"The notion that such persons are gay of heart and carefree is curiously untrue. They lead, as a matter of fact, an existence of jumpiness and apprehension. They sit on the edge of the chair of Literature. In the house of Life they have the feeling that they have never taken off their overcoats."
- James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times

Monday, May 4, 2009

Where in the world is Peri Minneopa?

I thought I'd try a new tactic today and see if a trendy cultural reference might get me hits from the outside world.

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?

16 comments:

Karen Brees said...

what we writers will do in the name of research. Honestly, though, wet yourself?

Patricia Stoltey said...

Gayle, Your post today is funny and entertaining. It's great fun to step outside of our comfort zone or areas of expertise to write about things we need to research. I have a bad, bad guy in my WIP, however, that will be a product of my imagination only. He's so bad, I don't want to meet anyone like him.

Pat
http://www.patriciastoltey.blogspot.com

Anonymous said...

you can be busy but still bored.

Gayle Carline said...

Karen - well, have you SEEN that woman? I mean, I don't like to profile anyone, but that clip just smacks of the Sopranos.

Patricia - I'm not sure I want to meet any of those reality housewives, either. And if I make them bad enough, I don't want to meet the women I'm creating!

Anonymous - I'm going to leave your post here, but if you post again without telling me who you are, I'll delete you. Unless your parents actually named you Anonymous, it's just creepy, in a stalker way. If your name truly is Anonymous, it's only creepy in an unfortunate way.

Elle Parker said...

I just love to hear about how writers approach the process.

To answer the question you posed - I do delve into different groups, as long as I feel I can do them justice. The main character of my novel is Italian, and I was able to do all my research on-line. Mostly, I read interviews and articles about Italian men who were similar to Dino. I also did a lot of research on the various Italian communities in Florida

Elle Parker
http://elleparkerbooks.blogspot.com/

K. A. Laity said...

I love to use a wide variety of characters of different backgrounds and ethnicities, but I also make sure I have done adequate research if I don't already draw from a real life model I know (I use a lot of play-testing of characters with people I know). It's always important that the person never become a stereotype or that I give in to lazy shorthand.

I have a novella coming out that's set in the 19th century with an Irish-American, a Navajo and a Chinese immigrant. I did a lot of research and the only negative feedback I got was my inexpert gun references, LOL (which were fixed).

Galen Kindley said...

Hi, Gayle, I think great characters are key to a great book. Even if the plot is slow or obvious, if the characters are unique, different and entertaining, they can carry the story. So, I'm big on Characterization.

For Research? I try to watch people and remember the ones that do unique and funny "stuff." I actually record some of those things and drag them out later for use. I also find it's useful to find a picture of someone on the net who looks like the character I want to describe, and i study that photo and then, try to describe my character.
Galen.

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

Loved the way you came up with the name!

Jane Kennedy Sutton
http://janekennedysutton.blogspot.com/

Karen Walker said...

Gayle,
This is so interesting to me (a memoir writer). I love how you came up with your character's name. I, too, love hearing about writing process. I didn't have to research my memoir, it was my life after all, but I'm thinking about a novel (which scares the livin be-jeezus out of me). Take care.

Karen Walker
http://www.karenfollowingthewhispers.blogspot.com

AlanChinWriter said...

Wow, like your breezy style of writing. You put me at ease and drew me right in.

I do try to stretch into area I'm not aware of when I define characters, but I'm seeing many of the same types of characters showing up in different stories, which tells me I need to stretch more. Sometimes I pick people I know very well, and I simply place them in the story and give them a back story and a little shove.
I often get inspiration for characters from other writer's characters. Something like: I really liked xxx, but I would change this and that, and give him more of an edge.

Anyway, I enjoyed your post,
thanks,
alan chin
http://alanchin.net

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Great post! I can tell that you really bring your characters alive by the way you've written about them here.

I like sticking to what I know, usually, but recently I'm trying something different. I've researched primarily by interviewing people, reading blogs and through websites pertaining to the subject.

Elizabeth
http://mysterywritingismurder.blogspot.com/

N A Sharpe said...

Great post! I love hearing the process others go through in character development. I think the most important thing is the characters are multi-dimensional and are believable. I like to get to know my characters in detail - not only physically, but their back story - what happened in their lives to make them who they are.

Great job!

NA Sharpe
http://nancysharpe.blogspot.com

Teresa M Burrell said...

What a great blog. That was hysterical. I love your writing style, can't wait to read your book.

My first novel I stuck pretty much to what I know, but am stretching more with this one. As far as research, I read a lot about the personality type of my character. I try to get to understand their behaviors and make sure they don't do anything inconsistent with their personality even though it may not be typical behavior.

Tee
http://www.teresaburrell.blogspot.com

Jina Bacarr said...

Absolutely Fabulous blog, Gayle!! Loved it.

I'm loving writing about Weimar Berlin because I know the city well and like my heroine, I was a dancer for years (my last pair of pointe shoes hang over my book case).

Looking forward to learning more about your heroine!!

Jina

http://tinyurl.com/BerlinSexDiary

Ann Parker said...

Your character sounds like a hoot! (Yeah, hot flashes, I can relate.) I think characters from all walks of life are fun to write. I love to research, so no problem there. I write historical mysteries, so I'm always looking for stuf that provides insights into the people of the era...

Marvin D. Wilson said...

Very good post. Good use of links, and the visuals are nice also. My characters are drawn from life experience - but I've been around, if you know what I mean, so I have LOTS of variety to call upon.

Proud Member of ALA!

I support fair and equitable library access to ebooks and so should you.