Thursday, 29 May 2014

Guest Post: Creating characters – a snapshot of literary life being formed by Julia Stagg

Today as part of this feature week I'm delighted to welcome back to the blog Julia Stagg, author of the Fogas Chronicles, the latest of which A Fête to Remember is published as a paperback on 3rd July.  Julia has very kindly written an interesting piece for us about creating characters so enjoy...

Anyone who’s read any of the Fogas Chronicles will know my books are filled with characters and I’m often asked how they come to life. The answer isn’t a simple one. Because for me, the process of giving birth to a new fictional entity seems to be different every time.

Take for example, Fabian Servat, who arrives in book two of the Fogas Chronicles (The Parisian’s Return). He was actually conceived two years before he made it onto the page. In fact, he was the catalyst that triggered the series. Out riding my bike on a beautifully sunny day in the Pyrenees where I lived at the time, I passed a field that contained a sturdy, cantankerous Limousin bull. Struck by the attitude of the beast, I remember thinking that I wouldn’t want to confront him, especially wearing a flimsy armour of lycra. And there, before my eyes, Fabian was born. I could see him in the field, a gangling, awkward man, thin frame dressed in cycling kit as he flapped his hands ineffectively at the angry bovine that was getting ready to charge.

I didn’t know his name. I didn’t know why he was in the field. But I knew he was going to have a major impact on the sleepy mountain community of Fogas in the French Pyrenees. I cycled home, made copious notes and Fabian Servat came to life.

In my latest book, A Fête to Remember, yet another newcomer makes his entrance. But the creation of Jérôme Ulrich began, not with a vision, but with his job. I knew he was the Préfet of Ariège, the highest-ranking civil servant in the department. But he wasn’t the grey-faced older man you would expect. So how had he come to be Préfet? 

Thinking along those lines, his backstory came rapidly. He was direct, a bit uptight, almost Anglo-Saxon. So he had to be from Lorraine, where the German influence on France waters down the Mediterranean passion. He was a highflyer in the civil service, so he must have attended the École Nationale d’Administration, one of the most prestigious universities in France. But he had a working class background which meant he’d worked hard to get there and probably had a scholarship.

From here, it was easy to discover that his father was a miner, the Lorraine region famous for its coal production. And the sense of responsibility this young man had? The motivation for his meteoric rise in his chosen career? It stemmed from the childhood loss of his father. A day of research yielded the Forbach mining disaster where twenty-two miners were killed in an underground explosion. By coincidence, real-life events tied in perfectly with my character’s timeline. Throw in an Italian grandmother to add a bit of spice and the backstory was complete.

But how to name this newly begot man? His surname came first. Using archives, census reports and genealogy websites in French, I settled on a name from the Lorraine – Monsieur Ulrich. Now for his first name. Something dependable. Something principled. And something popular in his region the year he was born. Back to the internet for more research . . . and Jérôme Ulrich was fully formed. As for what he gets up to when he arrives in the mountain commune of Fogas – you’ll just have to read A Fête to Remember to find out!

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