Ever wonder why people who write fiction talk about—and sometimes talk to—their characters as though they were real people? Because, in the writing, those characters actually become real.
Take Grace Winslow, for instance. Grace is the main character in my Grace in Africa trilogy. (Book 2, The Voyage of Promise, comes out any day now.) Grace was originally conceived from pieces of real people. (Most characters are, by the way!) As some of you regular readers know, I “met” Grace’s parents while I was researching my book on the life of John Newton, author of the hymn “Amazing Grace” (Once Blind: The Life of John Newton). A greedy English slaver and his numbingly cruel African wife kept John a slave for most of a year. He barely survived. As I wrote that book, I kept wondering: “If those two had had a daughter, who would she be? African or English? Slave or slaver?” That was the beginning of Grace.
Of course, a dollop of myself went into her too. Although I wouldn’t begin to compare my life with hers, I did struggle with the anxiety of having one foot in each of two worlds and not feeling I belonged in either.
But I needed more than that to make Grace live. I needed to know her as well as I know my own sister. Recite any scenario, and I’ll tell you what my sister would do. I needed to know Grace that well. So I filled out a sheet describing her in detail: characteristics, preferences, motivations, goals—everything. Physical characteristics, of course, but also emotional makeup (withdrawn from both parents), weaknesses (headstrong and willful), spiritual life (untaught and unconcerned), dress (English frocks, totally inappropriate in Africa), favorite food (mangos), favorite pastime (reading). Did I use all of that in my stories? No. At least I think, no. Then again, since all those elements went together to bring Grace to life, in a way, I did.
One more thing: Because Grace lived in West Africa, I went there to walk her land. I ran my hand over her sacred baobab tree. I felt the haunting heat of the harmattan wind that whipped her. I saw the villages with their thatched roof huts and goat pens. And I wept over the remnants of destruction left by slavers.
I gave Grace Winslow a voice, then she rose up and spoke words of her own.
On the Grace in Africa website www.graceinafrica.com Grace will be periodically adding her voice in pieces entitled GRACE WOULD SAY… Come on by and join us!
“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”