Crossroads, Corinth, Mississippi / Gerry Wilson

Last spring, I attended a family reunion, a gathering of distant cousins who were mostly strangers, all linked to my great-great-grandfather who settled in middle Tennessee in the early 1800s. We cousins are a diverse group–all ages, many different professions, some with strong genealogy interests and knowledge and some, like me, more or less novices. I am an only child. Until the last few years, when these cousins surfaced, I’d felt isolated and wished for a big, extended family. Now I have one. We swapped a lot of stories that day.

For the reunion, my husband and I stayed in Corinth, Mississippi, the nearest town of any size to Selmer, Tennessee, where my father’s family roots are.  We visited the Civil War Museum in Corinth, a museum that doesn’t glorify the war but portrays its heartbreak and deprivation. We also discovered the little railroad museum built beside the tracks that, as in so many little towns, run right through the heart of things.

The rails in the photograph mark where the east-west and north-south railroads crossed–a significant crossroads for both North and South, thus the battles nearby for the control of that area. Those railroads and the nearby Tennessee River were major conduits for goods and soldiers.

At the war’s end, my great-grandfather reached a crossroads of his own. His oldest son had been killed at the Battle of Corinth. (My father was named for that soldier.) A younger son was arrested for passing himself off as a Confederate soldier and commandeering a horse and a mule. My great-grandfather posted bond for him, using his land as collateral, and when his son failed to show up in court at the appointed time, my great-grandfather went on the run, too, taking his family, including the wayward son, with him.

I imagine him rushing into the house, the door banging shut behind him, telling his wife to hurry, throwing things into the wagon–a feather bed, a chicken crate, pots and pans, maybe my great-grandmother’s travel trunk she refused to part with–settling in the children, and setting off into the night. Leaving much behind: house, land, family, friends, debts, a dead son. They moved to Mississippi, and that’s where they stayed. My grandfather, the youngest child, was six years old.

Colorful stuff, this. The stuff of story.

Think about your parents’ or grandparents’ crossroads. Whose choices have shaped your life?

Consider the Two-headed Coneflower: Character and Oddity

There’s a two-headed coneflower in our garden. A hardy perennial, the coneflower grows abundantly around here. It withstands the heat and drought of long Mississippi summers, withstands neglect (I am proof of that), and practically grows itself.

The coneflowers and their little rudbeckia cousins (black-eyed susans) all surfaced early this year because of the mild winter, but this particular plant outgrew all the others. It’s a bit of a freak. For weeks I watched it grow taller and taller and waited for it to flower. Even its foliage looked different, and I decided maybe it wasn’t a coneflower at all but a weed. At one point it looked suspiciously like a thistle, and I almost pulled it up. When it finally bloomed early in April, it bore these two conjoined flowers on one stem.

So here’s the metaphor; I bet you were expecting one, weren’t you?

The flower’s oddity, its two-headedness, reminds me of how I develop fictional characters. Right now, I’m dealing with a character who’s very hard to like. He’s deceitful, cruel, and violent. He’s a drunk. He’s a racist. He’s a dastardly fellow if ever there was one. As I revise the novel, though, I find myself looking for reasons why this man is the way he is. What caused him to turn out this way? If I asked him, what would his excuses be? I’m looking for his secrets, his oddities, his other side, his vulnerability, his soft underbelly. Surely he must have one. When I find it, the character and the book will be richer for it.

Even after heavy rain over the last few days, that odd coneflower is still there. A bit bedraggled, but hanging on. The other plants, about a third its size, aren’t even close to blooming yet. That’s how I feel some days when the writing doesn’t go so well or there’s no time to work. Maybe that strange, tenacious flower is a gift; it’s here to teach me to look for what sets a character apart. To persevere, no matter what.

What are your favorite tricks for getting to know your characters? I’d love to know. Please post your comments!