to “fill him out.” (His mother has my late mother’s first name – deliberately.) Only age 21 at the start of Conventions, and in his young thirties early in Tomorrow, in “Robert’s” travels and in experiencing life’s ups and downs in America and in Europe, he anchors the tale in both novels. We see much that happens through his eyes.
Having in Conventions landed in France in 1787 basically lost and unable to speak more than a few words of French, much as other American young men in the country he is drawn to English-speaking French – especially, in his case, “Marie-Thérèse Durand”… and it all starts from pretty much there…
Oh, uh, and of course, Thomas Jefferson has to make an appearance. 😉
In all of that, you also just had a bit of a history class… and you might not have even realized it!
Writing historical fiction can be so cool, really. LOL!
Have a good Wednesday, wherever you are. 🙂