Sewing machine and scraps of blue

Mad in Pursuit Notebook

When Book Characters Get Real [Writing Life]

28 June 2023. 2017 was a year of mysteries and challenges. I had gone from a condo-dwelling rationalist to an awestruck would-be mystic on Lake Ontario’s raw edge. 

Subscribe to get my newsletterThis newfound intimacy with nature enchanted me. I nurtured patches of moss. Made dandelion wine. Spiced up my salads with wild wood sorrel. Discovered the folk medicine uses of over fifty plants growing on our property. Made therapeutic salves from plantain, comfrey, yarrow, St. John's wort, and goldenrod. 

Indoors, I found new meaning in Jim’s Asian and African art collections as I set up displays against the backdrop of weeds-turned-magical-herbs and night winds as voice-of-God.

I wanted to write about this adventure of the mind but struggled.

High winds kept ripping the shingles off our roof. Spring brought flooding and Lake Ontario began eating away our shoreline. 

My mood turned from mystical to mystified. 

Jim was there by my side, of course, still able-bodied, but the dementia crippled his conversation and fogged his ability to think things through. I was deep in an esoteric hole with no one to work it all through with me.

I had given up on the power of prayer long ago. But that summer of 2017 I needed… something.

I had an insight: religion has its pantheons of gods and saints to call upon. I had lost my faith in the power of saints, but how about a set of deeply realized fictional characters? Years before, I took a weekend course in shamanic journeying. As the drumming relaxed me, I conferred with spirit guides and other beings. Oh, I thought at the time, this is just like writing a novel! The shaman could argue for supernatural encounters, but I knew this phenomenon as imagination.

I had my characters. 

Some characters had been with me for years. "Jackson" and "Dan" presented themselves in a murder mystery plot, circa 1987. "Nellie" joined them a couple of years later in a suspense tale about the international art market. That “trinity” kept me company for a decade. I conferred with them all hours of night and day, and they shared their perspectives with me in so many circumstances and situations. What would Nellie do, right?

In 2010, Nellie came back in a sequel to PASSION AND PERIL ON THE SILK ROAD. Working title: THE COLLECTOR'S APPRENTICE. Jackson was dead and she was alone, in winter, sorting through his collections, reconnecting with Dan halfway around the world.

As a novel, it was a mess. No plot. Just an episodic ramble about art and grief.

In 2014, I took another stab at it–abandoning the idea of a sequel, giving the characters new names, new backgrounds, tasking them with finding a plot. Nothing.

In 2015, I merged the original premise with a futuristic setting in the manuscript ROCKTROPOLIS, and gave the lead to yet another character. It too fizzled.

Then, in the summer of 2017, as I struggled to write and grappled with the power of nature, Nellie reappeared. 

I retraced my false starts back to the original “Nellie” version of APPRENTICE. And there I was, with a companion I knew inside and out. I understood her love for Jackson. I understood her curiosity and her stubborn drive. She wasn’t me. She was cleverer and bolder than me.

On August 15, 2017, I began writing her story again.

Not for publication. Just for me. I reread the crazy, disorganized chapters, then let the words flow. Our conversation rebooted, I went to bed that night feeling peaceful.

I wrote this to show how an author might fall in love with her characters and how characters might escape the confines of a book to keep an author company, much like how religious person might walk with the beings who populate her sacred texts.

I have more on this topic—a strange twist. But that’ll have to wait till next time.

Meanwhile, how about you? Are there characters from books who became real to you, whether or not you invented them? Write me!


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Books from Mad in Pursuit and Susan Barrett Price: KITTY'S PEOPLE: the Irish Family Saga about the Rise of a Generous Woman (2022)| HEADLONG: Over the Edge in Pakistan and China (2018) | THE SUDDEN SILENCE: A Tale of Suspense and Found Treasure (2015) | TRIBE OF THE BREAKAWAY BEADS: Book of Exits and Fresh Starts (2011) | PASSION AND PERIL ON THE SILK ROAD: A Thriller in Pakistan and China (2008). Available at Amazon.