BLOG: Building Backstory
Updated: Oct 2, 2021
[Note: This is the third in a series of blogs exploring the characters, writing process, and behind the scenes of THOUGHTS & PRAYERS.]
Thoughts and Prayers is not a novel or a topic I would have ever written on my own. When my co-authors and I discussed potential characters, I knew I couldn’t write from a teen’s point of view, but I was immediately drawn to Charmaine.
Charmaine Robinson could be your next-door neighbor. She and her husband Alex, both African-Americans in their 20s, are just starting out in their careers. She’s an emergency room nurse, and he’s a guidance counselor at the local high school. They both like their work and feel like they are making a contribution to their community, where they moved when Alex got his first job offer. They live in a rented townhouse and dream of buying their own home after their student loans are paid off. Married three years, they’re still honeymooners madly in love. On alternate Sundays, they visit her parents or his; both sets of parents are pressuring them for a grandchild.
Here’s how I imagine Charmaine’s backstory. She was in grade school when Columbine took place, but wasn’t aware of it. Her parents shielded her from bad news as much as they could. With two older brothers, Charmaine never became a girly-girl, but not a tomboy either. She’s down-to-earth and not frivolous. The best student in the family, she earned a degree in nursing.
She met her husband at a sorority/fraternity mixer her sophomore year in college. He was a junior, almost six feet tall and athletic. Love at first sight. Neither dated anyone else after that. They married the summer after she graduated.
With her RN in hand, Charmaine easily got a job as a nurse in the local hospital and after two years, transferred to the ER. She liked the pace and challenges of the ER and being part of a team that cared for patients. She wasn’t the least bit squeamish about some of the yukkier aspects of her job.
Most of her college friends had scattered all over the country, but they kept in touch via Facebook. She and Alex easily got along with their co-workers and neighbors, but there was no one locally she considered a best friend. Between school and work, family obligations and marriage, she never had the time to become a political activist, and nothing had happened to her personally to motivate activism.
She was optimistic about the future and strongly believed that all of her and Alex’s hard work would pay off, as it had for their parents. That’s how I saw Charmaine when I began to write her scenes.
My writing process is intuitive. I don’t outline. I don’t consult checklists. I don’t analyze. Instead, I imagine the woman I’ve just described here. I try to get in touch with her emotionally. How do her feelings influence her actions? What does she think about what she is experiencing? How does she relate to those around her? I draw upon my own experiences and those of people I’ve known. Then I sit down at my computer to write. The challenge is to convey her feelings clearly and simply without melodrama, because that allows readers to bring their own emotions to the story.
When the process works, the words just come. Sometimes I feel like a medium channeling a ghost. Ideas appear on the page that I had not consciously known before. What came through to me about Charmaine first of all was her grief, and later her determination and finally, her innate goodness. She became a real person to me, not merely a fictional character. When I reread what I’ve written and cry, I know I’ve succeeded in telling her story.
If Charmaine were my next door neighbor, I think we would be friends.