Thursday, January 7, 2016

IWSG - January: Fictional and Real Characters

A recent reflection on fictional and real characters - A true story

"She was a filthy woman," Dad said, describing my great grandmother Ada.

It left an image in my mind of toilet bowls with yellow rings and urine stains on the rim. So she was a lazy woman, I supposed, but what a terrible legacy to leave behind. Would leaving my home dirty and dying suddenly (as Ada had) have a similar effect on my ancestors? As I sat there watching my dad ponder the past, I thought about the seedy bathrooms at old gas stations I'd sometimes been forced to use over the years, the kind that stunk before you even opened the door and had all the tell-tale signs of e-coli or worse.

Dad smiled. "She was a concert pianist once." 

What? More probing uncovered that Ada also had taught piano in her home. So there it was. Ada loved, lived, and breathed music, a far better and kinder depiction than the "filthy" woman Dad had first described. But the more I thought about it, Dad's words had been an honest reflection, a little boy's memory.

Dad had been raised in Lawton, Oklahoma in what must have been a well to do home. Dad remembered the family had a black mammy, which would have been sometime after 1926. When I first learned about the mammy, my understanding of mammies was on the level of what I'd seen in the movie Gone With the Wind. I'd grown to believe it was a deep south practice during the Civil War period. But apparently not. Dad's father was an army officer and his mother an officer's wife. They had the money and photos of them as a young couple revealed a glamorous lifestyle.

A few months later, Dad passed away and I inherited a box of heirlooms, some of which belonged to Ada. Imagine my delight when I then discovered that Ada had had a writer's heart. She wrote on scraps of paper, on the margins of her bible, sheets of notebook paper, in the piano book where she had recorded her students, and on various other keepsakes, all documenting what she believed to be important. A goldmine.

I learned that Ada was born in Illinois to a mother (Margaret) of striking beauty, something Ada was not in photos. She was rather plain but had a strong, confident face. The family moved to Oklahoma when Ada's attorney father, Montraville McCammat Duncan, "made the run" in Kingfisher, OK for land during Oklahoma's famous land rush in 1889. There Montraville served an "unfinished" term as Kingfisher's first mayor.

Ada married James at age 22. "A home wedding," she wrote. "The first in Kingfisher" and "a band serenaded us." But sadly, the joy of that day was lost with the death of two infants: a girl on their first wedding anniversary and a boy the year of the "Snyder Cyclone." My grandfather, their only living child, was born eight years later. The family eventually settled in Lawton, OK.

James died at age 59, possibly of TB (he had spent time in a sanitarium prior to his death), but his ailment was never fully disclosed. Tuberculosis was the Aids of that generation. The newspaper wrote that James had been a well known local pioneer, businessman, and member of the Masonic Lodge, but this was of little aid to Ada. As a widow at 51 her financial position plummeted overnight. Her apartments grew "smaller and smaller," she wrote, and she was forced to move in with her son and wife (my grandparents, the glamorous couple with the mammy). Unhappy with this arrangement, as Ada made known in her notes, it's likely she bickered some with my grandmother.

At some point, Ada had come to know the imprisoned Apache chief, Geronimo, someone my grandfather later recalled visiting as a four-year-old boy in the Lawton prison. My family has the beaded belt that Geronimo gave my grandfather as a gift, proof of one visit in particular, but we can only speculate on the relationship between Ada, my grandfather and Geronimo. My grandfather further claimed to have been the only non Indian to attend Geronimo's funeral. Tall tale? Feel free to comment!

Geronimo's belt, a gift to my grandfather 1903-1904
(shown in 3 sections).  P. H. are my grandfather's initials.

If I were to write about Ada today as a fictional character and the people in her life, I could take her story in several directions, which might be fun to do, but her real story is just as fascinating to me.

When you write fictional characters, how true to life are your characters? Do they start out as someone you know or have read about, and evolve from there, or are they strictly an invention of your mind?

Curious how that works for you. 


The Insecure Writers Support Group meets online every first Wednesday of the month. Founded by Alex J. Cavanaugh, IWSG was created to support and encourage all writers in every phase of their work, from writing to marketing. Click here to join, and for information, writing tips, and more.

January's awesome co-hosts today are L.G. Keltner, Denise Covey, Sheri Larsen, J.Q. Rose, Chemist Ken, and Michelle Wallace!

Congratulations IWSG Winners of the Anthology Contest!! 

The Mirror People by Crystal Collier
Ground Zero by Michael Abayomi
The Seventeen by Hart Johnson
Rainers by Sandra Cox
EVER-TON by Yolanda Renee
WIN by Sylvia Ney
Haunted by Melanie Schultz
Folds in Life and Death by Cherie Reich
Scrying the Plane by Tamara Narayan
Felix Was Here by L.G. Keltner - Winner overall!  
(L.G. will be published in the anthology :) 


  1. The family history of one of my grandparents is mostly fiction. But he was only passing on what was told to him. He was surprised by what I found when I did some research.

  2. Your family history is quite unique.

    1. Dennis, thanks for commenting. It's interesting how some family stories turn out to be pure fiction, but those too are fun to know.

  3. My characters are strictly an invention, but everyone's process is different. I've read that many times, writers get inspiration from the news. Or they cobble together a character, drawing traits or life experiences from several friends or relatives. There is no wrong way, only the way that works for you.

    I struggle when I say that, because I feel like my way of creating a novel is so weird and different from the way others write, that I can't honestly call myself a writer. But a recent finished product landed me finalist status in four contests as well as an agent, so ... maybe ... despite all the weirdness of my methodology ... I might actually be a writer.

    1. You are definitely a writer! I agree there is no wrong way. I have had characters come to me in dreams too. Your method of using the enneagram works so well for you and has brought success. It's a good way to check if a character is acting out of character.

  4. Wow, Ada's life sounds fascinating, for sure!

    As for characters, mine are mostly made up, but I do lift traits and experiences from my own life to give to them...

    1. Hi Heather. When I look at your comic art, I also see the novelist. You've blended two of your life interests well. My characters tend to be me in some form, which is why I'm considering other sources.

  5. Ada certainly had an interesting life. Good to read .

    1. Didn't she though? It must have been exciting being one of Oklahoma's early pioneers. I think her father's land may have been a poor purchase. There are dust bowl pictures in the family file of women standing in front of a sod-like home and they don't look happy. I have yet to research who they were.

  6. What a fascinating family you have! I think you can definitely do something interesting with Ada's story - her life sounds quite difficult but the part about Geronimo is amazing! None of my characters are based on real people. I want my characters to be believable. LOL!

    1. Ha-ha. That makes me curious. Bet your ancestors had some interesting stories to tell too.

  7. What an amazing story. It's sad that we often don't hear the details of our elder relatives' lives until after they're gone.

    1. Thanks! And so many people just toss the records. It makes me cringe. Researching my family's history, I was lucky to inherit one side's stories. A link to my relatives in Norway was discovered too that led to a visit, but that's another story!

  8. How fascinating. You've got a lot of material to draw from, Sharon.
    My late sister-in-law published several stories on ancestors. Mostly nonfiction, but some fiction based on their history.

    1. I hear you. Part of me wants to break from fiction and pursue this. I've written a lot (for family) already.


"Stay" is a charming word in a friend's vocabulary
(A.B. Alcott). Stay and visit awhile. Your comments mean a lot to me.