Let me first talk about the protagonist in my novel, Peri Minneopa. There's a general rule about making your characters' names easy to pronounce, and I broke this rule for a reason.
My girlfriend, Robin, and I had been joking about a detective for our generation – Peri Menopause, Private Eye, who solved every case by crying, eating chocolate, and bitch-slapping people until someone confessed. I'm sure you can picture her:
"I'm having a hot flash! Tell me the truth or I'll rip your lungs from your chest and use them as balloon animals!"
When I started writing Freezer Burn, I wanted a fully-dimensional character, but I liked the joke about peri-menopause, so I found a word that could be mispronounced in a bunch of ways, including 'menopause', and made it a running joke throughout the story. As it happens, Minneopa is a Dakota word, meaning "water falling twice", and it's the name of a state park in Minnesota.
So Peri the person grew from her last name.
Peri's back story is that her family is Norwegian and moved to California from Minnesota before she was born. She's tall and blonde, and a 'salt of the earth' kind of girl. I picture her having a hearty laugh, a quick mind, and the ability to enjoy fine things without needing them. Most of the time, she does her shopping at Target, but sometimes she splurges at Macy's. I see her as a combination of Murphy Brown and I Love Lucy.
In Freezer Burn, she fits into her world fairly well, even though it doesn't always move according to her plans. Even when she has to step out of her comfort zone and deal with a rich heir living in the Hollywood hills, she can handle it because she doesn't have to fit into his world. In this story, Peri has some physical discomfort, but she is emotionally confident.
Now then – I've started my next Peri book, and I've decided to make her uncomfortable in her own skin by taking her into the country club set. I want her to have to infiltrate a group of very well-off, if not outright rich, women to find a killer and a conspiracy. Not only is this going to take Peri into new territory, it'll be an eye-opener for me as well.
Being a horsewoman, my wardrobe consists of jeans and t-shirts. I get my Aura jeans from an on-line store, and purchase my shirts from either Target or the Eddie Bauer outlet. When I need to dress up, I head to Coldwater Creek. So I need to meet some country club gals to accurately portray them.
One of the things I'm doing is hanging around the "Real Housewives" shows on Bravo. They started in Orange County, went to New York City, and just started in New Jersey. The interesting thing about these shows is that I can tune in to about 5 minutes, read the website, and pretty much know what happened in an episode. This is good, because I can't stand to be with these gals for much more than 5-minute increments.
And the New Jersey housewives scare me – they keep showing a clip of the short-haired chick saying, in her pronounced Joisey accent, "Lemme tell yew about my fammly; we ahr as thick as thieves." Honest, I wet myself a little when I see her shaking her finger at the camera.
Now, I know that in reality TV, everything is played up as drama. Otherwise, who'd watch? But what I'm trying to do is listen for the way they talk, what they talk about, how they look. I need to describe the uber-groomed, ultra-manicured, super-coifed woman who treats Nordstrom's like it's Walmart.
I'm also signing up to attend a lot of women's club events in my town, in case the wealthy show up to "lend support to a cause." If I sound like I have a little bit of the Po' Gal's Prejudice, I don't. I just know I don't travel in their circles.
See, I wanted Peri to discover a group of bored housewives who are up to no good. My writer's mind began to work… where would I find bored housewives? Not at my level, where women do their own housecleaning, cooking, and possibly work outside the home for part of the day. What's that saying about idle hands?
So my question of the day is for writers: when you're creating characters, do you stick with what you know, or do you reach into other cultures/ethnicities/socio-economic groups? How do you do your research?