Writers are often asked where we get characters for a book. I am always hard pressed to find an answer. I think they live in a parallel universe and spend their time flitting about the ozone until they land in my brain. When they’re in a book, they’re characters. In my mind, they’re actual people—and they want their stories told. However, one character in Beyond Fate
actually arrived in my life as a living, breathing human being—not a person conjured up out of quarks and anti-matter.
I actually found Big Momma Freeman who owns the fish camp in Beyond Fate
sitting on a bench outside the bus station in Midland, Texas. Folks, there ain’t nothin’ in Midland, Texas except blazing sun, sand, grit, wind and oil. If you plant a tree, you pray over it. Otherwise the hole you just dug thinks it’s an oil well. I had stopped in at the bus station moments before it closed at four in the afternoon to ship a package to my daughter. A bus had pulled out after disgorging one traveler—a tiny, gray-haired woman with one of those old-timey Southern carpet bags for luggage. She was struggling with the bag so I helped her to the bench outside and went on to the grocery store while the stationmaster locked up.
On my return an hour later the tiny old lady was still sitting on the bench in the blazing heat. I drove on by, but a niggling sensation in my mind told me something wasn’t quite right. The woman was just sitting on that bench, so patient, so still, as if she were posing for a Norman Rockwell painting. You’ve had that sensation haven’t you? In certain situations where you ask yourself: Should I? Should I not? I made a U-turn.
The elderly woman told me she was in Midland to visit to her daughter. The daughter had recently remarried. In fact, she didn’t know the daughter’s new married name, where the daughter lived, and the phone number she had for her daughter was no longer in service. The only tidbit the elderly woman recalled was that the daughter and her new husband boarded horses.
I waited with her for over an hour on that bench in the suffocating heat knowing full well the ice cream I bought was melting all over the back seat of my car, not to mention our dinner steaks were probably already medium rare.
The daughter was a no show. Holy smokes! I took the old lady home with me and told my kids I’d found them a grandmother. Excitement reigned. She had an archaic way of talking. I looked it up. Old English from the 1700’s. While I prepared supper she entertained my boys with tales of hants (ghosts), her vegetable garden, a king snake that lived under her front porch and killed every rattlesnake that had the gall to slither into her yard. She told about earlier years when she turned her hogs out into the swamp to fatten up, but sometimes they stayed wild or a painter (wild cat) got ‘em. I think that old lady would’ve happily lived with us for the remainder of her days. But in real life you can’t keep foundlings. Well, we did keep her overnight. I thought the daughter might be berserk with worry.
Early the next morning I called the postmaster, explained the situation and after questioning all of the carriers he said he might have found the daughter. I made the phone call. New name, new service. He had.
That daughter royally annoyed me. She swore she hadn’t known her mother was coming to visit. Her sweet, seventy-nine- year-old mother in her home-made cotton dress with a hand-tatted lace collar had ridden a bus across Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and half-way across Texas. The daughter wouldn’t come pick her up. My kids and I took her to the horse farm, and that was the last I ever heard of her, but she stuck in my mind all of these years.
She probably had a bit of dementia, but she displayed the kind of moxie I needed in a character who could cope with living in the Okefenokee Swamp. She tidied up the story. She became Big Momma in my book—and the off page daughter she was always hoping to hear from, Francine.
The reality is as writers we take ordinary people and places and raise them to the level of reading art. We do it with words—I admit sometimes stringing those words together can be difficult but word art is how you write books.
When you get to Fargo, Georgia, you can go north into Atlanta, south to 1-10 and Florida, west until the road peters out or you run into a sink hole. Or–you can turn east into the Okefenokee Swamp. I turned east. It was just the right setting for Beyond Fate. I believe I was pulled to exactly that magical spot by the spirit of that spicy-sweet old woman who had once been a part of our lives for less than twenty-four hours.
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