How do you come up with your characters?
Guest Blog by Sheryn MacMunn
One of the questions that people ask when I mention that I’ve written a novel is “How do you come up with your characters?” Readers of Finding Out especially ask how I created the character, Ruth.
Ruth is the person that people seem to love. It makes sense. Ruth is Sheila's savior with common sense advice and, let's face it, she always has food! So I wanted to share how this wonderful character found her way into the story.
While I was writing Finding Out, I was stuck on a certain storyline. Sheila needed to figure out her love life, and I wanted her to go on a date. But when I wrote the scene, it wouldn’t work. It was as if Sheila was rebelling because she didn’t want to be on the date. It was very frustrating. So I went to a two-day writer’s workshop at my local library and asked the fellow writers what to do. That's when someone suggested using someone else's romance to teach Sheila about love. I instantly had a breakthrough.
In my life, I had three strong female role models (in addition to my mother) who gave me advice about life. My Nana, Virginia; my Grammy, Rose; and my good friend, Ruth with whom I worked for years. Each of these women lived through the depression and WWII so whenever I had a problem, they always seemed to have the most perfect advice, especially about relationships.
By the time I was writing Finding Out, each of these amazing women had passed away, and I missed each of them terribly. I can truly say that I think of them every day. I was lucky to have spent hours talking with each of them over many meals, on the phone, and in letters. As a result, they live in my heart.
So, I decided to combine the best of each woman to create the 'fairy godmother' for Sheila.
From Virginia (who has a character named after her), I chose her sense of style and dressmaking. In our family, the dresses were always handmade and received many compliments. Virginia was also an amazing cook. Every Sunday we went to her house, or another family member's, for homemade Italian cooking. The character, Senita Scalese, is also a good cook and is named after my great-grandmother.
From Ruth, I chose to create the storyline about WWII. Ruth was held in Germany during the war. For her, the stories that she told were like many others so she didn't dwell on it. I did a lot of research for the WWII segment of the story, including contacting some survivors of the war who were hidden as children. I also included Ruth's relationship advice about dating and marriage.
From Rose, I took some of her greatest quotes of all time, such as "Your education has been neglected." I heard that phrase when I didn't know a piece of history or the different patterns on Spode china. The red couch in the story (and the image on the book cover) also represents my Grammy because she had a red velvet couch in her home. The last time I was with her, I looked at that couch as I walked out the door and thought of all the memories that couch held. I didn't know that would be the last I would see my grandmother alive.
All three women also had careers that were fulfilling and gave them great pride. Each was married for many decades and put their families first, which gave me the basis to be the person I am today.
They were truly from the 'greatest generation,' and I am so thankful for their wisdom. I’m also grateful that I reached out to other writers for advice and took their suggestions. Writing a novel is like taking a trip to a foreign land. You need to have a plan but sometimes, if you go off the beaten path, you can uncover something wonderful and unexpected.
About the book:
Getting dumped on the sidewalk by her live-in boyfriend of seven years and realizing that he nearly emptied their savings account is the first of Sheila Davenport's problems. At thirty-six, Sheila had thought her life was on track. But life no longer makes sense. Now she's saddled with a mortgage that's about to skyrocket, a psychotic boss, and a new employee who is unqualified and hell-bent on messing with the company's rules.
Her friends advise her to date immediately, preferably someone rich and successful, or risk being old and alone. But Sheila needs to figure out what went wrong and how she got to this place. Since Prince Charming has ruined Sheila's life, who can save her now?
Help comes unexpectedly from her elderly neighbor, Ruth Grey, who has had her own share of ups and downs. As their friendship grows, Ruth reveals her deeply moving story of survival in WWII Germany. Ruth's mesmerizing past is a powerful tale of love and revenge that provides the perspective Sheila desperately needs to put the pieces of her own life back together.
Will Sheila succeed at work or walk away? Can she save her home? And why do her friends think they have it any better?
A story of love found and lost, true friendship, and how the human spirit endures.
Interview with Sheryn MacMunnHow long have you been writing, and how did you start?
In the second grade, a teacher told me I "just wasn't a good writer." Which stuck with me for years. I had always dreamed of writing a book but didn't think I was good enough. When I met my husband, he encouraged me to follow my dream and handed me a notebook and pen. I had no idea how to 'start' a novel, though I had the novel plot in my head. There were many false starts as I stared at a blank page in terror. I even tried recording the story on a cassette (this was right before smartphones came onto the market). It was terrifying!
Thank goodness for your husband! That's wonderful that he believed in you and encouraged you. What do you like best about writing?
The best part about writing is that it takes me on a journey. The characters take over and bring me into their worlds and start to tell me their stories. Sometimes I will finish a scene and am startled to find that I am sitting in my kitchen and not in Germany or New York!
What’s your least favorite thing?
My least favorite thing is editing. It takes a village to get a book to be properly edited. Then I found my extraordinary editor, Merry Hayes who tied up all the loose ends and grammatical mistakes. It was then that I realized how critical an editor is to the writing process.
How did you come up with the title of your book?
Finding Out came to me because Sheila is finding out about the secrets in her life, how to rebuild her life, and she’s finding out about Ruth’s story. I had played with a few other titles along the way but nothing else captured the essence of the story, which is the importance of finding out who we really are.
Do you have another job outside of writing?
Yes, I work in ad sales.
Do you outline, write by the seat of your pants, or let your characters tell you what to write?
That’s a great question. I had written an outline for the novel, then I got stuck because the character of Sheila wouldn’t do what I wanted her to do. I thought I was doing something wrong, so I took a writing course and the instructor told me that I was lucky because when a character takes the lead, the story is really telling itself. But I was still stuck on the storyline because it no longer made sense since Sheila decided to go in a different direction. As an example, I had tried to write a scene where Sheila goes on a date but she just wouldn't speak. What I mean by that is whenever her date (a very cute Brit, I might add) asked a question, I couldn't think of a response to write. It was as if I watched the character sit like a lump on a log, nervous and uncomfortable. I really felt bad for her. Like she was a friend on a bad date.
After talking to a few writers, I learned that this is a great thing because my character was telling me the story. So I learned to listen to 'Sheila' and tell HER story and let the other characters develop on their own, too. I decided to join a few writing groups and discussed the situation with some fellow writers. That’s when my friend, Victoria, came up with the idea for a secondary storyline. It was an Oprah ‘Aha’ moment. I knew immediately that Sheila needed help from someone like Ruth and then the story took off from there.
I know this is an unfair question, but do you have a favorite of your characters?
Ruth is my favorite character because she is an amalgam of my two grandmothers and a good friend, also named Ruth who was much older than I. I created Ruth by using the best of all three of these ladies and some of the advice that Ruth gives to Sheila is advice that I received in my lifetime. Both of my grandmothers and Ruth have passed away so writing this character was a way to keep them alive and with me forever.
I keep a running list of possible names. How do you name your characters?
When the book was finished, I went back through the pages and made sure that the character names matched the personalities that had emerged. It was fun. I even used online name dictionaries. So here is a list of a few characters and how they got their names. I couldn't put all the definitions because it would give away the storyline, so if you have questions feel free to reach out.
Sheila Davenport - In Australia, Sheila is a nickname for all girls. By the time I was finished with Finding Out, I realized that Sheila's story is one for all women. We want to be loved, we want good friends in our lives, and we want to be able to take care of ourselves when things go bad. Sheila is the person who is good and true, but needs a little help. 'Davenport' actually means a safe haven, which is what Sheila is trying to find and trying to be for her friends and co-workers. She sticks up for co-workers when things go wrong and agrees to be maid of honor though her heart is breaking. She's the kind of person you can trust.
Ruth - I decided on the name 'Ruth' because it means friend, which perfectly defines the spirit of this character.
Baxter DeVry - Baxter got his name because it sounds like 'backstabber' and DeVry seems devilish.
Paul Lynch - the name Paul means 'small' and he's a little man in height and integrity.
Crystal - A friend's wife is named Crystal, and I just loved the name. For the character (who is nothing like my friend's wife), it was the perfect name because a Crystal is sparkling and beautiful but also cold with hard edges.
Alessandra - means defending men which is what Alessandra is all about. Plus it is just a sexy name. Made me think of her as a lioness - who would kill and eat you ;-)
Eliza - a variation of my good friend's name: 'Elisa.' She's someone you can rely on 100%.
König - means King which is how I saw Ruth's family. With all they go through, they keep soldiering on with grace and dignity.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
When I’m not writing, I enjoy spending time with my children. They are still young enough to appreciate having me around, and I just love watching them grow and develop every day. They are at an age now where traveling is really easy, so we’re looking to do more of that in the coming year. Other than that, I work full time, but if I am able to make writing my full time job, I plan to learn tennis.
If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?
Paris. I have always wanted to live in Europe and Paris is just so romantic. I would love to live there.
What are you working on now?
So many people have contacted me begging to know more about Ruth that I decided to write a sequel. This will take place in the year after Finding Out ends, and we’ll learn more about Ruth’s life after WWII and uncover the secret to some of the mysteries in Finding Out.
I can't wait to hear more about it. And thanks for giving us a look into Finding Out and how it came about.
About the author:Sheryn MacMunn self-published her debut novel, Finding Out, in April 2012. It became an Amazon best-seller in two months, hitting the Contemporary Women and Contemporary Fiction list. Finding Out then hit best-seller status in the Single Women, Friendship, Romance, and Love & Romance categories as well. In addition to being a self-published author, Sheryn works full-time in Mobile ad sales. Sheryn attended University of Massachusetts, Lowell and received her MBA from Simmons College School of Management. She now lives in Connecticut with her family. Visit www.sherynmacmunn.com for more information.
Connect with Sheryn:
Website / Blog / Facebook / Goodreads / Twitter
Buy the book:
Amazon / Barnes & Noble