Yesterday was my father's 90th birthday. Would have been, rather. He died on October 28, 2004, a few weeks after his 88th birthday, but I still mix up the tenses sometimes when I'm talking about him. And I do tend to talk about him rather often, since he's the real-life inspiration for Meg Langslow's father in my series from St. Martins.
When I created Meg's father, I tried to make him very different from my own. I made him short and plump and balding--Dad was 6'2" before age began to shrink him, and I don't really think he ever became plump, despite decades of Mom's cooking, and he kept his hair to the end. He was a marine biologist, not a physician like Dr. Langslow. Instead of Meg's dad's passion for mysteries, Dad had a lifelong passion for opera, and for French literature and culture.
But what I did steal from Dad to give to Meg's dad was the core of passionate enthusiasm for whatever he was interested in at the time. My friends have all heard me tell about when Dad read Andre Maurois's Lelia, a biography of George Sand. I read the book myself, in self-defense; so when Dad began reading me passages--we have always been a family of readers aloud--I could say "Yeah, Dad, I read it, remember?" And then, one day, while Mom and my brother, Stuart, and I were talking at the dinner about something--family stuff, school stuff, neighborhood stuff; who knows what?--Dad seized a microsecond's pause in the conversation and said, with great enthusiasm: "So--speaking of George Sand!"
It's that zeal that I gave Meg's Dad. It made Dad a lot of fun to have around. It makes Meg's dad a lot of fun to have in the books. And it gets him--and by extension, Meg--into the kind of trouble that helps make the plots happen.
Mom read Murder with Peacocks, my first book, in manuscript, but Dad waited until I arrived home for Thanksgiving with a copy of the ARC to show off. I guess it finally looked like a book to him. After dinner, Mom and I sat down to talk and Dad disappeared into his den with the ARC.
A few minutes later he reappeared, holding up the book, with one finger stuck between the pages as a bookmark.
"Hey," he said, "This takes place in here in Yorktown!"
"Um, yeah," I said. Had he somehow missed that part in the last few months when I'd babbled incessantly about my book, as first-time authors are prone to do?
He ambled back into his den. A few minutes later he reappeared.
"She's got the way you hate coconut in there," he said to Mom, with a mischievous chuckle. Then he disappeared again.
Mom and I looked at each other.
"Boy," I said finally--or maybe it was Mom. "Won't he be surprised when Meg's dad shows up?"
He was a little dismayed, at first, to find that in some way he'd become a fictional character. But after a while, he came to like the idea. Began giving me material. "Hey," he'd say. "I did something today you're going to want to use!"
Of course, Meg's dad isn't Dad. In some ways, he gets less like Dad with each book. He's been having his own adventures, different from Dad's. And yet all too often, when I'm looking for inspiration for what Meg's dad will do in a situation, I find myself pulling out bits of Dad's character. For example, from the eighth book, which will be out next year, and which will have penguins in the title, though we're still trying to decide exactly what that title will be:
A sudden wave of nostalgia hit me. Many of my fondest childhood memories were of Dad strolling into the kitchen or the living room holding a wild creature, dead or alive, to give us an impromptu biology lessons. Mice, voles, shrews, snakes, snapping turtles, rabbits, and bats from the back yard or the nearby woods, and an apparently endless supply of slightly flattened possums plucked from the highway. Most of the live animals would be trying to escape or to bite Dad--sometimes both at once--and invariably, if Mother was home, Dad's lectures would be punctuated by shrieks of "Get it out! Get that thing out of my house! Now!"
Once Dad had rounded up the largest possible audience--preferably all three kids plus any stray cousins or neighbors visiting that day--he'd adjourn to the backyard to continue his lesson, which invariably ended with someone taking a picture of Dad with his catch, followed by a trek to the woods to bury the dead animals or release the wild animals at a safe distance from any busy roads.
Taken from life. The accompanying photo--not from the upcoming book--shows Dad on the grounds of Bayreuth, holding a recently deceased hedgehog. First hedgehog any of us had seen, but most of us were content to contemplate it from a distance. Not Dad.
I don't often base characters directly on real people. In fact, I can only think of three characters that had a single, identifiable real-life model. Duck the duck; Spike, the small evil one; and Meg's dad.
Happy 90th, Dad.