Tag: research

Stock Characters–Good or Bad?

One of the joys of being a writer is the excuse to people-watch. Where others might be considered nosy, we writers are doing “research.”

I came upon a piece of serendipity research the other day. Two older ladies were having lunch at a table close to mine. I found myself smiling at the sight of them. Both wore modest blouses and skirts– hemlines on the longish side–and flat shoes. Their grey hair was worn in a bun and their faces had only a little powder as a finishing touch. They looked perfect. They seemed familiar, but I couldn’t place them, until it came to me. They were archetypes of the Miss Marple variety. In fact, either of them could have stepped into the Joan Hickson role without a ripple.

Across the room was another woman or a similar age, but very different appearance. Long blonde hair curled over her shoulders. False lashes, foundation, rouge, highlighter, mascara, heavy eyeliner and bright lipstick accented her features. Her blouse was low-cut and she cast flirtatious glances at her male companion.  She reminded me a bit of “our Rose” on “Keeping Up Appearances.”

Then at an outdoor concert, I encountered yet another prototype–this time of the patrician lady. Again she was older, white hair swept into a French roll, erect carriage, well-cut clothes, even if they were just slacks and a sweater, high cheekbones, small chin. Once more I felt as though I recognized her, even though I hadn’t. She could have played the dowager countess on any number of period plays.

As writers, we want to create unique, memorable characters, but as I considered these women, I wondered about the usefulness of stock characters. Should an author keep a number of these prototypes in her tool box? I don’t call them stereotypes because that implies a flat personality as well as a recognizable appearance. My dowager countess could be kind, or critical, generous or mean. My ‘Miss Marple’ could be nosy and nasty, or she could be knowledgeable and helpful. Just because she sports a certain look, doesn’t mean her character is uninteresting.

The fact that I felt a recognition for these strangers, suggests to me that readers might relate to characters they feel they already know. Or maybe I just watch too much British television. What do you think? Do you enjoy recognizable types of characters in a novel or does their appearance make you toss it aside as too predictable?

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The Real Thing

I grew up with the iconic television series, “Perry Mason.” starring Raymond Burr.  It came on an hour past our bedtime, but if we got into our pyjamas and stayed very quiet and unobtrusive, we could usually stay up and watch.  I really wanted to be Della.

So, when I saw a classic movie channel showing a 1930’s film of Perry Mason, I tuned in to watch.  I thought it would be fun to see another actor in the role.

I was astounded.  the Perry Mason in the movie was nothing like the one portrayed by Raymond Burr.  This Perry moonlighted as a chef in a fancy restaurant.  He spent his off hours attending swanky parties and was a bit of a womanizer.  Long-suffering Della wasn’t invited.

What?!!!

I set out to find the real Perry Mason

I confess, I’d never read one of Erle Stanley Gardner’s books, but assumed they’d be easy to come by.  Wrong again.  My library didn’t have one.  My local second hand bookshop said they couldn’t keep them on the shelves and another dealer want $125.00 for a “rare” copy.

Finally, Amazon turned up an electronic copy at a reasonable price and I settled down to discover the character as written by the author. The result? The Raymond Burr version is much truer to the book. In the book version, Perry Mason worked all hours–nary a party or a socialite in view–and he certainly didn’t spend time in a commercial kitchen. He treated Della with great respect and affection, but no romance.  I am relieved.

The entire exercise taught me to not trust Hollywood for my research.

As a writer of historical fiction it is easy to fall into the trap of believing the tropes seen in the movies or on television are accurate portrayals of the era.

In my WIP, I decided it would make a good scene to remove a bullet from a wounded man.  A little research showed that instantly removing a bullet is not only unnecessary but may actually do more harm than good. Hollywood likes the drama of bullet removal from the flesh, usually without anaesthetic, because it makes good theatre. Not because it makes good medicine or is a true account of the practice of medicine at the time.

Lesson learned.  I’m still going to remove the bullet, but I’ll find good medical reasons to do it.

What about you? Have you ever seen favourite book characters mangled in a movie or television series. How did you feel? Shocked? Angry? Disappointed?

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Down the Rabbit Hole – Research

What I learned this week while writing my “discovery” draft is that I need to discover some more historical facts. To that end, I’m reading 40 Years in Canada, by Samuel B. Steele. This is a wonderful, first hand account of the formation of the North West Mounted Police and they’re trek west in 1874-75. The impetus for this undertaking was to end the whiskey trade that was devastating the First Nations of the western plains.  In Steele’s day, they used the term Indian or Redman.  He writes “For the credit of the Dominion and humanity, it was absolutely necessary that a stop be put to the disgraceful scenes which were daily enacted on the Bow and Belly rivers and in the Cypress Hills.”

I’m a real fan of Sam Steele, who seemed to meet hardship and trial with good cheer and hard work.  He offers his greatest praise to men who did not grumble and who vied with each other to carry the heaviest load or make the most trips back and forth on the near impossible portages from Lake Superior to Lake Winnipeg. And he did it all “for humanity.”

As we live in an age marred by corporate greed and a “me first” attitude, it brought joy to my heart to read that when, after a march of 1,959 miles, a new fort was established, the first structures built were stables for the horses, then barracks for the men and lastly, quarters for the officers.

Much as I’m enjoying Sam Steele’s memoirs, they do not provide me with the details of a pioneer woman – what she wore, how she cooked, what she did for a sick child.  I’ve another book, Never Done—Three Centuries of Women’s Work in Canada, written by The Corrective Collective, and published in 1974.  This volume attempts to tell “her-story.”  The title comes from the old saying, “a man works from sun to sun but women’s work is never done.”

The authors have tried to tackle women’s history in Canada from the time of New France and les Filles du Roi through to World War One.  The resource yields many interesting facts such as, in 18th century Halifax the Inspector and Surgeon General was paid a guinea a day to operate a hospital.  The Matron of said hospital, while responsible for changing bandages, cleaning wounds, administering medicines, applying poultices, arranging food preparation, ensuring hospital maintenance and sweeping the floor, received no salary. (Picture me shaking my fists!) However, aside from sending me into a rage, the book is still sketchy on the details of daily life in a gold rush town.

Next stop, B.C. Archives.  They have letters and diaries on file.  Here’s to “discovering.”

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Author Intrusion

I recently read a book that contained such egregious examples of what not to do with research that I had to laugh. Anyone who has taken even the most basic writing course knows that author intrusion into the story is something to be avoided. When that intrusion takes place as a mini-lecture on facts the author learned while writing the story, it is particularly disastrous.
In this case, the story was a murder set in the South Pacific. Immediately after the discovery of the body, the writer stuck in two pages of text explaining the geology, topography and meteorology or the area – without a single reference to the plot. Needless to say, I was thrown out of the story in an instant.  I closed the book and haven’t opened it since.

More importantly, from the author’s point of view, I’ve  marked her as a rank novice who should have hired an editor.  She is now on my “do not buy” list.  That’s the downside of self-publishing.  Fresh new authors, eager to release their creations into the world don’t have to pass any gatekeepers to see their work in print.  But authors need editors.  Just ask any successful writer today about their first novels and you’ll find nearly all are grateful that an editor or agent somewhere had the good sense to reject their first efforts.

Writing fiction is a learned skill.  It takes practice.  It takes hard work.  It takes teachers and coaches (not your mom or your sister) to read your work with a critical eye, before it ever leaves your desk.  Just because Amazon has a “publish” button, doesn’t mean you should click it before your work is ready.  Jack Bickham wrote a great book for aspiring authors,  The 38 most common Fiction Writing Mistakes (and How to Avoid Them.)  He has a chapter titled “Don’t Lecture Your Reader.”  He suggests that a writer who lectures is including information because she wants it in the story, not because the viewpoint character is thinking about it.  If the characters in your story don’t care about the geology of an island, neither does the reader.

Because I write historical fiction, I’m often tempted to dump in a paragraph or two of research that is relevant to the time period but irrelevant to the story I’m telling.   Recently, I’ve come across a character named Wellington D. Moses.  I’m going to tell you about him here, so I won’t be tempted to put my research into an unrelated story.

Wellington D. Moses was a Black barber in Barkerville in the 1860’s.   One day, Moses was cutting the hair of a gambler, James Barry,  from Texas, when he noticed the gambler had a gold nugget stick pin that looked familiar.  Sleepless in his cot on that hot evening, held awake by the raucous dance hall next door, Moses finally remembered where he’d seen the pin.  It had been owned by one Charles Blessing.  In the spring of 1866, after spending the winter in Victoria, Moses had met up with Blessing on his way back to Barkerville.  The two men decided to travel together.   A few days later, James Barry joined them and they three men enjoyed an evening together.  The next morning, Moses stayed behind on personal business while Barry and Moses set out ahead.

When Moses arrived in Barkerville, he looked for his friend Blessing, but no one had seen him.  Weeks later, when Barry came into Moses’ shop, the barber inquired of him what had happened to Charles Blessing, but Barry claimed ignorance.  After investigating on his own, Moses took his story to the police.  On the same day a body was discovered.  It was Charles Blessing.

Barry was hunted by the police and eventually brought to trial.  The final piece of evidence against the gambler was the identification of the nugget pin by Wellington D. Moses.  When Barry claimed there were many such pins in the country, the barber was able to point to the unique quality of this one.  Looked at from a certain angle, the nugget showed the profile of a man’s face.  When judge and jury inspected the pin, they saw the telltale face.  Barry was found guilty and hanged.

Later Wellington Moses spearheaded a subscription to give his friend, Charles Blessing a decent burial.  Over a hundred dollars was raised.  Enough to place a headboard at the grave and a fence around it.  If you travel to Barkerville, you can still see it.

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