Shaping story and character with Jean K. Carney

Jean K. Carney is the author of “Blackbird Blues”. She spent eight years as an award-winning reporter and editorial writer at the Milwaukee Journal, covering Children’s Court, City Hall, and Roe v. Wade. She’s also been in full-time private practice as a psychotherapist for thirty years, which certainly provides a rich foundation for understanding character. 

The first character who sprang to life in what was to become my novel “Blackbird Blues” was Benny, a young man who is the son of Maureen Rieger (before she becomes Sister Michaeline) and Lucius Claremont. I was watching a drummer at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago whose furious hand and arm movements threw me back 33 years earlier to the Children’s Home in Milwaukee to a boy who was “making music,” shuffling grit on the floor with his feet and sweeping his hair and hands across the table. A reporter at The Milwaukee JournalI was the only person besides his public defender who attended his court hearing and the only person who ever visited him at the Children’s Home, where he was held for years. After many conversations, I believed him when he said he had no idea why he had killed his teacher.

My character Benny does not kill his teacher and — other than his physical attributes — he is not modeled on the boy I covered as a reporter so long ago. But my work as a reporter had tremendous influence on the creation of the plot and characters of the novel. When I started at The Milwaukee Journal, the first thing my city editor told me was, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” The habit of checking and rechecking stuck with me as a novelist. In every exchange of dialogue, in every turn of the plot, I heard my city editor’s “check it out,” meaning, not only “Is this plausible?” but also “Is this exactly what this character would truly say at this particular moment?” I remember feeling the characters were truly becoming real when one night, while we were washing dishes, I asked my husband what he thought Lucius would think of Donald Trump’s latest tweet.

Looking back on my time since 1970, I feel privileged that literally many hundreds of people have confided their deepest secrets to me, first as a reporter and then as a psychotherapist. As a reporter, I put those secrets in the newspaper long ago. As a psychotherapist, I was bound and am still bound by Illinois law never to disclose them. I have not and will not use these secrets as materials in “Blackbird Blues” or any future novel. However, as a therapist, I had to listen very closely to the people who confided in me, let myself feel whatever I was feeling, and imagine my way into each person’s sensibility and experience. That was an invaluable experience. It greatly expanded my capacity for feeling and imagining. I owe my former patients a great debt of gratitude for that. I don’t think I would have been able to feel my way into the characters in “Blackbird Blues,” or imagine their lives as I was able to do, had I not been tutored, so to speak by my patients.

“Blackbird Blues” is chock full of historical data, including the 1960s Civil Rights movement, some of which I knew from reading newspapers as a child since the late 1950s. It was with great joy that I researched the life of Lucius, the 60-year-old jazz man, Benny’s father, and Sister Michaeline’s former lover. Lucius befriends the other main character, Mary Kaye, an 18-year-old Irish-American who must deal with an unwanted pregnancy just as Sister Michaeline, her mentor and jazz coach, dies.

Lucius was one of the African-American men who served under French military command during World War I because the American military did not mix races. Having killed a man in a boxing match, Lucius shoots over the heads of the Germans. As it happens, his commanding officer sympathizes with him, assigns him to learn cooking, and becomes his mentor in French culture. Lucius returns to Chicago from the war just in time for the 1919 race riot, memorialized in Carl Sandburg’s classic “Chicago Race Riots.”

On the subject of illegal abortion, I relied to some extent on my coverage of Roe v. Wade from my time at The Milwaukee Journal. I also found most helpful the following books: “The Story of Jane: The Legendary Feminist Abortion Service” (which took place in Chicago) by Laura Kaplan; “Abortion Rites: A Social History of Abortion in America” by Marvin Olask; and “Back Rooms: Voices from the Illegal Abortion Era” by Ellen Messer and Kathryn E. May.

Two books that were incredibly useful guides to the lives of nuns in Chicago were “He Sent Two: The Story of the Beginning of the School Sisters of Saint Francis” by Sister M. Francis Borgia, O.S.F., and “Good Hearts: Catholic Sisters in Chicago’s Past” by Suellen Hoy.

It was important to me that the characters in the novel would be historically plausible in terms of time and space. And I tried incredibly hard to make sure references to historical events were as accurate as possible. As my city editor’s voice urged, I was constantly checking my memory and my hunch. I wanted “Blackbird Blues”to be a literary novel, but also truly a historical novel.

Many thanks, Jean, for sharing the background to writing Blackbird Blues. I now know who to consult when digging deep to understand character.

Blackbird Blues by Jean K. Carney ~~ With the help of sixty-year-old black jazz man Lucius, Mary Kaye O’Donnell, an eighteen-year-old Irish-American woman and aspiring jazz singer in Chicago, finds her way toward dealing with an unwanted pregnancy and the death of Sister Michaeline, her voice coach, jazz mentor, and only guide through the bedlam of her childhood.

Mary Kaye’s neighbor, Judge Engelmann, introduced her to the work of James Baldwin and the nuns exposed her to the burgeoning civil rights movement, but Lucius is the first black person Mary Kaye comes to really know. They bond over Sister Michaeline’s untimely death. Over time, Lucius helps Mary Kaye launch her career as a singer in his jazz band. He also gives her Sister Michaeline’s diary from her early cloistered years, saying it was the nun’s wish. In reading the diary and in conversations with Lucius and Judge Engelmann, Mary Kaye discovers disillusioning aspects and secrets of her beloved mentor.

This is Mary Kaye’s coming-of-age story as she weighs her options based on the diary, her faith, and her music, set against the background of illegal abortion and child abandonment in the 1963 Chicago world of civil rights and interracial jazz. It is entirely a work of fiction, but in today’s political climate one could imagine something similar becoming real.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website




Keeping Historical Figures Real by Mary Sheeran

When people learn that I’m an author, they often ask about my writing process, the characters I create, and how I come up with ideas for stories. Today, author Mary Sheeran talks about creating characters for her novels. Interesting stuff! When she isn’t writing, Mary is singing or performing in some way and has played leads in Brigadoon, Stop the World, and Cabaret.


Keeping Historical Figures Real – by Mary Sheeran

Novels deal with real people. Just because the people are creations of our imagination does not make them unreal. If you’re like me, you live with your characters, and they live with you. And I try to remember: every character in my novel is mine, made from my imagination and my knowledge.

In historical novels, however, some of those people may have walked the earth. Readers may even know their names and have opinions about them. These “historical figures” add credibility to the novel, but they can also create special problems.

We spend a long time reading and researching the periods in which our novels are set. If you’re like me, you take notes and file them the way that makes sense to you, whether in notebooks, binders, computer files, or index cards. (I confess that I also mark up books. Don’t kill me.) The more instrumental historical figures are in the story, the more research is needed – we can’t just read one book and be done with it.  Walt Disney is a minor but significant character in my novel Banished From Memory, and I read through three biographies (one completely unflattering) and a book of interviews plus memoirs of people who worked with him. All the while I’m reading, my brain is spinning with the story and how that character will fit.

It’s so easy to lose perspective with all that reading and researching. The important thing is not to add historical figures just to show that you know what you’re doing but to drive the story. A writer’s instincts can enhance the person readers think they know, and good historical fiction blends the “real” characters (the ones real to the writer) with the historical ones we make real. In the process, writer and readers can make a unique discovery.

It’s fun! It’s tricky! And after writing a couple of historical novels, I have adopted a few guiding rules about juggling “real” and “historical” characters.

Create a new character based on a historical person. Otherwise known as “copping out!” While working on my novel Who Have the Power, set during the Comstock Lode era, I discovered the dramatic life of San Francisco banker William Ralston. He was president of the Bank of California but when things got a little rough, he died of a heart attack. I created a new character (and another bank) and fiddled with Ralston’s character to make a new person who fit my story. (I made a new life, but I still killed him.)

Create a character who is a historical person.That’s right! You’re still creating someone! For Who Have the Power, I decided not to make up anyone to sub for the miner and eventual mogul, John Mackay, who found what was called “the big bonanza.” That event was important to the story, and I couldn’t mask Irving Berlin’s grandfather-in-law as someone else. I put him in a rollicking setting and let him do what he wanted, but the essential facts belonged to the real Mackay.

Dig as much as you can and then make stuff up. Who Have the Power deals with small Native tribes in Nevada and California who had been almost wiped out and who had very little written about them. What was written about them came from the pens of well-meaning, white, Christian observers from the nineteenth century. And what they wrote was mostly about men. I wrote about Native women, so I had to search hard, but mostly, I had to wait for reliable information to be published. Even when information about Native American women of the far western states began to appear, none of it—except for a slim volume—had to do with “my” tribes, and correspondence brought very little. I had to make stuff up, but it was based on what information I did have, and from that, sense what was real. I wanted to bring out these women’s spirit and their lives. Fortunately, they helped by becoming real for me.

We can’t just report; all characters need to drive the story and have something of the writer in them. Taking a historical character and placing them in a long scene with “fictional” characters is challenging – but fun. We can’t just rattle off what we read about them. We need to balance the accuracy of their lives with the imagination that goes to our fingers.

Several historical people shared long scenes with the characters I created in Banished From Memory (due out May 14), but I’ll mention two here: Richard Nixon and Katharine Hepburn.

Nixon’s reputation is almost a caricature now. Everyone knows what became of him (if not, google away). I used that understanding to play against, for Nixon is a tragic figure as much as a symbol of how power corrupts. To add some dimension to his character, I referred to a younger Nixon and, at the same time, focused attention on the Nixon of 1960, all through the eyes of the major characters and in a way that furthered the plot.

As for Katharine Hepburn, I’ve loved her since junior high. I met her once, briefly, when walking through her Turtle Bay neighborhood, and I said, “Thank you” as I passed by her in her yard and kept walking. She called out for me to wait, looked me in the eyes, shook my hand, and said with a wicked grin, “You are quite welcome.” I remember those glistening eyes! Of course, I read several biographies of her (biographies are somehow also works of fiction to some degree). She seemed isolated in her later life, but in her younger years, she was one free spirit. Although she has only a few scenes in Banished, she plays a major role. I introduce her with her trademark breeziness but find her in quieter moments, too. My favorite line in the novel is hers, and she didn’t say it, but I can well imagine her saying it: “Passion – living life at fever pitch – loving through it – if you don’t have much of that, I don’t think life’s worth living.”

Be careful even when you’re being quickBanished From Memory is set in the Hollywood of 1960 and concerns a fictional family of movie stars. (Wait, they are real!) In one chapter, I took this family to an Oscar nominations dinner, which meant lots of stars and famous people were present.

Even cameos have to seem real; one can’t just plop them in. I had to watch the famous through the eyes of Dianna Fletcher, my protagonist. I could only sketch the stars briefly as well as plant a couple of conversational threads that Dianna would see as confirming her opinions and also contributing to the story.

The challenge of casting historical people with characters we create, then, is two-fold: Every character has to somehow drive the story, and all the characters belong to the writer and to the story – even the ones we think we made up.

Many thanks, Mary. I also think of my characters as real people. They get so inside my head, I even have conversations with them. Best wishes for your new novel!

Banished From Memory by Mary Sheeran ~~ It’s 1960. Sixteen-year-old Dianna Fletcher has been accustomed to the bright lights of Hollywood all her life-but now they are casting shadows on her family’s past and on her own future.

Dianna fears she is losing her talent and failing to live up to her family’s legacy. When she does land a part, she finds an unexpected enemy in brilliant actor and womanizer, Bill Royce, who not only attacks her confidence but holds a deep grudge against her family. Dianna comes to believe Bill’s resentment is related to her suspicion that her parents harbor a secret linked to the blacklist. But even as their friendship grows despite their misgivings about each other, Bill will not confess what he knows.

As Dianna struggles with her career in a rapidly changing industry, she urges Bill to share his dark past with her, only to discover secrets that could destroy her family’s prestige and power.

Banished From Memory highlights the conflicted relationship between two legacies of the blacklist, the sunset of classic Hollywood, the challenges and gifts of acting, and a determination on the part of one generation to exhume the truth of another’s. But at what cost?