Recently I’ve been struggling with how to create a distinctive voice for my maternal grandfather, who is at the heart of the novel I’m working on. I’ve taken a new approach this last week, and I hope to learn in a few days whether I’m on the right track.
Developing characters that readers will care about is a challenge for all writers, but it’s a particular challenge for someone like me who has no experience writing fiction. I’m accustomed to dealing with facts (imagine that) and building stories or arguments around people’s experiences or opinions. In most cases, I have the luxury of interviewing the individuals involved, listening to them, teasing out the details that will make their stories resonate.
While I now know many facts about my grandfather’s life, thanks primarily to my good friend and consummate researcher Chuck Camp, I have no idea really what he was like: what he did in his free time, what made him laugh, what demons he battled, what motivated him to make the choices he did. That’s where the “fiction” comes in. I also have no family stories to rely on and no photos. In many ways, he’s still a mystery, and it’s my job to bring him to life on the page. That’s a tall order for a novice.
Interestingly, I stumbled rather easily into a voice for his fourth wife, Effie Mae, who inserts her point-of-view in the narrative. (My grandmother was his first wife, at least as far as we know.) Chuck had uncovered substantial information about Effie, and that helped me imagine who she was and what she was like. Whether she was easier for me to create because she’s female, because her background is very distinct, or because I have no familial connection to her is hard to decipher. Perhaps it’s just that her life, fascinating as it was, seems more straightforward and easier to untangle than my grandfather’s. Her choices are easier to understand.
Giving voice to an ancestor is a daunting proposition. Of course, I’m creating a fictional representation of my grandfather, and that technically frees me to create the most compelling Lyons Board that I can. On the other hand, his story as we understand it is both highly peculiar and universal, as any good story is, and I really want to do that story justice. Meanwhile, the more I dig and the more I ponder what led him down the paths he chose, the more I recognize that I have his blood. At times it’s almost eerie how similar we seem.
So I’ll keep plugging. Writing is a process, and for me that process involves a steep learning curve. But I’m eager to share his story with others, and I hope that will motivate me to wrestle with every obstacle that threatens to silence its voicing.