When I was finding my writing voice back in high school, my teacher Ms. Wagner told us that if you’re ever stuck, just write what you know. That may sound stupid, trivial, and a little elementary, but I’ve found it very helpful.
In the two years I wrote On The Border, I used this on multiple occasions. From the character of Jason being my old manager Jason to stopping in places like Michigan and Washington DC, not only do you get a fun tour out of it, but you get glimpses of things that are important to me.
One pair of characters near the end of the novel–you know them as Joe and El–are actually based on my great aunt and uncle, who are two of my favorite relatives (sorry other relatives).
Why did I use them as characters? Because they fit exactly what I needed, and honestly? Their characters give a breath of fresh air to all the other side characters in the story. When my mom finished reading my book, she came to me and said, “The way you described them both… it’s perfect.” Even changing their names (slightly), she knew exactly who they were.
Joe and El aren’t necessarily characters so much as they are fictional manifestations of my great aunt and uncle. And if you’ve read OTB, you may or may not have wished you could meet the pair in real life.
Unfortunately, for the past eight years or so, the real life Joe (known to the real world as Wish) has battled health issues and come out of everything with his smart ass attitude still in check. Much like life, however, it caught up to him in the end, and he passed away early Tuesday morning. Sad, yes, but when he was put on hospice they gave him two weeks to two months to live.
That was back in June.
Friends and relatives had so many extra months with Wish. Heck, my brothers and I drove back there two weeks after the diagnosis to see him one last time and unless you knew what was going on, you would have had no idea he was sick at all.
So here are some thoughts, and a little background information on one of my favorite parts of On The Border in the wake of Wish’s passing…
Joe and El in real life are known as Wish and Sue. Let’s get that cleared up right now before I start calling them by their real names and you get confused on who’s who.
Their home reminds me of my childhood. Summer trips to the hills of Pennsylvania to a small town no one knows. Sneaking under electric fences just to play in the taller grass. Walking along the strip job in the woods behind their house and down the lane a ways. Visiting a woman close to my relatives who lived in a log cabin with no electricity and one phone for emergencies. Taking pictures on the tractor in the barn where we wondered if the floor would cave underneath our feet. Shopping at the antique store in town and having storekeepers in other shops knowing our entire family.
Fireflies lighting up over an open field on warm summer nights always remind me of Pennsylvania.
Being in a place that feels so disconnected from the rest of the busy world always calms me down and helps me think a little clearer. The creative juices flow. Handwriting things seems much more personal and inspiring to me, and whenever I have traveled back to visit, I always hand write at least a few sentences.
Back in June, I edited the few chapters of On The Border that take place in the house. My brothers (and one sister-in-law) made the five hour drive for a weekend of catching up. As we drove the winding road that led into and out of town, I realized that my descriptions of Cassidy and Jason’s drive along that very road were almost spot on. It had been three years since my last trek, and everything was engrained in my mind.
Descriptions were almost spot-on. I edited the chapters where Cassidy and Jason basically set up camp in Joe and El’s house, and I even slept in the bedroom where they slept. Being in the setting made everything connect a little more.
And I made very few edits to details and dialogue of characters. These relatives have always meant the world to me, and it shows if you know where to look in my writing.
That place runs through the veins of my family. It was my mom’s before it was mine and my brothers’, and it was my grandma’s before it was mom’s. My family comes from that place, many relatives buried in the cemetery a few minutes down the road–that includes the ones who came over from Germany back in the 1800s.
But just because Wish is gone doesn’t mean I will stop visiting. I love everyone back there. With him gone, it means I just have to go back more.
I will always miss Uncle Wish. I may not have captured his complete essence in OTB, but I think the picture is pretty clear. Perhaps if you read OTB and make it to the point where Joe and El appear, you’ll come to understand in some small regard just why they mean the world to me.