When Real People Become Real Characters
Writing class 101 encourages you to “write what you know.” But over the years, I’ve migrated from “write what you know” to “write whom you know.” For the “write what you know,” I set my books in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina, the region where I grew up. The protagonist for my first series was a funeral director in a fictitious small mountain town, a job held by my father. We lived above the funeral home. It was quiet, very quiet.
But my father wasn’t my character, Barry Clayton. Barry comes from my imagination and is a composite of the traits I wanted him to have. The “writing whom you know” grew out of research, that discovery process when you have a story idea and begin to delve into its possibilities.
My second mystery series features P.I. Sam Blackman and takes place in the real town of Asheville, North Carolina. A real town brings real people and a real history. One of Asheville’s favorite sons is Thomas Wolfe, and I wanted him to play a role in my story. I wasn’t interested in having him appear as a character like in novels where an historical person assumes the role of detective or client. I wanted him to have done something in his life that had an impact on my detective’s present-day case.
I contacted an historian at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial in Asheville. During our conversation, it dawned on me that my detective would likely be doing the same thing as part of his murder investigation. Why invent a Wolfe historian when a real one was sitting right in front of me? With permission to use his name and to his delight, my research source, Ted Mitchell, became an integral part of the novel.
My real people becoming real characters hit a snag, however, in my most recent Barry Clayton book, Risky Undertaking. Set on the Cherokee Reservation in western North Carolina, the plot centers on a contentious issue splitting the tribe: the decision to build a second gaming casino on the edge of the reservation solely to attract more players from Atlanta. Huge amounts of money are at stake and the anti-casino proponents fear their native culture and traditions will be undermined by increased dependence on casino profits. The issue isn’t my fictional creation but an actual divisive event so highly charged that most of my sources didn’t want their names mentioned in the Acknowledgments. I had real characters with real information who shared real insights and perspectives, but only under the promise of anonymity.
Fortunately, such an aversion to public acknowledgment is the exception and not the rule. After writing the novel involving Thomas Wolfe, I followed the same pattern in two subsequent mysteries, one involving F. Scott Fitzgerald and the other, Carl Sandburg. Sandburg moved from Michigan to my hometown of Flat Rock, North Carolina, in 1945, and between then and his death in 1967, he wrote nearly a third of his literary canon. Two people with Sandburg ties were long time friends of my family.
For a time, Louise Bailey had been Sandburg’s personal secretary. She shared stories and reflections about her relationship with him as both an employer and a neighbor. These are incidents I couldn’t make up. Like the time Sandburg stayed for dinner and enjoyed her green beans and salt pork so much, he finished them all and then picked up the serving bowl and drank the liquid. I wanted these stories to come from my friend, a marvelous storyteller and preserver of our mountain lore. One couldn’t invent a better character.
My second Sandburg source was Donald Lee Moore, a local funeral director, musician and composer. At one time, he had published more sacred music than anyone else in North Carolina. He would sit in his funeral home’s storage room, surrounded by caskets, and pull together harmonies of the Eternal while constantly reminded of his existence in the Temporal. He told me of taking his two brothers, their instruments, and ample lubrication from a friendly mountaineer’s still to Sandburg’s farm, Connemara, where they swapped songs and a jug of moonshine with the famous poet. He let me listen to the audiotapes they made for their personal enjoyment as they meandered from one song to another with Sandburg’s distinctive baritone voice woven throughout.
These are the real characters I enjoy sharing with my readers. They are not the rich and famous, but folks grounded in the time and place of my stories. Unfortunately, both of these friends have past away, and I lost two great pillars of my mountain heritage. The book they helped infuse with life, The Sandburg Connection, is dedicated “In Memory of Storyteller Louise Bailey and Songcatcher Donald Lee Moore, Two Treasures of the Blue Ridge Mountains.”
Separating these stories from the storytellers would have taken some of the life out of them for me and thereby sapped some of the life out of them for the reader. I’ve come to realize that people are stories - and, at times, rather than create “composite” characters, my fictional tales are better served by letting interesting people be themselves. If Shakespeare was right and all the world’s a stage, then the fun for me is setting that stage and letting others play their roles upon it. Not the famous of today or yesterday, but those who have been a part of my life and a part of my story.
Writing whom you know provides me with companions as I explore the “what if” questions of fiction, and, more importantly, gives me the chance to share with others the people I appreciate and admire.
Look for the Money
In the great political scandal that was Watergate, reporters Woodward and Bernstein were advised to pursue their investigation based upon one cardinal principle: Follow the Money. Although the abuse of power lay at the heart of Richard Nixon's downfall, money was the lifeblood that linked cover-ups and lies in a network of deceit.
Money might not be the motive of every crime, but, more often than not, money plays a major role and can be the easiest entry point for an investigation to gain traction. "Look for the Money" because, like the adage "where there's smoke there's fire," where there's money, there's crime -- or at least the fertile possibility.
Mystery writers, like law enforcement, know well that looking for the money will be a top priority for any detective. So, in constructing a story, money needs to be consciously factored in or out. However, in my newest Buryin' Barry novel, Risky Undertaking, I didn't have to look for the money. It found me.
The series is set in the Appalachian mountains of western North Carolina and over the course of the stories, I've tried to work in details and plots that give the reader a feel for the area in which I grew up. I realized I hadn't written a story that incorporates a significant component of the region -- the Eastern Band of the Cherokee. Without any particular idea, I checked the tribe's web site for background on what might be of current importance on the reservation. The headline that greeted me stated a tribal council meeting the night before had postponed a vote on building a second casino because the vote promised to be too contentious. Here were money and conflict staring me right in the face. At stake were millions of dollars on the one hand and the perceived threat to tribal culture and ancient traditions on the other. The money wasn't linked solely to casino operators or lucrative construction contracts; it was tied to all 14,000-plus enrolled members of the tribe, every man, woman, and child who share 50% of the net profits each year. Look for the money? I couldn't overlook it.
The conflict within the tribe became the conflict within the novel. What I found particularly fascinating was creating my fictional story while the casino expansion played out in real life. The issue became even more complicated when a South Carolina tribe, the Catawba, sought to purchase land in North Carolina where the gaming laws are less restrictive. Suddenly an internal tribal debate mushroomed into conflict between two tribes because the Cherokee wanted no competition to their gaming monopoly.
Unlike real life, my story had a publishing deadline while the "battle" between the Cherokee and Catawba continues. And with the multiple paths the money could flow, I looked for a way that I hope surprises the reader.
Will I ever again encounter such a plot where I don't have to look for the money? In the language of the casino, don't bet on it.