Amanda Doucette hasn't had an easy time of it — she returns from her aid work in Africa haunted by what she's seen and struggling to hold onto her ideals, and things aren't about to get any easier for the protagonist of Fire in the Stars (Dundurn Press). When a body is pulled up in a fisherman's net, Amanda's teamed up with RCMP officer Chris Tymko. Together (along with Amanda's loyal canine sidekick, Kaylee), they set out to discover the truth about both the victim and Amanda's missing friend. Set against the starkly beautiful background of Newfoundland's Great Northern Peninsula, Fire in the Stars is tense and atmospheric. It's the first in a planned series of adventures for Amanda, so we're thrilled to welcome Arthur Ellis Award-winning author Barbara Fradkin to Open Book to discuss how Amanda came to be and what is next for her, as part of our ongoing In Character series.
Barbara tells us about "method writing", how Amanda got her name, and tells us about how Amanda serves as both alter ego and soul sister.
Tell us about the main character in your new book.
Fire in the Stars is the first in a new series featuring Amanda Doucette, an international aid worker in her mid-thirties who has returned to Canada haunted by a horrific ordeal in Africa that left her confidence shattered and her ideals shaken. Even as she wrestles with post-traumatic stress, she remains an adventurous, passionate, resourceful woman who can’t turn her back on a friend and fellow survivor in trouble.
She is supported in her quest by two committed friends; idealistic, young RCMP Corporal Chris Tymko and seasoned journalist Matthew Goderich.
Some writers feel characters take on a "life of their own" during the writing process. Do you agree with this, or is a writer always in control?
Just as actors “get into character”, I believe writers immerse themselves in the character and scene they are creating. I call this “method writing”, whereby I try to slip into the skin of the character so as to see and experience the world through their eyes. I conjure up their voice and specific circumstances, and tap into their emotions and mood. It is that peculiarly human capacity for empathy, without which characters remain wooden robots. Although it feels as if the characters come to life in my head, they don’t really run away with the plot. Rather, I am constantly asking myself “What would he feel at this moment?” and “What would she do/ say next?”, and those answers guide what happens next in the story.
How do you choose names for your characters?
So much goes into a name — ethnicity and geographical origin, rhythm, number of syllables and ease of pronunciation, first letter, popularity and common associations. It’s important that the names be easy to remember and distinguish from one another, and that they evoke the right associations. How many heroes are called Adolph? Myrtle, Ethel, Tiffany, and Crystal imply more about the character’s age and background than a whole paragraph of description.
Thank heaven for the Internet! I use it to search names in different regions and ethnic groups, or for popular names of the time period. Eventually I have to take stock of my names, to make sure there are not four that start with M or six that are one syllable long. I put all the character names into an alphabet matrix, which sometimes reveal funny little biases. Who knew I had six three-syllable names that start with B?
Main characters’ names are especially important, because the name creates first impressions. Besides, I will be living with them for a long time. For Amanda Doucette, I wanted a name that sounded classy without being cute, that had rhythm as it rolled off the tongue, that conjured up femininity without frills.
What is your approach to crafting dialogue, particularly for your main character? Do you have any tips about writing dialogue for aspiring and emerging writers?
Dialogue springs from being immersed in the scene and in the character’s head. If I’m writing well, the scene unrolls like a film, and I can hear the back and forth between the characters. I keep in mind speech styles, education, and mood, but I usually write the first draft of the scene without too much stopping and starting, because that breaks the flow and pulls me out of the conversation. Dialogue can easily be tweaked and polished during the second sober draft, when I can say “No, that character would use a fancier word, or wouldn’t use that grammatical precision, etc.” Reading aloud can help pinpoint false notes.
Do you have anything in common with your main character? What parts of yourself do you see in him or her, and what is particularly different?
Amanda is thirty years younger than me and grew up in an entirely different era. When I was her age, I already had two children, and was settled in Ottawa with a full-time career, a mortgage, and carpools. She has worked all over the world without ever establishing a place to call home. I think all writers create a little bit of an alter ego so that they can live vicariously through the adventures of their characters.
But on a deeper level, Amanda and I are one. We share the same love of adventure and novelty, the same passion for helping others, the same concern for the marginalized, and the same wish to fight for right. Perhaps Amanda, the younger and feistier of us, is the voice through which I can speak. I envy her boundless energy and her lime-green motorcycle, which she calls her freedom to roam. The one thing we share without question is a love of the little red dog called a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling retriever.
Who are some of the most memorable characters you've come across as a reader?
Sometimes I’m lucky to remember what I had for breakfast, so when I think about this question, I come up with characters from classics that influenced me long ago. Sydney Carton, Raskolnikov, Uriah Heep. Flawed, even villainous, but fascinating.
What are you working on now?
I am writing the next Amanda Doucette novel, entitled The Trickster's Lullaby, which is set in Quebec’s Mont Tremblant area during the dead of winter. It’s due out next fall.
Barbara Fradkin is a retired psychologist who is fascinated with why people turn bad. She has written numerous short stories and novellas as well as the critically acclaimed Inspector Green novels. Two of these, Fifth Son and Honour Among Men, have won the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel. She lives in Ottawa.
Grace O'Connell is the Contributing Editor for Open Book: Toronto and the author of Magnified World (Random House Canada). She also writes a book column for This Magazine.
For more information about Magnified World please visit the Random House Canada website.