Our question for this week is, “Have you used something that happened to you in real life in any of your stories? Did you change it at all?”
I’ve often remarked that each of my female protagonists shares something with me, whether it’s a hobby, a strong belief, or an experience. So, when I sat down to write this week’s post, I made a list of events that made it into my stories – and it became a long one. So, for those of you accustomed to my shorter posts, please forgive me. I tend to avoid scrolling through long-windedness, too. But here’s my list.
Let’s start with my profession: teaching music. For much of that time, I taught elementary age students, and part of that job entailed putting on Christmas programs each year. And while my daughters were in grade school, I led the children’s choir, so I helped put on programs there too. Christmas Wishes and Christmas Journey both drew heavily on those experiences. In the first book, young Sophie Gardner dealt with troublesome and uncooperative students (one of my reviewers referred to it as “cat-herding”) while learning what young children are capable of. Then in the sequel, Helen DeGroot deals with older students who didn’t really want to be involved in a Christmas pageant. In both cases, I included actual events and dialogue, but simply changed names. Another character who taught music was the male protagonist in The Friendship Star Quilt. Brad Carmichael is a high school band director, the sort of leader I’d imagined myself becoming when I studied instrumental music as an undergraduate. Some of the events in this book are based on things I experienced as a student and during my time student teaching – plotting out marching routines, designing costumes for auxiliary units (flag corps, rifle corps, etc), and dealing with the endless personal issues that crop up in high school groups.
I also spent twelve years teaching in a regular elementary classroom, so I learned a lot of tricks for helping students learn to read and write. That came in handy when I wrote The Partridge and the Peartree. Lady Amelia Partridge dedicated herself to teaching the poor children in London whose families could not afford to send them to a proper school or hire a tutor. I did a lot of research to find out what kinds of materials were used in Regency England, but some of the other activities – reading aloud to students, and reminding them of good manners, for example – were things I did as an elementary teacher. Then, in Two Tutor Doves, Jeanne employs some of the techniques I used in my first grade classrooms for teaching students how to form their letters, such as tracing them in the air, in the sand, and identifying them on signs.
Since my normal routine includes participating in musical groups, I’ve had a few characters who played instruments. In Love’s Refrain, both Laura and Andrew are amateur musicians. I’m currently working on a story in which the female protagonist is an orchestra musician, studying in New York City. I’m drawing from my experiences as a college student, but this character is a violinist rather than an oboist. I have several good friends who are very helpful when it comes to violin technique, but the scenes that take place during orchestra rehearsals include compositions and conversations that I’ve experienced.
I may have mentioned that I like to sew. Before world events required us to stay apart, I met twice a month with ladies at my church to make quilts for hospitals, the Veterans’ Home, and various shelters. The Calico Heart and The Friendship Star Quilt both include ladies who meet regularly to sew quilts. The ladies are of various ages, professions, and experiences, but they share a love for their craft and each other. I did change a few things when creating the ladies in The Stitching Post series. First, these ladies meet at a quilt shop rather than at church. Second, these ladies all work on their own projects rather than the assembly line process at my church, and our quilts are all donated. And third, many of us see each other only on quilting days – although several of us would go out for lunch afterward. But the many of the interactions between the quilters did actually happen as described. Another part of The Friendship Star Quilt that I drew from personal experience was when Anne sews flags for the local marching band. When my daughters were in their high school marching band, I joined the moms who created the flags and costumes for the color guard. Knowing the process behind those tasks made it easier to add action to the scenes when Anne and her quilting friends help supply the local high school band with the flags and costumes they need.
About a half dozen of my stories are set here in Michigan, and that helps me describe the setting through the things that happen. I know what it’s like to drive through a heavy snowstorm, so the driving scenes in The Christmas Phoenix were based on some of the trials I’ve experienced, including sliding down an icy hill and nearly hitting another car at the bottom, feeling cocooned in my car as I drove alone, and turning into the wrong driveway. I earned my master’s degree by commuting to a university about an hour away, so I described that drive and some of the challenges of doing it in the fall, during deer hunting season in Autumn Vows (a short story in the Autumn’s Kiss anthology).
Other stories are set in places where I was fortunate enough to spend time. Going to Japan helped me understand some of the rituals and customs of the characters in The Samurai’s Garden. My trip to Greece gave me an authentic taste of the foods that Alex cooks in Aegean Intrigue. Also, the drive that Francine and the other archaeologists take around the island echoes the road trip my friend Rose and I took around the perimeter of Paros. During a week-long vacation in Wildwood, New Jersey I actually strolled on the boardwalk, like the characters in Searching for Lady Luck. I’ve traveled to England twice, so I was familiar with the settings for several of my regency romances, although I had to do a lot of research to discover what these places were like over two hundred years ago. Fortunately, the internet gives me access to floor plans and maps from that period.
There’s a saying that appears on t-shirts, mugs, and online memes: “I’m a writer. Be careful, or I may kill you in my next book.” I don’t write murder mysteries, but I do tend to have my characters take situations that I’ve bungled and handle them in a way that I wish I had. It’s sort of a do-over. Your characters are always more clever, more talented, and more of the person you wish you could be. At least they are in my experience.