INVENTING CHARACTERS by Peggy Hanson
Some days I feel almost like God, the Creator. Or Shiva, the Destroyer/Creator. Well, not exactly, of course. I can’t make plants (I am not into sci-fi) and my “creations” must be based on the reality actually created by a Higher Power: humans, to be precise. I have quite a lot of experience with humans.
The protagonist in my new series* is my Great Aunt Mary, an unsung Victorian feminist missionary heroine of the Balkans from 1888-1920. I have hundreds of pages of diary entries from her for all those years, so when I envisioned the Mary Matthews Missionary Sleuth series I thought how easy it would be: take the characters and incidents she outlines in the diaries and letters, tweak the incidents just a bit (believe me, they don’t need much!), and swoosh, Aunt Mary solves the crime. It is clear from actual records that she was a problem-solver.
But to start a series, one needs to go to the beginning: to the wide-eyed 23-year-old leaving her protected life in upstate New York village and Mount Holyoke Seminary for Females for the exotic unknown alien world of the Ottoman Empire. For some reason best known to my Aunt Mary, this entire trip, which must have been earthshaking to her at the time, is summarized in one paragraph in her collection of papers. I know the dates, the name of the ship (the Bothnia), the basic route (London, the Orient Express, steamer from Constantinople to Salonika) and one of the people she traveled with. My suspicion is that in later years she felt embarrassed by the excitement and luxury of the trip, feeling it might be unbefitting a missionary. So she took all that interesting Well, Aunt Mary asked for it, and she’s getting it!
I have had to research everything from the SS Bothnia to Liverpool and Jack the Ripper, to the origin of the Orient Express and what was happening in London and Paris in fall of 1888. (Jack the Ripper was happening in London; the Eiffel Tower was being built in Paris.) I have had to bone up on manners and dress in Victorian times as well as the use of herbs and medicines.
To write the story in any form, I had to make up a cast of characters: passengers aboard the Bothnia, hotel guests in London, passengers for the Orient Express. Clearly, there have to be overlaps. (Since this is a mystery, there have to be a lot of overlaps and I knew that the 1880’s were an era of missionary expansion to the Ottoman Empire, so I brought aboard a few of them, some nice and some not quite so much. Maybe it’s cheating, but I even used a couple who turn up later in the diaries. And I twisted another to fit a historical journalist who spent a year following the highly-publicized kidnapping of Miss Ellen Stone in 1901. Miss Stone herself is on the ship and the train—and there is a bit of clan payback in her portrayal, I must admit.
Who else would be on such journeys? I decided on a couple of diplomats (and the parent of one), an heiress or two, a Turkish officer and his retinue, a wealthy honeymoon couple, some British nurses and Hungarian nuns, a Jewish jewel trader, Orthodox priests...
In each case, research was needed. What empires in which cities did the heiresses descend from: cattle, railroads? Industry? What were Orthodox priests doing in London? Where would Aunt Mary purchase wedding clothes for her travel companion’s intended husband after the other woman gets sick? In which section of London would respectable young ladies stay? What was known about Jack the Ripper in which months in fall of 1888? Why would Aunt Mary get involved in solving a crime aboard the train?
Actually, it has been a lot of fun, both doing the research and figuring out the characters. I am not one of those organized writers who knows how the plot is going to go. So as I carry the story forward, using my meager resources of actual fact, I have to think of what conversations might take place, with whom. And this usually means going back to the Bothnia so we can get to know the people. Or to the London hotel. Or to the setting-off of the Orient Express from London.
Weaving the fabric from the character threads we have found lying around is rewarding work. A pattern begins to emerge. One person becomes likable. Another annoys everyone in earshot. This one looks suspicious, that one is a tad too charming.
Like Shiva, I sometimes have to tear down incidents and people I have built up. Like Shiva, I have fun redesigning them!
Peggy Hanson is an author and travel blogger who loves to share her international life with her readers. Peace Corps, Voice of America, teaching of English--all these have played major roles in her life. Growing up in a series of small towns in Colorado, the daughter of a mountain-climbing Congregational minister and teacher, probably helped mold her affinity to nomadism. In her adult life, she's lived for extended periods in Turkey, Yemen, India and Indonesia.
Her first two books are mysteries in the Elizabeth Darcy series set in other countries: DEADLINE ISTANBUL and DEADLINE YEMEN. She is currently working on the third in that series, DEADLINE INDONESIA, and is also compiling and editing her great aunt Mary's diaries and letters and pictures from 1888-1920 when she was a missionary teacher and principal in the Balkans. The working title of the diaries is UNHOLY DEATH ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. It is a story of early feminism and a woman's bravery in the face of war.