My Characters are Real People (But Not in the Way You Might Think)



Today marks the release of my latest novel, Bayou, Whispers from the Past. It’s a book that has a strong focus on how family shapes us, so today I’m writing about the question I get more often than any other.

You run this risk as a writer. People who know you will read your books and inevitably think you have written about them. (Usually, I find, it happens with an antagonist. Or when there’s a deep flaw in a character. Or when there’s a very specific bad thing that is done. People never think you’ve written about their best qualities, but that’s a different article.)  I’ve done a few interviews since I wrote this Bayou series, and in almost every one, I’ve been asked the same question: Do I base my characters on people I know?

When I wrote my first novel, as my masters’ thesis, my mother asked to read it. Afterwards, she said, “I’m going to have to have a t-shirt made that says, ‘I’m not the mother in the book.'”

She was halfway joking (I think), but it wasn’t until later that I really understood: she was focusing on the flaws of that fictional character. (Think Emily Gilmore, of Gilmore Girls fame.) She thought readers would think I’d based my deeply flawed mother character on my real mother.

Fast forward a few years later, when the Bayou series comes out. Now I’ve written mothers and grandmothers who are central figures in the story. Are they based on my real family? Sure. But not in the way you might think. And not in the way my mother might fear.

So here’s the thing about writing characters. I do base them on real people. That’s how, as a writer, you make characters real. You write about real flaws you see in people around you. You write about real moments of strength and struggle, real reactions, real idiosyncrasies that make people unique and memorable.

But here’s the kicker: it’s all composite. 

Let me explain.

In the Bayou series, the heroine Enza has a grandmother named Vergie. When I wrote Vergie, I gave her some traits I admired in both of my grandmothers. She lives in the country, like my grandmother Lula Mae: she gardened, she raised goats, and she had a strong connection to the land around her. But I also gave Vergie some of my grandma Jean’s qualities—including her journaling, her toughness, and some real words she told me. As I write, I borrow real snapshots from the lives I see around me, and fit them together to create a history I need to build in a character. Parts of Vergie’s life were real for someone in my family (her trip to Niagara Falls, the way her husband died young, the lesson she learned from going fishing), but others were completely made up based on what I needed the character to experience to drive the story forward.

So is Enza’s mother based on my real-life mother? In a lot of ways, she’s the opposite. But my real mother can be seen in other characters, like in Enza and in her friend Kate. When Enza throws a dinner party and wants everything just-so, when she begins repairing a house on her own—that’s snapshots of my real mother being woven into her character. See how this composite thing works? No one character is based purely on one person, and one real life person can show up in lots of characters in a lot of different ways.

So, yes, if you know me, then it’s likely that some little piece of you will end up in a story of mine someday. Some moment that we shared might pop up in a way you wouldn’t expect—that night when we three squeezed into the bench seat of an old pick-up truck together, or some wise thing you said after my car broke down, or that compassionate thing you did for a stranger when you thought I wasn’t looking. Those moments will come into a book someday because they caught my attention, and they made me see a new part of you, and that in turn made me who I am. And in some ways, I’m a composite of all the people in my life who have made it more interesting anyway. I’m a jigsaw puzzle and all of these moments we shared are the pieces.

I wouldn’t be me without you.


Read the latest review + interview with Jennifer from Dandelions Inspired. In it, I talk a little about family. If you want to see how setting becomes its own character, check out my latest article for Southern Writers Magazine

Writing Against Ennui



Ever have those days where you don’t feel like doing that creative thing that you love? What happens when those days stretch into weeks? I’ve joked about having ennui, but they were only half-jokes.

Okay. Scratch that. They weren’t jokes at all.

I’ve given myself some sort of block. I just think about drawing, or writing, or binding a book, and I heave a cartoonish sigh and stop myself before I ever start. But this doesn’t need to be happening right now.

I have the next book in my series to write. I have two other books that need to be revised. But guess what? I don’t feel like writing. I haven’t for days. Weeks. I thought that feeling would go away. It hasn’t.



I started reading more, hoping to get inspired. I read “The Secret Place” by Tana French, “Minnow” by James McTeer. I started watching Lost again because I liked it the first time around and missed some key details, and hell, I just like those characters an awful lot. (They’re like old friends, and their struggle is worse than mine.) I’ve cleaned the house, baked banana bread, and applied to about a million new jobs. I’ve done just about everything EXCEPT write. (Excluding cover letters, that is. I’ve written a ridiculous number of cover letters).

These funks of mine are pretty cyclical. I know they’re coming, I just don’t know exactly when. So the question is, how can you prepare for this kind of thing and keep on doing what you do without this annoying interruption? There’s a voice in my head that’s yelling, “Just buck up. Pull it together and start stringing words together.”

My writing friend came for a visit today and made a list of bookish things she needs to do. She instructed me to do the same while she took a phone call. So I made the list, and it looks like this:

  1. write Bayou book #3
  2. revise thesis novel you never revised that last time
  3. finish potential YA novel with the bad ending
  4. reprint of ABC book

It’s a vague list. I know this. But here’s the thing: I really want to cross something off that list. So now I can choose one (perhaps the one that requires the least amount of work, because I’m feeling THAT lazy right now) and get started. This will create momentum, I’m sure of it, and then that momentum might carry on to the next project on the list.

When I told my friend Katie about this feeling, she said, “Omygod, did you not read my last post? I was having THE SAME THING.”

It’s true. She just wrote about this very ennui:

I would say, “I’m such a baby,” but another important thing I’m learning is compassion, which starts at home. 

Compassion, she says. And she’s right. Why are we so hard on ourselves? Sometimes I think we creative people are the worst: we are absolutely brutish to ourselves, and we hold ourselves to impossible standards. We give ourselves deadlines that anyone else would balk at.

Katie came around and cut herself some slack, and when I read her post today, I realized that I’ve been extremely hard on myself too. Part of my job is being friendly and helpful to every person that walks in the door—and giving them the benefit of the doubt when they make seemingly bad decisions. But I realized I haven’t been doing that for myself. (My subconscious has been trying to tell me, what with its desire for castaways and banana bread, but I was only half listening.)

So here I am, fully listening, giving myself a break. I will give myself tonight to finish wallowing. I will open a file, start reading an old manuscript, and make plans while Katie types furiously across the room. Tomorrow I’ll have coffee and start revising that manuscript, and create some new momentum. I’ll cut myself some slack and let myself start slow, and stop worrying about the size of these books and the vast number of pages left to write. I’ll stop beating myself up because I haven’t written fast enough or good enough. I’ll take this one sentence at a time.


Want more writing tips? Check out my monthly column on Underground Book Reviews

First image courtesy of Second is Henri, Le Chat Noir, courtesy of Youtube. 

The Animals are Back, and They’re Book-Festival Bound

I’m delighted to be presenting at the Carolina Mountains Literary Festival in a couple of weeks. Festivals are one of my favorite bookish things because it means I get to meet readers—and let’s face it, in today’s online-driven world, that doesn’t happen all that often.


On September 9th and 10th, I’ll be presenting on an illustrators’ panel with two other artists, Ellie Kirby and Kevin Watson. This invitation took me a little by surprise, because lately I’ve been writing novels. Sure, I make artist books, but that’s a little out of place at a festival like this, right? It took me a while to connect my invitation with a book from way back in the vault. My children’s book, What Do Animals Do on the Weekend?, was published what feels like a lifetime ago (but really just irhinosn 2002). That book is out of print now, but you can still find it online through secondary sellers. (If you’re coming to the festival, it’s likely BYO-copy, but believe me, I’ll be thrilled to sign it for you! There were only 5,000 copies printed.)


I’ve been thinking for a while about doing a second printing of What Do Animals Do myself, and this festival has made me move it closer to the top of my to-do list. I have all of my original illustrations, and the perfectionist in me kind of always wished I’d used the original water-colored block prints instead of digitizing them for production. Now that creating a print-on-demand book has become so easy, it makes sense to do a second printing. (PLUS, I get to appease the perfectionist.)


In this panel I’m part of, I’ll be talking about how I create images through the process of block printing and how those kinds of images can be reproduced digitally. Don’t get me wrong: I love making artist books because every part of them is handmade: I’m carving wood blocks, printing by hand, coloring by hand, sewing books together, binding the traditional way, sometimes even making my own paper. But it takes a lot of time and materials to make books that way, and that means they aren’t priced like paperbacks. Artist books are expensive, and rightfully so. But if I want to make my books available to more readers, and make them more generally affordable, then I have to find a way to produce them in a less expensive way. As an experiment, I took two of my most popular artist books and redesigned them so I could print high-quality versions of them from my home printer. I chose a nice paper to print with, bound the books myself, and letterpress-printed the covers so they still had a couple of handmade elements. I Want a Crayfish’s Heart and Migration: A Field Guide to Love that Was and Might Have Been still exist as collectible artist books, but you can also get copies for less than $15 that are good quality and still have a handmade feel. (Both are available through this site.)



For now, I still create artist books because I am in love with the processes that go into making them by hand. But my love for books also means I’m creating in other formats that lend themselves to wider readership and better accessibility. In a field that is constantly changing, that means I’m always adapting my processes to make my books available to those who want them. And that means it’s time to stop procrastinating and redesign this ABC book so it comes alive in a second printing.


Fun Fact: Originally, What Do Animals Do on the Weekend? was created as an artist book. It was made from linoleum block prints, printed on luscious Rives BFK paper, hand-tinted with watercolor and printed with metal and wood type. I hand-bound those books too, sewing them in the traditional way. A few of those collectible copies are still available, and I still have some original, hand-colored block prints like the ones pictured in this post. They’re all in my Etsy shop, going to good homes, specially priced for a summer sale. For inquiries about purchasing multiple prints, or if you need one you don’t see pictured, email me. As of right now, I still have multiples of all 26.

Letter #6: On Not Writing



Note to readers: This post is part of a series of letters between me and my friend and author Katie Rose Guest Pryal. I publish our letters here on my blog, and she also publishes our letters on her blog. You can read all of our letters here. Check out Chasing Chaos, Katie’s newest book in the Hollywood Lights series. (Photo courtesy of


Dear Katie:

I was always under the impression you wrote every day, and I was always astounded, wondering how on earth you found time to do so with all the other balls you juggle. I’ve tried and failed at being one of those uber-dedicated writers who rolls out of bed at the crack of dawn in order to write before work.


I’m barely functional before 9 AM as it is. Forget trying to string words together in an elegant way. Forget writing snappy dialogue and creating a surprising yet believable plot arc. Most mornings I catch myself putting my cell phone in the fridge and attempting to put my coffee into my purse. Complex thoughts are not happening and nothing I say should be recorded in digital files or otherwise.

And writing when I get home from work? Nope. I wish I had that boundless energy, but after working all day at an exhausting job where I have to pretend to be an extrovert, I am way too tired to write before bed. By the end of my work day, my brain is so fried that I forget basic human tasks like, Put your pants on before you go outside. Last night after watching an episode of Mr. Robot to unwind, the fella sat up straighter, illuminated by epiphany, and tried to explain some key element in the plot twist we’d been stumbling over. I placed my hand on his arm and said, “You’re going to have to explainall of this to me again tomorrow,” because I seriously couldn’t understand any of the words coming out of his mouth. (Yes, I know the plot is quite convoluted anyway, but you and I read and write books that have complex plots. This is not something we are baffled by. Words are not something we have a shortage of.)

Sometimes I write on weekends, when the laundry and cooking and cleaning doesn’t take over. So I know what you’re asking: When the hell do you write?

Having a deadline helps. Hey, this novel needs to be finished by Dec 31. Ready, set, GO. When that happens, I start carving out time before and after work. (Having a seasonal job helps too, leaving me unemployed for a least a couple of months that I can then devote to writinga boo because HEY I have to be doing SOMETHING so it might as well be what I LOVE. Right? Honestly, I’ve been putting off this third book. I don’t really know how to start it. But after your last visit, I know I have to. That’s why it’s great when we set aside some time to visit each other, on our opposite ends of the state. That’s why it’s so important to have a writing partner, and that’s why I’m so glad we collided at that retreat all those years ago. Now that we’re starting this new adventure, I have a renewed sense of urgency to get back to the writingdesk. It’s like exercising—I miss it when I’m not doing it, and I feel better when I’m doing it, so why do I let myself fall off the wagon and blame it on all the things I mentioned above?

But enough whining. We have books to start and books to finish. We have lots of books in us, but we have other things in our lives besides novels. We’re still finding the balancing point, and that’s okay. I didn’t get a copy of the Life instruction manual, and I don’t think you did either. So far, we’re doing all right writing it for ourselves.