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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Breathing Life into Your Characters… Even the Dead Ones

Jennifer AlLee believes the most important thing a woman can do is discover her identity in God – a theme that carries throughout her stories. She has written skits, activity pages, and over one hundred contributions to Concordia Publishing House’s My Devotions series. Her novels include The Love of His Brother, The Pastor’s Wife, The Mother Road, and A Wild Goose Chase Christmas, book two in the Quilts of Love series. She’s an active member of American Christian Fiction Writers and loves connecting with readers on Facebook and Twitter. Jennifer resides in the grace-filled city of Las Vegas with her husband and teenage son. Visit her website at

NR: Leave a comment or question for Jennifer and be entered in a drawing for A Wild Goose Chase Christmas. Continental U.S. residents only, please.

Breathing Life into Your Characters… Even the Dead Ones

Sometimes, characters fight you. They resist every attempt at making them fit into the mold you’ve created for them, insisting on breaking out. But every now and then, a character presents herself to you like a fully-formed, three-dimensional gift.

When I began writing my latest novel, A Wild Goose Chase Christmas, I had my main characters all wrestled into submission. I knew their names, what they looked like, and something about their personalities. The only person who was still a mystery to me was Grandma Isabella, but that didn’t seem like a big problem, since Gran is dead when the story opens. She wouldn’t even be showing up, except when others talked about her.

I underestimated the woman.

Gran makes her presence felt in the first chapter when Izzy is trying to decide which photos to include in a photo display for Gran’s funeral. Here’s an excerpt:

One was a black and white of a young Isabella in a classic dance pose. She balanced on one leg, satin-clad toes stretched into perfect pointe, her other knee drawn up, arms held out in front of her. The rapturous expression on her smooth, unblemished face and the extension of her fingertips gave the impression she was reaching for her one true love.

The other picture was much different. It was a headshot, probably taken the last time her church updated the picture directory. She wore a burgundy sweater with a silk flower pinned to it, her silver hair pulled back into a tidy bun. This was an Isabella mellowed by time, her skin etched with lines, her smile content.

Two pictures representing two very different sides of the same woman. Izzy looked from one to the other and shook her head. “I’m just not sure how she’d rather be remembered.”

When Izzy picked up the first photo, there was Gran in all her glory. I knew exactly who she was. In fact, she could have been my own grandmother… because that’s who I modeled Gran after. I didn’t plan it that way. My original inspiration for Gran was Jessica Tandy (Driving Miss Daisy). Apparently, my own dearly departed grandmother had other ideas. I can imagine her in heaven, tugging on the sleeve of God’s robe, grinning up at him and bouncing on the balls of her feet. “Father, I would love to show up in one of my granddaughter’s books. What would you say about giving her a nudge?”

Naturally, there are differences. For example, my grandma had a fondness for wigs, not buns. Before she died, there was a cat living in her home, not a dog. But years earlier, when she did have a dog, it was a black poodle named Bird (a long story). When you use a real, flesh and blood person as the pattern for a character, you never want to clone them. You want to get their essence.

Grandma Isabella captures the essence of my grandma, Marie Staats. She was a former dancer. She had a mischievous side and a slightly off-center sense of humor. Grandma Marie so would do what Grandma Isabella does. Match-making from beyond the grave? Heck yeah!

This woman, who I expected to simply pass through the book, ended up becoming a pivotal character. If you take her out of the story, it would all fall apart. Which is why I dedicated the book to my grandmother. A lifetime of memories came together in the right place at the right time and bonded to form the most awesome fictional grandmother. Job well done, Grandma. Now you can dance off across the clouds to see what new, lovely commotion you can cause.

The other grandkids had better watch out.

A Wild Goose Chase Christmas

Upon her grandmother's death, Izzy Fontaine finds herself in possession of a Wild Goose Chase quilt that supposedly leads to a great treasure. Of course, once the rest of the family finds out about it, they're determined to have a go at the treasure themselves.

If that’s not enough, local museum curator Max Logan claims that Grandma Isabella promised the quilt to him. What is it about this quilt that makes everyone want it? Is Izzy on a wild goose chase of her own, or a journey that will lead her to the treasure Gran intended?


  1. Jen, I loved A Wild Goose Chase Christmas and I've experienced exactly what you wrote about in this article. To me, that's the joy and magic of writing; when the characters take on life and you discover more story than you originally planned. :)

  2. We loved having Jen's release party over at Inkwell Inspirations. You'd all love seeing more pictures of grandma. The real deal!

    As Ane said, this to me is the biggest joy of writing. I love to plot. I create a long synopsis, I create the characters in depth. And yet... I love to hold on when they take over the story and surprise me.

    Now that NaNo is over, I can't wait to get some reading done. Thanks ladies. Love you Jen!

  3. Hi Ane & Deb! Without those surprises along the way, writing sure would be boring, wouldn't it? LOL... okay, maybe not boring, but certainly a lot less exciting.

  4. I love this! Hopefully, my son will be able to resurrect my laptop today and I'll be able to apply some of these techniques to the dead guy who inhabits my NaNoWriMo project this year!

  5. Jen is one of my favorite authors and I loved, loved The Pastor's Wife. Her stories stay with you long after you have finished. Do yourself a favor and get her books!

  6. I'd love a quilt story! Kathleen

  7. I love the cover. Is this a series?

    Debbie Malone
    debbiejeanm at gmail dot com

  8. I have not yet read any of Jennifers books yet. A story about a quilt sounds like fun, expecially a book about family members all trying to get the same quilt. I wonder what family members will fight over of mine when I pass. LOL This sounds like a fun book to read.

    Debbie Clark

  9. And ... I had the hubs pick a number and Debbie Clark is the winner!

    1. Thanks Ane. Do you need my snail mail address. I am really going to enjoy reading this book. Thanks Jennifer AlLee also.

  10. Please, Debbie. Send it to me through the email under GROUND CONTROL at the top of the page.

  11. I love this idea because my grandmother made quilts and I have some of them to remember her by. I even wrote a poem about one of them. Sounds like a great story.


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