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July 28, 2010

Barbara Stuber on the Characters of CROSSING THE TRACKS

Posted by Marisa Emralino


Debut novelist Barbara Stuber joins us today with a peek behind the scenes of her new book, CROSSING TRACKS, which hit stores earlier this month.  Below, she shares some of the beautiful pieces of art that served as inspiration for her main characters and storyline, and explains how we, too, can use the things around us to do the same.

 What do fooyploo, pleepy, and krimifranz have in common?

They were featured in the first book I ever wrote with my best friend at age eight --- a “Diotionary” of nonsense words. (You can find the definitions on the pages of my website.)

Here’s the cover. Note that we even misspelled the word dictionary!

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I’ve created lots of nonsense since then --- three kids, lots of obsessively healthy sack lunches, a great job at an art museum, and a novel, CROSSING THE TRACKS.

You all know how kids are created -- right?

You know where nonsense words are created --– in those mysterious, mutant brain wrinkles.

But do you know where the characters in books are born?

Many characters in my novel were born in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City where I give tours. They’re not protoplasm and bone. They are portraits of people made of oil paint, who sit or stand day after day in fancy frames on the wall --- that is until I looked them in the eye and begged, Please be in my novel!

Would you like to meet a few?

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This portrait morphed into my main character, Iris. I made her younger (she’s actually 23 in this painting), pleaded with her to take a deep breath and stretch her back. Then I gave her a pulse, figured out what she was thinking, what perfume (the invisible accessory) she was wearing, what was making her heart ache, and what she was going to do next.

These two shadowy ladies also got in the book. I combined them into one character, named her Mrs. Nesbitt, and then gave her a voice, a past and a personality.

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 Sometimes just a body part made the cut. This Osage Indian blanket gave me the idea for a love letter that Iris receives in the mail from her boyfriend, Leroy. He expresses his longing by tracing his empty hands on stationery and sending the silhouettes to Iris. She touches them to her cheeks, her skin, and with a bit of imagination, Leroy’s hands grew warm and real.

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Want to try it? This mysterious painting is called Venus Rising from the Sea --- A Deception. What do you think she is doing behind that starched, white sheet? You decide. It might make a terrific story. I haven’t used Venus yet. She’s available if you’d like to borrow her for your next book!

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But no matter where a character is born, a good one should creep right under your skin. We writers need to paint our people so vividly that they grab the reader’s heart with both hands and won’t let go.

If you have a favorite artwork, I’d love to hear about it. If it’s a portrait, just add a beating heart and you’ve got yourself a character waiting for the story to begin. If it’s a landscape, you’ve got great a setting. If your favorite is abstract or surreal, you can start a fantasy or a science fiction saga.

And if you’ve got a crazy old word wedged in your head, send it with a definition and we can start our own nonsense. By the way, “krimifranz” means any kind of decorations or frills or anything that looks pretty that you put on or hang on. Way back in the fourth grade, we were ahead of our time. We invented the mother of “bling!”

 -- Barbara Stuber