Getting to know your characters the Helen Simkin way

I’ve said before, and a lot of people know, that I wanted (and want) to extract myself from Mandrill Press. I’m happy to go on having them publish my books, because someone has to, but I don’t like the close association with two lady writers who write what they call erotica and I can’t help regarding as soft porn. And now Mandrill Press’s rude ladies are to be joined by a third, because we’ve agreed to take on Helen Simkin, who was introduced by Susie Hopkins.
I’ll still do the admin, because that was the original agreement and because I get 10% of everything everybody else sells and, if I’m honest, they usually sell more than me. The main change will be that, as Helen Simkin moves onto the Mandrill Press website, I’ll be moving off it.

How do you get to know your characters?

I wrote a review a day or so ago of Roz Morris’s book, Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated. As I said in that review, it was one of the few books about writing that had such value that I thought I’d be rereading it in the years to come. Roz Morris has a lot to say about making actions and dialogue fit the character. It’s good stuff. Maybe it was reading that book that caused me, when Helen sent her first book in for editing (no link, because it hasn’t been edited yet and it certainly isn’t ready for publication), to ask where she got her characters from.

Pics in the public domain

When she told me the answer, it was one of those “Aha” moments, when you think, “Well, of course. What else?” Helen doesn’t write about people she knows. What she does is to browse through Public Domain picture sites and download pictures of people that capture her attention. Ultimately, she is looking for CCO images – pictures available under Creative Commons to be used for commercial purposes (like a book cover) without payment. Sometimes they need to be attributed to the person who made the picture, and sometimes they don’t. She showed me some examples:

Getting to know a stranger

Having downloaded them, Helen simply stares at them. What she’s trying to do is to get inside the head of the person she’s looking at. See what makes them tick. Imagine how they would react to this event or that remark. These are people she doesn’t know and has never even seen before she downloads the pic, but she says that, after carrying a face around in her head for a few days and imagining interactions with the person whose face it is, she has a fully rounded character that she can do something with.

Your take may vary

I can see the value of this approach, and I might very well use it, but I don’t think I’m going to react to some of those people in the way that Helen Simkin does. Look at this one:

Helen used that to inspire her first book, The Girl Next Door. I don’t know what those words mean to you, but to me they suggest someone wholesome – virginal, I suppose. What Helen Simkin, pornographer of this parish, has going on inside that sweet-looking head is something I’d prefer not to share with you.

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