by author, Barbara Bickmore
I have often said that if I weren’t paid so well, people would put me in a looney bin, an insane asylum.
I don’t think like you do. Or anyone else I know.
I live in a world of make believe. No one in the entire universe lives in that space I inhabit, except me. No one else in the world knows the people who dwell there with me.
I live in my mind. That world I live in is more real to me than the real world.
When you were a little kid did you hear of someone who was ridiculed because she had make believe friends? I’m a big girl (and I seem to get bigger with each passing year), and I have a multitude of make believe friends. While I live with them I am quite obsessed with them. I stalk them. I crawl into their minds and think like they would think, though often they surprise me. I mean shouldn’t I control them if the only place they live is in my head? But I don’t. I have heard other authors say the same thing. Instead of my telling the characters what to do they quite often surprise me and do things I hadn’t expected. Sounds silly, doesn’t it, that figments of my imagination should control me.
When I was writing my first novel I sat down at my computer one day and stared at it. I sort of knew where I was going but looked at that blank screen and was slightly panicked to realize it was a reflection of my mind. I hadn’t a clue what to paint on that screen. And then, from nowhere, I wrote, without even thinking, “Anoka came out of the jungle.”
Where did that name come from? Who was he? Why had he suddenly appeared? I sat there amazed. I had, and have, no idea at all where he came from. He was not premeditated. I had no idea where to fit him into my already planned book. But now that he was there, alive on that page, I felt he would lead me to some place. And he did. Though he did not become a secondary character, he became what I shall call a tertiary character, and became important to me and to the others in the book. How did he arrive?
In my second book, The Moon Below, in my outline and about two thirds of the way through the book my heroine was going to end up with a doctor, whom she had loved for years. He was not her husband. Her husband had left her, to try to sell wool in England, half the world away and was gone for five years. I loved that doctor. But my heavens, after the husband returned from England he did unexpected things that made me start to fall in love with him. Well, if I was falling in love with him, my heroine had to too. What to do about the doctor? None of this confusion had been in my mind as I started the book. How the hell, I mean what on earth, made me start falling in love with the husband and thus upsetting the last third of the book.
I had to mentally rewrite my outline (the original was on the desk of my publisher in New York City). The book ended up being not at all what I set out to write.
In my next book about China, I was two thirds of the way through it when friends, a couple in my new town of Ajijic, Mexico, and a friend visiting from California, and I went to the coast for four days in December of 1990, my first Mexican Christmas. Bill, of the couple, had heard me griping that I had writer’s block, I couldn’t figure how to go on. So one night as we sat out on the balcony in the balmy evening air he said, “Okay, tell me the story so far.” I said no, I couldn’t do that. It was involved and no one could help me anyhow. He said, “Try me. We have nothing else to do.” So in about 20 minutes I caught them up to date. He said, “Oh, easy. She’s a dove. Doesn’t believe in killing for any reason. So you have to have her kill someone.
“Next, the bandit kidnaps her from a train in the first third of the book. He does not think women have very good minds and they are below him and he would certainly never give his life for a woman. Well, what you have to do at the end is have him rescue her from a train so it’s full circle and he dies trying to save her, giving his life for a woman.”
I stared at him. How had he done that so easily? How could I put his words into a complex plot? Right after Christmas I followed all his suggestions and it was, again, not the book I started out to write, but far better.
It takes months, sometimes as many as 9 months (like actually giving birth) for my characters to gradually come to life. It’s odd how often the color of their eyes change. On page 9 they have blue eyes and on page 311 they have brown ones. It’s like pulling teeth and sometimes the agony connected with that to fully realize a character. Then, by golly, she goes off and does something so unexpected I sit and think, okay, now that’s she’s done that I’ll have to change the entire direction she’s going. And the story I thought I was telling suddenly veers away to a new direction I hadn’t planned.
Years ago I read Shirley MacLaine’s Out on a Limb. She’s written several autobiographical books. I like Shirley, but when it came to channeling, I thought, “Oh, Shirley, come off it.” She claimed that in Peru, high in the Andes, something or someone from the past channeled ideas through her that were relevant to her life or maybe our lives. It happened again when she was visiting Sweden. I thought she was a bit off, somewhat quirky I thought, perhaps too kindly.
But, my goodness, there I was channeling. I found myself sitting at my desk in Ajijic, Mexico, and I knew I was writing, but I was in a trance. I was in Shanghai, not a place to which I’d actually been, but I saw it and described it and felt that I was watching a little TV screen and simply writing down what I saw and heard. When I finished the chapter I sat back and sighed with satisfaction. Then I looked around and realized I was in my bedroom in Ajijic. I was not in the China I had been to but moments before.
I went and got some iced tea and came back and printed out what I’d written and took it and the tea out on the porch to read. I shook my head. I had not written that. Who had? Of course I’m sane enough to know that I really had written it, I had hit the keys and put the letters on the screen, printed it on the paper I had just read, but I swear I had not written it. And then I understood Shirley. I had been channeled. I simply do not know where it came from.
That has happened to me time and again. Sometimes I have to force the writing. Sometimes I have to drag the characters onto the page, force them to do the things I have planned for them. But often, at least half the time, I sit in trances, for I see and hear my characters talk and think and move. They are as real to me as....well, more real to me than real really is.
The main character is heroic, she grows to noble heights. She has great lovers, men who really and truly love her and who also happen to be great, inventive lovers, who take her to great heights, both physically and emotionally. Note I say lovers. I always have two and often three in a book. They are men as I’d like them to be. They are men I wished I’d had.
I go to countries where I want to spend time. Except for one book they have been warm countries because I want to spend the nine to twelve months it takes me to write a book in warm climates. And when I write about those countries I am there. I do not pretend that I am there. I am.
However, I am fickle. When I am through with the characters I discard them, quite completely. Can’t even remember their names a few years later, don’t recognize them even if someone mentions them. I have gone on to a new love affair and there’s nothing much deader than a dead love affair (if you are the one who has said goodbye, that is).
Visit Barbara's Website
Do your characters speak to you?
Well, I wouldn’t say I hear voices in the back of my head, but I do usually have a batch of characters on my mind. When I initially think of a character, it takes another week (at the very least, and depending on what I’m working on) for me to develop them and understand them enough to write down their story.
What is the funniest thing you have heard from one of your characters?
I’m always surprised by my characters. What they say, what they do, and how they change. Oftentimes I say that my characters are wittier than I am, and it’s the truth. To some degree, it’s not me making this stuff up, it’s them. Call it subconscious, call it weird, call it crazy, but when I write, I am handing the reins over to the characters—I’m just along for the ride.
What is the most memorable thing one has said?
In my new novel, my character Elise is bold and direct in her dialogue, and I like that. However, the most memorable moments with Elise are the places where she softens and becomes a little more vulnerable. There’s a scene where she does this with another character, Ryan, about halfway through the book. I love seeing my characters change and grow, and Elise’s development was evident in this scene.
Who is your favorite character?
I don’t like to pick favorites, but if I had to, I’d pick Orson from my upcoming novel (stay tuned!). He was given reign over some conquered territory from his father as a way to keep Orson busy in the shadow of his powerful older brother. After going through abuse and witnessing the suicide of his wife, Orson falls into a depression that slowly eats away at his sanity and eventually his mind seeks refuge in an alternate personality called Odell.
Exploring the mind of such a complicated character was fascinating. Yet thinking of him in a different light, not so much from the writer’s perspective but from my perspective as a person, I have a certain sympathy and curiosity for him.
Who is your least favorite character?
I don’t think I could ever venture to dislike a character and this is why: When I write about a character, I know their motivation—the reason they think what they think and do what they do. This means that I feel sympathy and understanding even in a character who makes bad decisions.
Characteristics that you admire in a character?
Their uniqueness. They are all individuals and they all struggle and make mistakes and do the best they can in light of the challenges they are presented with. Simply put, I admire them for them.
Pet peeves about a character?
I’d like to say that my characters bother me sometimes, but I can’t! In fact, when they say things that surprise me or do things that are unplanned (even if it causes the story to be more complicated) the writing experience is just that more spontaneous and fun. I don’t want my entire book to be planned before I write it, I’d rather explore and uncover things as I go.
Nicole J. Persun started her professional writing career at the age of sixteen with her young adult novel, A Kingdom’s Possession, which was a finalist for ForeWord Magazine’s Book of the Year Award. Aside from novels, Nicole has had short stories, flash fiction, poetry, and essays published in a handful of literary journals. Her inspiration is drawn from the latest studies and findings in biology, astronomy, archaeology, psychology, and any other form of scientific, historical, or artistic discovery. She often speaks at libraries, writer’s groups, and writer’s conferences across the country. Currently getting a degree in creative writing, Nicole lives in Washington State. For more information, visit Nicole’s website at: www.nicolejpersun.com.
The Author in all of us
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