Here’s another sideways, oblique way to get to know your character. Try reading your character – that’s right, reading. As in read the books your character would love. (Or for that matter books your character loathes.) Make a list of books your character would read and then read them, through your character’s eyes. You may never actually use this in your novel, except maybe in passing, but it will flesh out your character to you in a way that will come through in your writing. The more you know about your character, the more convincingly you can portray those subtle details that make your character seem real.
When I first started to plark with my latest Dilly novel (tentatively titled DILLY THE GREAT), I realized that I had to read books that Dilly might read, books that would have inspired her to be a detective. Yes, there’s a mystery in the new Dilly book.
So to start off, I re-read Sherlock Holmes – through Dilly’s eyes, of course – and I knew she’d get the gist but also find some of the language "weird and fussy and old fashioned" to quote her.
Next, I read some of Shane Peacock’s wonderful books about Sherlock as a young boy: Eye of the Crow and Death in the Air. I’d heard of them but hadn’t yet read them.
Well, I loved these books and I highly recommend them. What I found especially captivating about them is that London, where I lived years ago (no, not in Victorian times!) almost becomes a character. The details of gritty Victorian London are palpable. What is also wonderful about these books is the skillful way in which Peacock has extrapolated backwards from the adult Sherlock to create the young boy who will be that man. The boy is completely convincing, the character nuanced, and the events that shape him into the man he will be are poignant and fitting. I found the characterization more delicate and convincing than that of the adult Holmes, which is no small feat. Dilly, of course, loved the books too, and devoured them eagerly.
Next, I discovered other books related to Sherlock Holmes, ones I hadn’t heard of until I contacted some local librarians. Praise be to librarians! I so appreciate having a source to contact for information. I e-mailed several local Ottawa librarians to ask them if an eleven year old girl, a precocious reader, might read the original Sherlock Holmes books. They all said yes it was likely, depending on the skill of the reader.
Well, Dilly isn’t always particularly modest (sorry Dilly!) but she is a keen reader.
All the librarians mentioned Shane Peacock’s books, but one also mentioned books by Nancy Springer about Sherlock Holmes’ younger sister Enola. I’d never heard of these books but promptly got them from the library. (By the way, Nancy Springer's website is a bit rudimentary, but check it out anyway.)
What a find. What delightful books. Again, I unequivocally recommend them. There are several, the first two being The Case of the Missing Marquess – An Enola Holmes Mystery and The Case of the Left-Handed Lady – An Enola Holmes Mystery. What is wonderful about these books is that, as in Peacock’s books, London comes alive both physically and socially. In Springer’s books, as well, there are striking details of what it was like to be a girl/woman in that era. Telling details about the clothes women wore, their social conditions, and attitudes towards them -- women were considered to be irrational and hysterical and unlikely to be intelligent -- are woven seamlessly into the stories.
Enola is a thoroughly credible character, keen and clever and resourceful – but also vulnerable. Yes, Enola is Alone spelled backwards. I completely related to her intelligent struggle against the constraints and stereotypes of women in that era. Springer does an extraordinary job of weaving together mystery with character development, and showcases the lives of women seamlessly by using information that only women might know, such as knowledge of flowers, of fans, to have Enola unravel mysteries that her older brother Sherlock cannot. These books, as well as the others I found in the series, The Case of the Bizarre Bouquets; The Case of the Peculiar Pink Fan; The Case of the Cryptic Crinoline are great as mysteries – clever without being too obvious, and filled with the kind of details of Victorian life that are integral to the plot.
Dilly, I might add, absolutely LOVED these books. She got the first book from Mrs. Springer’s second hand bookstore called Old Friends. Mrs. Springer firmly believes in letting Dilly read the books first because how else will she know if the book is a keeper? Dilly definitely considered the book a keeper.
So thanks, Dilly, for being the conduit for me to discover wonderful books I hadn’t yet read.
Oh, and I also found out more about Dilly as I read them but the bonus was reading books that delighted me as well as Dilly.