Do You Have a Moment?
June 12, 2018
Those are what find their way into my novels.
I’m frequently asked if my characters are based on real people. Of course, the occasional characteristic or physical trait of a friend or acquaintance might end up in one of my books, but for the most part, no. One of the joys of fiction-writing is to create a person from whole cloth, endowing the character with a decidedly unique set of DNA.
But moments. . . Those I collect like precious stones as people cross my path, and they occasionally do make the cut. They’re the moments I can’t shake from my mind for one reason or another, no matter how much time passes. They resonate. They haunt. They inform. They encapsulate in a single anecdote a lifetime of wisdom, or angst, or perspective, or all of the above.
For instance, there’s the assault victim who shared with me that after her ordeal, her rapist muttered contemptuously, “Go clean yourself up.” That detail — so cruel, so searing — found its way into the rape scene of my young-adult novel, “Thirty Sunsets.”
Other such moments are less shocking but equally impactful in their own way. For instance, a friend had casually described her father through the years as quiet, reserved, undemonstrative. But it was an offhand story she once shared that made me truly know and understand him. She said she was riding in the passenger seat as a child when her door flew open in the middle of the interstate. Her father calmly reached over and shut it, never uttering a word and barely taking his eyes off the road. I thought the moment, which I borrowed for my tween novel, “The Right-Under Club,” demonstrated the essence of his strength, his stoicism, his unspoken adoration for his daughter.
I also remember my mom telling me about a woman who visited her during a childhood illness, promising in great and elaborate detail the doll she promised to bring upon her return visit. The doll never materialized, and my mom spoke of the incident decades later with disappointment and disillusionment as fresh as when it happened. It was no doubt a throwaway moment for the well-intended lady, but one that burrowed into my mom’s psyche — and burrowed in another iteration into one of my novels.
The moments I collect needn’t have gravitas. They simply linger in my memory bank for one reason or another. In my young-adult novel, “Then I Met My Sister,” I had fun recreating the disapproving bark of a grandfather asking a dinner guest, “What kind of name is Gibs?” as if owed an acceptable explanation.
The mom in the same novel who does a quick double-take after walking away from her daughter’s computer screen to confirm wholesome surfing is an homage to the countless parents like myself who navigated the then-unpaved path of raising children in the computer age.
So yes, my characters inhabit their own skin, their own pasts, their own experiences. But certain moments. . .
Well, like the treasured stones I compare them to, some are just too transcendent to discard.