Article published on October 29, 2015.
Can you be arrested for being a constant observer of people? If you are caught staring at someone on the tube, or eavesdropping on other people’s conversations in restaurants, are you likely to be considered a nuisance to society – or just slightly dotty?
I guess it’s an occupational hazard, especially for someone like me who writes books based in communities where there are many characters. My latest series of stories, THE DUNBRIDGE CHRONICLES, tells the story of a new young curate in a Bedfordshire country town who has a familiar circle of family, friends and fellow parishioners. However, it’s also in the nature of a vicar’s job that he finds himself alongside people at significant moments in their lives, sometimes poignant, sometimes joyful and often very funny. All those characters have to be dreamed up – hence, my odd fascination with the way people talk, behave and react in every situation where I meet them.
This week I’ve loved meeting a lady who constantly yells at her husband in a voice which reminds me of Punch in the old seaside puppet shows! I’ve also been admiring the calm support of a gentle, retired farmer towards the wife he loves who is now in a wheelchair. Then there’s the lady I’ve known for a while who often gets her words muddled, whether spoken or written. She prepares the service sheet for her local church, and followed her inclusion of ‘I Vow to Thee my County’ last week with ‘All People that on Earth Do Well’ this Sunday! She’s the delightful lady who was telling me a few days ago that she and her husband are planning to ‘renew their wedding vowels’!
I’m careful not to include someone instantly recognisable in one of my novels in case it offends, especially amongst people I actually know. I don’t need to know them well, though, to find them fascinating. Often, only a quick glimpse is enough for me to imagine a whole character around them. I remember seeing a fifty-something lady with a bohemian dress-style and long hair framing an interesting, friendly face. I imagined her being a hippie in her twenties, with a love of people and the world around her expressed in her natural kindness towards others. Although I’d only seen her for a couple of minutes, she became a main character in the next novel I wrote!
Inspiration comes to writers in all sorts of ways. For me, all it takes is a chance phrase, an accent, a laugh, an expression which catches my attention allowing me to create a story around them which is probably wildly untrue in real life! I hope they never notice – but I am always careful to change many aspects of the person whilst keeping the kernel of character which drew me to them in the first place.
Fiction always works best when it’s based in fact. For me, the smallest and perhaps most insignificant of facts can become fertile inspiration for heart-warming stories.
Pam Rhodes’ Saints & Sailors is published 29th October in pbk by Lion Fiction
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