Where do the characters come from?

Now I’ve recovered from jet-lag I was going to blog about our recent trip (nearly six weeks) to Australia and New Zealand, and the stopovers in Dubai and Kuala Lumpur. I was going to talk about how on our last trip (2012) I had been conscious almost all the time in Australia, and particularly in Tasmania, of my Victorian sleuth’s presence. Charlotte was just out of my vision all the time, but I knew she was there, even to the faintest flutter of a crinoline rounding a corner. She didn’t put in a single appearance during the latest trip though I did catch a fleeting glimpse of her charming but erratic stepfather, Will, so I expect I’ll use that in a later book.

However, instead of writing about the Australian odyssey I’ve been diverted by a comment from a friend who said that if someone wrote a Little Miss book about me, it would be Little Miss Acerbic. How right she is – it’s the family’s default position – and it made me think about some of the questions readers always ask:

‘Do you put real people in your books?’ The answer to that is (a) No, of course not and (b) Sometimes, but only bits of them, ie interesting characteristics and odds and ends that make up a patchwork.

Then there’s the other frequently asked question: ‘Are your characters based on you?’ And the answer to that is: Yes, and No. Obviously any character an author creates is going to be mined from inside to some extent but I like to make a conscious effort not to make a carbon copy, which would be pretty boring anyway. So my two sleuths, Charlotte Richmond and Harriet Quigley do share some traits with me, but they’re sufficiently different from me and from each other to stand alone.

Young Australian widow, Charlotte, is a child of her time – the mid-nineteenth century – she’s not a rebel and because of her insecure and shady upbringing, she is desperate to blend in with her wealthy English in-laws, so she’s always on the alert for danger, ready to disappear at a moment’s notice. Charlotte’s instinct when trouble looms, is to run away. In appearance Charlotte is tall and slim, dark-haired and hazel-eyed and despite her erratic childhood, she’s had a widely eclectic education, mainly courtesy of her godmother, the unusually generous (in several ways), Lady Meg, who taught her all kinds of things, including appreciation of Miss Austen’s work, fluent French and how to set up a smokescreen as a blameless bluestocking by being knowledgeable about architecture, art, etc. Charlotte is clever and resourceful, kind and lonely.

Harriet Quigley, however, is very different and is rarely lonely. I’ve always been fascinated by the few people I’ve met who are completely confident in their own skin so I decided to create a character like that. Harriet is tall and slim and clever, rather posh, privately-educated and comfortably off, and she’s always done the right thing. A highly-respected headmistress she is upright and law-abiding and generally an admirable creature but she’s saved from priggishness by the kindness of her heart and a couple of traits she’s slightly ashamed of: she’s a bit vain, she’s squeamish about hospitals (not an advantage in ‘Murder Fortissimo’)MFcoverfinal_originaland she’s terrified of heights (which is a bit of a drawback in her second adventure ‘A Crowded Coffin’).ACrowdedCoffincoverWhen trouble threatens Harriet’s instinct is to tackle it head-on and wallop it into submission!

Interestingly I’ve had several readers tell me how much they love Sam, Harriet’s clergyman cousin which is rather nice. The Resident Engineer, when I told him this, was inclined to be smug, assuming that Sam is based on him, to which I said, ‘No, he’s much nicer than you!’ (Though I have given Sam a few similarities: the passion for steam trains, the engineering background and – I hope! the devotion to his wife.)

So, do my heroines share anything with me? I’m tall, though Harriet is taller still; they’re both slim (which I used to be!) and they both devour books. Charlotte’s favourite Jane Austen book is  ‘Emma’ (as is mine), and Harriet collects Edwardian books for girls, as I do, though her dolls’ house collection is borrowed from a friend. Both ladies are far cleverer than I am and much braver though they do have the same tendency to see the funny side of things at entirely the wrong moment. And they’re much, much nicer than I am!

Going back to the comment that kicked off this blog post, I have to admit that Harriet is definitely Little Miss Acerbic and that I know exactly where she gets it from!

As for the amazing and marvellous creatures we spotted on our recent marathon trip to the other side of the world, not one of them was as wonderful as these three, L to R: Joe (12), Jack (9) & Jim (nearly 11).WP_000314

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