Jeff Nania used to catch bad guys and restore wetlands. Now he writes The Northern Lakes Mystery series. You can find out more about him here, see his books here, and read his last post here.
Fairly frequently I get asked where I came up with the characters that appear in my books. That is good news to me because it means someone is reading my books. My characters are the foundation of the tales I tell, and most are people I have come to know.
When I started writing I wrote mostly police reports in my first career and natural resource articles in my second. On the surface those two types of writing appear very different, but in fact are not. Police reports involve who, what, when, where, why and how:
I was dispatched to 1100 Main St at 6:10pm to take a report of a burglary. The homeowner Mr. Smith came home and found out someone had used a pry bar to open his back door. Money was stolen from a cookie jar. He suspects Joe Schmoe the neighborhood miscreant.
Stories about natural resources also involve who, what, when, where, why and how:
Peter Alder had spent most of his life fascinated with reptiles. Over the last several months he has been looking for Blanding’s turtles along the Fox River in Marquette county. He spends his days walking slowly and carefully through prime Blanding’s habitat to find the turtles. His goal is to begin to establish a population baseline in this area of the river.
In each case, the five W’s and an H told the story. For me though, it is the “who” that brings everything together and is the most interesting.
One time an editor sent me an assignment for a feature article where I was to interview this elderly gent living on a farm in a beautiful valley in Wisconsin’s driftless area. His family had settled the farm generations before he was born. That alone would be a good story, and it was. But the real story was that he was 97 years old, a veteran of World War II. His unit had been charged with opening the ghastly concentration camps. In the process, he was wounded and sent to the hospital, where he charmed his nurse off her feet. They were married, raised a family, and spent 63 years together on that very farm. Now that’s a story.
I have a lifetime of collecting people’s stories, a motley crew of characters who provide inspiration. It is my goal to weave these people into the fabric of my fictional tales set in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. In book reviews, the hero and villain often dominate the limelight, but I think the supporting characters—like Bud, Ron Carver, and Jack Wheeler in my books—play just as critical of a role. I hope these characters add depth to the story.
I love people’s stories, who they are and where they’ve been. The most nondescript person may have the greatest story to tell, and you may never know until you ask WWWWW and H.
This Post Has 9 Comments
Jeff, thanks for this post! The “Who” part of the equation motivates me as a reader and a writer as well, while the rest of the W’s and the H are basic to the plot. Great job on bringing them all together.
Jeff — I love reading your character-driven books!
Thanks Jeff! I enjoyed the anecdote about the old farmer.
A terrific post, Jeff.
I love to people-watch and make up my own WWWW and H for them. Sometimes you’ll see a complete stereotype who makes an unexpected move and it changes the trajectory of their story.
I love hearing people’s stories. I seldom base characters on them. But there are times when odd details will end up in a story.
Agreed. For me, character-based stories are far more interesting than the blow ’em up, shoot em up thrillers.
Jeff, thanks for your post. You are certainly qualified to interview people and to track down those stories that each of us has. I look forward to reading your books.
Thanks so much Jeff! It’s true that everyone has a story to tell. I’m always interested in more, too, the backstory. the history. For the first time, I’ll be interviewing a couple wave surfers and a Cannabis store owner in Washington for my next thriller. I can’t wait to get the WWWWW and H from them!