Friday, April 20, 2018

Story, Character, and Setting


Grain Elevators, Newton, Kansas"The Cathedrals of the Plains"




How do you establish a story, its characters, and setting?

This has become a tortuous process for my latest book. It began when I came back from the mystery conference Bouchercon last year. I wanted to start a new novel, and wanted a time and a character that resonated with me and might be of interest to a general readership. I write mostly mysteries or suspense, so the genre was given.  But I had no ideas. Nary a one.  One day I sat down with the Bouchercon program and looked at what every single author was writing.  Not many Midwestern settings.  Amish, but no Mennonites!  I noticed this because my mother came from a Mennonite family in Kansas. 
Research tools. Sometimes just a sentence will do.
Doodled around a bit.  Texted my agent:  what do you think about a story set in Kansas in 1953 with a 40-year-old Mennonite widow who solves a murder?  
"I could sell it tomorrow," she said.  
Wow and double-wow! 
I got busy and wrote the first chapter.  It was set in my uncle's restaurant.  I visited Kansas a lot a a kid and thought (erroneously) that this was something I could write off the top of my head.  So wrong.  But there was worse to come. 
Next time I talked to my agent I mentioned the story again and 1953.  She said something to the effect of "God, no! You have to set it in the present day. Or at least two time periods."  
Yikes. 
I found and read a book set in two time periods, kind of a mystery, and liked it.  I found instructions on how to use this book as a template for any book set in two time periods.  It seemed do-able. Also a huge amount of work. 
In the meantime, I discovered I could not write the book off the top of my head.  What you see and observe and understand as a kid  is not what an adult would take in.  No siree Bob! 
The next thing I knew I was landing in a terrible crosswind at the Wichita, Kansas airport with a new IPad, lots of names and addresses, and a week's work.  
Before I left, I connected with the Mennonite church in Boston.  They were most welcoming and had two elderly gentlemen who knew a lot about what I needed to know, because the Mennonite church had changed a lot since the 50's and 60's.  I had a list of people to talk to, bookstores, museums, historical societies.  Intimidating.  
The Harvey County Historical Society 

 I stayed at a truckstop (with some rooms) in Newton, Kansas and went to work.  Everyone helpful, giving me leads to other helpful people.  Wherever I went, if it was a non-profit, I gave a donation.  Met up with my cousin. Visited four cemeteries. 
Newton Cemetry  Great-great grandfather. 
Got lost looking for three.  In Newton, a monument carver directed me to a family grave. 

 Kansas is flat, but I was always turned around.  The last day I discovered my car had a compass. 
 By now I had my Mennonite widow and her backstory and my current time characters (the widow's granddaughter) and her backstory.  It can be crazy how a single sentence from childhood can bloom into something big. "Doc Brenneman and his family are back from Africa." A Mennonite doctor had taken his family on missionary work in Africa. My 1953 character went to the Belgian Congo as a missionary. It colored her entire life.  Made her more interesting, and more independent than most women of her time.  Research books began to pile up.
Mask from the Belgian Congo.  Kaufmann Museum, North Newton, Kansas

I dug out the family tree. Only half of my mom's family came from the Mennonites.  The other half was Canadian French and they had their own history. Which I am milking for all it's worth. I keep finding  telling details. Country school houses, the family dogs. I know what songs were popular. Also uncovering more about the young woman of today. But sometimes it's like pulling teeth. And then I get an idea.
I returned to the Mennonite church and thanked everyone. They are amazing people and so good.  Proud to be descended from them. I am currently writing about the wheat harvest (a big part of both stories.)  Learning more about this process than I ever dreamed of.  
Wheat field on the Great Plains - Kansas 

Research, research, research!  What plants grow on the banks of streams?  What birds?  What critters?  (Eeek!  lots of snakes).  What is the real prairie like?  The plains?  Food?  Clothes?  Mores?  Details.  More details.  

I know my characters now and the setting, and every chapter I learn more about them.  Lizzie and Beth.  The plot is laid out in scenes.  I'm writing each woman separately, and then I'll have to figure how to interleave the chapters.  Lots of work ahead.  But I'm game. 

Hesston College and an old store- back in the day when my  Mom was a girl.


These writers always have something intriguing to say about writing: 
Take a look!


Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea
Dr. Bob https://wp.me/p3Xihq-1eg
A.J. Maguire  http://ajmaguire.wordpress.com/
Marci Baun  http://www.marcibaun.com/blog/
Beverley Bateman http://beverleybateman.blogspot.ca/
Margaret Fieland http://margaretfieland.wordpress.com
Connie Vines http://mizging.blogspot.com/
Rhobin L Courtright http://www.rhobinleecourtright.com

5 comments:

Skyewriter said...

What an amazing adventure writing that story became. A trip into the past, meeting some of your ancestors and finding your characters along the way.

Rhobin Lee Courtright said...

Wow, Judith, that is quite a journey you took to discover your characters and setting! I have been through something similar but not in such a short time. Yet you learned more about your family, too! The story sounds interesting.

Marci Baun said...

Wow! It does sounds like a lot of work, but fascinating. How long does your average book take you to write? My current WIP is going on two years now. I wish I could visit the places I'm writing about. :)

Bob Rich said...

Judy, I found this fascinating. The story of how I wrote this story was worth reading as a kind of adventure in it own right.

Connie Vines said...

Judy, Your research resulted in a very interesting plot. I know I never read a Mennonite story-line before. Thanks for letting me share your writing journey.