Part of the fun of creating fictional characters is having the freedom to build “people” who are wonderful, dastardly, loving, hateful, hated, adored—each somehow, hopefully unforgettable.
In writing The Road Home
I had the opportunity to re-enter the lives of the characters that I had created in The Last Letter. This chance was fantastic and daunting at the same time. I hadn’t expected The Last Letter to end up being book one in a series so when I realized I needed to write books two, three and four, I was a little stymied about how to proceed.
As usually happens when faced with a writing problem, I experienced something that provided the clarity I needed to proceed with the project. In this case it was when I saw the play, Wicked. There was so much happening on the stage that I had never imagined for the characters I first met in The Wizard of Oz. As I watched Wicked unfold, I suddenly knew—it didn’t matter that I hadn’t mapped out four books of The Letter Series before writing the first. As with most people we know in life—we usually only know certain sides of who they are. Like real people, I could allow the characters who were introduced in The Last Letter to have aspects of them that they and others had forgotten, hidden, or altered. I suddenly understood I could keep the essence of each character, but invent the “rest of their stories,” in a full Letter Series.
Guiding me in the process of reinventing the Arthurs were two things:
- The second set of family letters that my great-great grandmother and her family wrote AFTER Jeanie’s marriage to Frank dissolved in 1903.
- The 1905 and 1887 timelines I set up in The Last Letter. I will talk about these timelines in the coming days, but in the next few posts I want to use the letters to discuss how they helped to shape characters, events and plot in The Road Home.
Having five hundred pages of letters to read may seem overwhelming but this volume of writing at my disposal revealed clear patterns of behavior within the Arthur family as reported mostly by Jeanie and her firstborn son, James. Here is the birth order of the real Arthur children born to Jeanie and Frank:
- Alice Mabel, b. 1884
- James Osborne, b. 1887
- Margery Wilder, b. 1889
- Frank Gale, b. 1892
- Dorothy, b. 1894
- Jeanie Gillespie, b. 1896
- Jessie May, b. 1899
It wasn’t long into the writings (most letters are from the time-span of 1907-1910) to see:
- James (approx. 20 years old—he is away for work and school) is Jeanie’s rock after her marriage fell apart.
- Margie (approx. 18) has a wonderful personality, but writes infrequently (she is reliable in other ways and self-sufficient though away from home to teach school).
- Frank Gale, Jr. is referred to as Gale… he is a substantial thorn in Jeanie’s side (approx. 16—lives at home, but then boards out at turns) and appears most frequently in the letters.
- Dorothy (approx. 14) causes almost as much trouble as Gale does.
- The younger girls are mentioned much less and normally when something is wrong.
- Beyond reports on family happenings, the family economy is the primary topic in the letters.
- Life was exceptionally hard as the 19th century turned into the 20th. However… readers of The Last Letter already knew that!
- There are moments of redemption and joy amidst all the trouble…
The letters provide a view into a life of an educated, but just-barely-scraping-by family. They illuminate the best of the human condition as mother and children come to grips with choices made and the subsequent consequences.
To begin this journey through the letters and behind the book (The Road Home) we’re going to take a look at Gale (one of the real Jeanie Arthur’s sons) and how the information about Gale helped to provide some of the layers that are evident in the character of Tommy in The Road Home… Coming soon…