Some of the material in this blog appeared years ago on a blog, but I recently was thinking about how much of what the writer knows about a character never finds its way onto the page, but is important in developing both character and plot. Particularly important in my writing is my life as a kid growing up on a farm in the Midwest.
I was a lucky kid. My mother may have been bat shit crazy, but I had an aunt who adored me. She was a part-time bartender at a local drinking establishment. When Mom was too sick to take care of me, my aunt took me with her to the bar. I sat on one of the stools next to the guys who shook salt into their beers, ordered me Shirley Temples and gave me nickels to put into the juke box. My aunt often met up with her married boyfriend at the bar, something she did not want her parents to know about. I kept her secret and both of us hid from my mother that auntie was taking me into the bar with her. This was when I was about three or four years old. I felt older and more sophisticated than other kids my age. I was. How many kids of five can say they know the difference between a martini and a dry martini?
Years later my aunt took me with her when she bowled on a team, an event that happened in the back of the building that housed the bar. The bowling took place when I was older, around ten or so. The best thing about it was that I got to stay overnight with her because the game didn’t end until around ten at night. Actually, it ended at nine, but she and I went to the bar and drank cokes with her boyfriend who preferred to hang out there than go home to his family. By that time my parents were in bed so it was too late for me to go home. I got to sleep in my aunt’s queen-sized bed. She lived with her parents, my grandparents. Since the bowling was on a week night, I was always tired at school the next day, but I never complained because I didn’t want my parents to insist I stay home instead of going with my aunt.
This was exciting. I was living a secret life along with my aunt. I never told anyone that my aunt met her boyfriend at the bar although I’ll never figure out why she found the guy so appealing. As I remember him, he had a bad overbite and smelled always of cigarettes and whiskey. And although he finally divorced his wife and married my aunt, I never saw him as good husband material. He did have a great dog, so maybe my aunt liked the dog.
What’s also funny is that other members of my family also chose me as their confident. My grandfather who was not supposed to smoke cigarettes would let me sit with him in the garage while he smoked. Then he and I would eat sensens, a licorice candy to remove the smell of the smoke. I don’t’ know if it fooled my grandmother, but it was yet another secret I enjoyed keeping. I didn’t much like the candy. But it was fun watching him blow smoke rings. And it was a secret.
My grandmother on my mother’s side of the family loved to go to funerals. Perhaps that’s why I relate so well to Grandmother Mazur in Janet Evanovich’s work. My grandparents lived in Rockford, Illinois. To a small child after WWII, Rockford seemed like “the big city.” On one occasion when I visited them, my grandmother and I took a number of buses to get to a funeral home where she said one of her friends was being buried. We walked in before the service and headed up front to the casket. My grandmother leaned over the body for only a moment before she grabbed my hand and pulled me out of there.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“That wasn’t my friend. Wrong funeral. Don’t tell anyone,” she said.
So I didn’t say a word. Wrong funeral or not, I loved these outings because she would always buy me a coke and French fries at the Walgreen’s drugstore in downtown Rockford and let me cut out the Brenda Starr paper dolls from the Sunday paper.
I spent a lot of time with my aunt and both sets of grandparents due to my mother’s poor health. My father’s mother sewed me a skirt for tap class and paid for my dance lessons. I was terrible at tap, but I loved that skirt. On Sundays I stopped by her house for fried chicken and on the week days I was there after school to watch “The Howdy Doody Show.” We didn’t have television in my home until I was in high school.
Thanksgiving and Christmas were spent at my paternal grandparents’ house with my bartending aunt making all of us Scarlet O’Haras and then running off to meet her married boyfriend after the meal. My grandparents disapproved. By the time she married him, both of my grandparents were dead.
As an adult I now realize how fortunate I was to have relatives who stood in for a mother who couldn’t cope. Maybe that’s why I love mining these family memories for material I use in my fictional creations. And because they did such a good job with me, as always, my writing about them is filled with humor. The Eve Apple mysteries was inspired by my grandmother’s passion for recycling and reusing, her motto being “never buy new.” The character of Aunt Nozzie in my short stories and novellas arises from my beloved aunt and her career as a part-time bartender.
Not only was I a lucky kid, but I’m a lucky adult. I have so much fascinating history to draw on for my writing ideas. What do you take from your childhood and use in your writing?