The creation of my characters happens in fits and starts. The protagonists have conversations or I see snatches of action that illustrate what’s grabbing me about the story. Eventually these moments accumulate so I have an impression of their overall motivations. Like the first square in an afghan, once that color and pattern is established, I can build out from there.
In the Ireland book, one of the key players has died before the book begins. Hazel Rose Green emigrated to the United States from Ireland in the 1950s and passed off her daughter as her niece. She successfully kept the secret from her granddaughter Julie but didn’t count on family in Ireland wanting to get back in touch. Hazel’s sister wants to leave the family house to a relative, and Julie is it. In the process of sorting out the estate, Julie finds out about the deception and has to rethink what she thought she knew about her family.
So Hazel is gone for the action of the novel, but her actions and motivations are what put it in motion. Julie finds herself in a position many of us have been in: wishing she knew more about an elderly relative who has passed away, wishing she’d asked more questions while she’d had the chance.
Hazel cut herself off from her family and never looked back, which is part of my interest in her—this trait is completely the opposite of my grandmother. Being “not what I know,” though, it was a wrestling match to get her on the page.
Then I ran across my grandmother’s school yearbooks. She grew up during the Depression, a situation that was compounded by the fact that her grandfather had run off with the family money (near as I can tell, he was entertaining a series of younger and younger wives). In the photos in her school yearbooks, my grandmother stands out. The other girls are wearing twin sets and pearls, their hair in neat buns. She wears a coat over what I imagine were old clothes getting older. Her collar is turned up and a wave of black hair has fallen loose over her forehead.
My grandmother was trying to live a past that her family no longer had the funds for; Hazel wanted to leave her past behind. Both women succeeded in spades, and now I had my image: someone who lands on their feet with such flair you’re not sure they fell.
In the novel, Hazel has left no traces, no old photos or letters explaining herself. Grandniece/granddaughter Julie has to find other ways to get a glimpse of Hazel as a young woman—and so did I.