Category Archives: Female Characters

The banks of dumb creek

It was one of the great livery-stableman’s most masterly intuitions to have discovered that Americans want to get away from amusement even more quickly than they want to get to it.

Edith Wharton, Age of Innocence

What? An hour wait in the parking lot?

What? An hour wait in the parking lot?

It’s not that we wanted to get away from the amusement. It’s that we wanted to get away from the crowds getting away from the amusement.

My friend Angie and I took our girls to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant in Walnut Grove. After touring a wonderful museum center, we drove into the country and parked in a grassy field with hundreds of other cars. This was the site of an outdoor play about Laura’s life and Walnut Grove’s roots.

The play ran from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m., and after that, we had a two-hour drive. Angie said, the last time I was here, it took one hour just to get out of the parking lot.

Sure, we’d paid for the tickets. And we faced a long drive with tired kids regardless, so what’s another hour?

Sixty minutes to be exact — an hour of honking horns as drivers rush the exit. It’d be 20-year-old trucks and minivans against my cute new car, only 7,000 miles old.

Maybe we should leave early, I said. It’s not like we don’t know the story’s ending.

Right, she said.

Trapped in Walnut Grove, the place we'd been so eager to see.

Trapped in Walnut Grove, the place we’d been so eager to see.

I vacillated. It was our day for Laura Ingalls, my daughter’s first beloved heroine. Mine, too. It’s Laura from the Banks of Plum Creek, not Laura of Silver Lake or Laura of those Happy Golden Years. Plum Creek Laura is our favorite, a book with an action-filled plot and fun cast. The bratty Nellie Oleson, the dugout, Johnny Johnson, the country party vs. the city party.

Also, Angie and I are writers. Exploring Laura’s town was our study in setting and character.

I shivered and said, it’s really cold for July. Maybe we should leave early because of the parking lot and all.

So Angie and I calculated reasons:

  1. It was cold, but not cold enough to kill pesky mosquitos.
  2. The seats were uncomfortable.
  3. The drive would be late, dark and long.
  4. The bathrooms were gross.
  5. The kids were tired.

Bingo! The kids. That settled it. We’d leave early. Our poor kids!

After intermission, during scene seven, we gathered our stuff, slipped between the seats, and dashed for the car. We were out of the field and on the road before the applause.

The girls settled in with their electronic gadgets. Angie and I chatted. We chatted about the Ingalls family, about Angie’s new novel, about my new novel, about OHMYGOD DEER IN THE ROAD.

Four screams, a thunk, a deer rolling over the windshield, rolling over the hood of the car, and disappearing in the ditch.

All passengers were fine. The car’s front was mutilated and the top smeared with blood and (sorry) deer poop. We eventually made it to Angie’s house and collapsed into nervous slumber.

So, Edith Wharton, you made a poignant reflection about our culture when you wrote Americans are more eager to leave their amusement than they are to get to it.

But why?

Is it really about cold seats and mosquitos?

Is it because we feel guilty? Because people suffer around the world while Americans enjoy demolition derbies; pizza buffets; carnival games with junk prizes, like those big purple teddy bears; and TV shows about swearing, smutty housewives?

Because our country is such a vat of amusement, we’ve developed the attention span of a gnat?

Because we’re so arrogant that each and every one of us believe we deserve the first shot out of the parking lot? Our lives are so important we couldn’t possibly wait one hour?

I’m not drawing a lame karmic connection between a deer crash and being a jerk, although the deer probably thinks I should.

I simply want to understand why Angie and I decided to flee an event we’d been planning for months. We’ve both survived uncomfortable chairs and mosquitos and disgusting bathrooms – often in our own homes.

So I leave the laptop today with a nod to pageant patrons who enjoyed the show’s final two scenes and withstood the parking chaos. Kudos to them for living the moment while they were in the moment.

Maybe I’ll try that next time. For Edith and for Laura.

For Edith, for Laura, for the deer.

For Edith, for Laura, for the deer.


Voldemort or Gizmo? Ashley or Stumpy? The writer decides!

My sister adopted two rescue dogs years ago. Gizmo and Peyton. I’ve asked her, Why didn’t you give them new names? As a writer, one of the most fun – and challenging – parts of developing your novel is naming characters.

In the dog instance, I’d have suggested Attila and Voldemort. I kid, dear sister, I kid! Her actual response regarding new dog names was this: they’ve already been through trauma, and I don’t want to add confusion to trauma, or make them feel that they’re bad.

Awww. You’re feeling a little misty right now, aren’t you?

Personally, I think the dogs hear blah blah BLAH blah blah, and the BLAH with emphasis indicates a name. Or perhaps a Milkbone.

Just try not to rescue this dog. Too late! I already called and I'm naming him Muffin.

Just try not to rescue this dog. Too late! I already called and I’m naming him Muffin.

My sister’s reasoning reflects her character. Compassionate. Sweet. Generous. And if you mess with me or my family I’ll unleash the power of Voldemort on your sorry a**.

Names, or course, reflect your character and the book’s tone. You can have three old men drinking morning coffee together at the local café. One man is Stumpy. And that works. It speaks to the size and quality of the town, and the kind of guy who might have a nickname Stumpy. Cliché: a retired farmer who lost his arm in a machine. Character twist: a lawyer. Humor: the town’s mayor, Mayor Stumpy.

Quirk has its limits. Unless the tone is absurdity, or you’re writing a picture book, you shouldn’t name the trio Stumpy, Lumpy, and Grumpy.

My writer friend quoted her agent: No more than two quirky names per book. Every rule was made to be broken, but he has a point.

In my forthcoming novel, The Graham Cracker Plot, I have pages of notes with possible character names. I spent days at my job, testing the names in my head. We had conversations, my characters and me. I asked a lot of questions. Why are you so rude to your mother? What’s your favorite food? Who’s your hero?

At work, I looked at clients and checked my character names against their names. What’s your name? I’m hoping, Ashley, please be an Ashley because you look like my Ashley.

My Ashley says, Linda.

So where do you work? Please say thrift store!

Ashley/Linda says, I’m a pharmacy tech.

Two strikes.

Ultimately, I used a typical, popular name from the late 1980s-1990 for the least typical character. My spunky, sassy heroine has a princess name, a name she dislikes and ditches in favor of a nickname. Mom doesn’t have a name at all. Just Mom, which says a lot about the relationship between my heroine and her mother. Dad has a special name, which says also says a lot about the relationship between my heroine and her father.

My writer-friend Angie Johnson almost always finds a way to slip “Margaret” into her stories. My writer-friend Rachael Hanel hit the jackpot. In her memoir, her father digs graves and maintains cemeteries. His real-life nickname: Digger. Digger! It’s perfect and true.

(And a plug for Racheal: The Barnes & Noble in Mankato, Minnesota, will host a book launch event with author Rachael Hanel for her new memoir We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter on Thursday, April 4th at 6:30 PM.)

Test your character names. Say them in a sentence (Sherry shouted to shovel the driveway.) Picture them reacting to a crisis. (Edith froze with terror as Attila the dog chased the kids.) How would it sound if she’s paged on a store intercom? (Clean up in aisle 14. Antoinette Rousseau, clean up in aisle 14.)

You’ve got to test drive a lot of cars before settling on a 1994 Corolla or a 2002 Audi or a new Ford F-150 pickup truck. Personally, I’d get the 1994 Corolla. It best reflects my character. And my budget.

Hermione says …

As my daughter and I read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, we’ve been flagging our favorite Hermione quotes:

“I hope you’re pleased with yourselves. We could all have been killed — or worse, expelled.”

“Flitwick told me in secret that I got a hundred and twelve percent on his exam. They’re not throwing me out after that.”

(When Ron asks Hermione if it’d be safe for her to ask her parents about a famous wizard.) “‘It’d be safe to ask them.Very safe, as they’re both dentists.”


Hermione the Heroine


Hermione rules!

I’m reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to my daughter. We’re going to Harry Potter World, and I want her to fall into Harry’s magical world. You can’t walk down Diagon Alley and think, “Wow!” unless you’ve read at least one book.

But more importantly, I want her to discover and admire the incredible character of Hermione Granger. Hermione is a know-it-all, and she grates on our two heroes – and on readers – when they begin their Hogwarts education. But she quickly becomes their best pal, and she’s no damsel in distress.

Whenever the gang is cornered, she’s the witch with the answers. Emma Watson’s a beauty, but Hermione is described as offbeat, with her long frizzy hair and regular frown. She wears long wizard robes, not tight jeans and low-cut, body-clinging t-shirts. It’s refreshing. She’s the Superheroine I want my daughter to know. Notice the close spelling of Hermione and heroine. A coincidence? I don’t think so.

Of course, Superhero movies feature Superheroes, not Superheroines. The female leads in most comic book movies are a feminist mom’s nightmare. They have more courage and sass than the early films, but it’s always a sexual sass. Wink wink, I’m wearing a size-two dress, let’s hit the sack. (Okay, Lois Lane defies all.) But Pepper Potts from Ironman? Rachel from the Dark Knight? The over-the-top sexuality of Halle Berry’s Catwoman? Mary Jane from Spiderman?

Thank you, J.K. Rowling, for Hermione Granger.