A Secret Past

Jessie: In Northern New England, thinking about the past.

Sometimes you think you know someone and it turns out that really you don’t. I’m not talking about politicians or dear friends or even a spouse with a secret. I mean characters. Especially those of my own making.

Last Saturday I was out shopping for Christmas gifts with a friend. Near the end of the day we wandered into a shop filled with vintage clothing for gentlemen and in amongst the waistcoats, suspenders and top hats I came upon a box filled with stereographic cards all dating from around 1900.  I pounced up on them and began sifting through them one by one, admiring the old time photographs.

There were coastal views of Italy, temples in Egypt, elephants in India and my favorite, one labeled The Fishwives of Finland. As I looked them over I began to wonder not only about the people in the pictures but about the photographers who created the images. Who were these people? Were they avid photographers who just happened to live near popular tourist attractions and sent their work off to sell? Or were they taken by photographers traveling far from home?

As I stood in the dimly lit little shop an entire history for a character in my most recently completed novel unfolded in my mind. He’s a Gilded Age photographer who loves to snap candids of everyday people in Old Orchard. But looking at the cards in my hand I realized he had taken images much like the ones before me. We’d spent hundreds of words together, have known each other for over a year and I had no idea he had ever left the state of Maine.

I love it when this sort of thing happens. I’ve just begun working on a new book in the same series as the one I just completed and I’ve been thinking about ways to give this photographer a greater role. I’m still not sure what that will be. But I am certain at some point in his past he’s gone traipsing across Finland in search of fishwives to capture for posterity.

Readers, do characters in books often surprise you? Do you like it when they do? Writers, do your characters have secrets you are startled to discover?


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4 Responses to A Secret Past

  1. Heidi Wilson says:

    Twice now, minor characters whom I invented simply to ask needed questions or give my protagonist a foil have stepped up to the footlights and stolen the show. Amateur though I am, I don’t insist on my story when they clearly know a much better one.

    Great post, Jessie!

  2. Cool post. Jessie. Really cool. Happy Thanksgiving!

  3. Kait Carson says:

    Oh yes, part of the fun of writing is when my characters take charge. When they are secure enough to tell me what they would do (instead of what I want them to do) I know they are fully formed and three dimensional, each with his/her own personality.

  4. Bruce Robert Coffin says:

    Inspiring! Thanks for sharing this story.

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