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  • Sue Hawley

Who's that behind the curtain?

I love the characters in the Peg Shaw series. They have the ability to surprise me, make me laugh, and even irritate me. And yes, there are a few who have become my favorites but I try to be fair to all the characters. I am often asked how I develop the folks in the series and I always answer with the truth---they merely appeared on their own and I went with the flow.

Recently I was challenged to provide a deeper answer. To be honest, I realized there might be a chance I had taken the characters for granted. They show up, I write them, end of story. However, the more I thought about them, the more I realized how much thought goes into actually developing each character. Peg Shaw was easy to write since she is basically me. She has my personality traits, preference for good coffee, and a huge opposition for her life to change in any way. But what about all the others? Where did their personalities derive from and how did my brain decide what type of person they would become? It’s a question I wasn’t sure I truly wanted to delve into for a variety of reasons.

The main reason is simply, why screw up what works? Maybe I shouldn’t think about it too much for fear I would change how I perceive these folks. I have to admit though that I was a little intrigued. How did they become the characters I love? Yes, they simply ‘show up’ but it’s what I do from that point on that is curious.

To be a good writer, you must be a reader. Not all readers become writers, but all writers must be readers. We absorb more than we realize while reading and learn important lessons along the way. Did the book I just read keep me interested? Was the pacing of the story to my liking? Did I enjoy the characters? And most important—why? As I’ve written here before, I grew up reading Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien, along with every biography the school library had on the shelves. Through the years, I’ve added quite a few more authors such as Terry Prachett, Jim Butcher, LM Mann, Kathi Laughman, Neil Gaiman to name a few. What have I learned from them? A ton.

Characters must have qualities readers can connect to in some way. Peg Shaw is struggling with menopause. Every woman faces that time of life and she hates it as much as the next gal. Since I was in the throes of menopause myself writing the first few books of the series, I merely transferred to the page what I was experiencing. So Peg is relatable. Jack Monroe loves pie—any type of pie. Who doesn’t like pie? Nell has negative personality traits and I think I more than likely funneled into her character all the less than stellar qualities of people I personally dislike. She’s selfish, nasty and basically evil. We all know someone in our lives like Nell. She’s so easy to despise!

Each character evolves from my sub-conscious whether I realize it or not. I draw on my own experiences and people in my life. Every author more than likely does the same; we just don’t dwell on that fact for fear of ruining that world we have invented. I wanted people to be able to laugh while reading about Peg’s adventures, but somewhere deep inside me I knew that laughter comes from situations we ourselves can recognize as part of life. That’s one lesson I’ve learned from years of reading great authors.

The bottom line for writers is the characters show up and we go from there. What I do with them once they appear is the task I am entrusted with and it’s a task I thoroughly enjoy. I’m sure they would let me know if I portray them incorrectly; in fact, I know they would!

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