Today’s guest is bestselling Kindle author Kathleen Shoop. Her second historical fiction novel, After the Fog, is set in 1948 Donora, Pennsylvania. The mill town’s ”killing smog” was one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history, triggering clean air advocacy and eventually, the Clean Air Act. Kathleen’s debut novel, The Last Letter, sold more than 50,000 copies and garnered multiple awards in 2011, including the Independent Publisher Awards Gold Medal. A Language Arts Coach with a Ph.D. in Reading Education, Kathleen lives in Oakmont, Pennsylvania with her husband and two children.
For every woman who thinks she left her past behind… Rose Pavlesic is a straight-talking, gifted nurse who is also controlling and demanding. She has to be to ensure her life is mistake-free and to create a life for her children that reflects everything she missed as an orphaned child. Rose has managed to keep her painful secrets buried, away from her loving husband–who she discovers has secrets of his own–their children and their extended, complicated family.
But, as a stagnant weather cycle works to trap poisonous gasses from the three mills in town, Rose’s nursing career thrusts her into a conflict of interest she never could have fathomed–putting the lives of her loved ones at risk and forcing her to come face to face with her past.
Kathleen’s exhaustive research for After the Fog included reading volumes of nursing reports and handwritten/typed accounts of what community/public health nurses did for a living. Her research also included the Nursing Manual: Public Health Nursing Association of Pittsburgh (1941), Community Health Association: Nursing Technique (1930) and the Donora Historical Society. Here, she provides insights into crafting characters from clay to when they take their first breath. Enjoy!
Crafting characters is one of the most enjoyable parts of writing a novel. Authors want their characters to leap off the page, sit beside readers, and yank them through the story by the hand.
When I break out the literary clay, I can’t help but think of USA Network’s tagline, “Characters Welcome.” To sculpt the people of my books I explore their pasts, career paths, and the historical context of the setting. For example, considering issues such as traditional gender roles of the time and studying the bold outliers who defy expectations for their era. Simple enough.
But, being a messy drafter, this process takes patience with the layering of traits, habits, and actions. Take Rose Pavlesic, my main character in After the Fog. To me she lives and breathes. Rose is brash, no nonsense, smart, and desperate that her children don’t make the same mistakes she did. Oh, and she’s a mac-truck-turning-around-in-a-peaceful-cul-de-sac insensitive. But she cares to her core about the people she loves. Let’s take a look at what elements helped me mold her character:
Setting: 1948 Donora, Pennsylvania—a steel-mill town in the midst of one of America’s worst environmental disasters. This event, the “killing smog,” spurred the founding of the EPA and the 1955 Clean Air Act. This setting shaped much of Rose’s personality. Yes, there were demure, kittenish women living in mill-towns, but the women I knew (even decades after this event) weren’t them. And my research supported my anecdotal experience.
The women who ran mid-20th Century homes in towns like Donora were tough as the nails manufactured at the bottom of the hill. They had little time for coddling and praising people for things they should’ve been doing all along. They worked ‘til their hands shook with fatigue. They took pride in their homes—even if they slapped them together as their families grew and couldn’t keep the soot off the curtains, countertops, and doorjambs.
They cooked for husbands who worked all night and slept off the post-shift shots and beers all day. They quieted spirited children and encouraged education. Their language could be clipped and harsh. I tempered Rose’s hardness through affectionate moments with her husband and children—brushing her daughter’s hair each morning was something she looked forward to as much as eating.Rose’s Past: As with any character that is stone-pillar strong, there are cracks in the plaster. While the reader sees snippets of Rose’s early years, I needed to fully understand why she might be a patient’s greatest comfort and her children’s least favorite parent. What happened to Rose to make her scrappy, abrasive, and hard to like by the people she loved most?
Rose’s life in the orphanage left her secretive and untrusting. After being “rescued” by a kind-hearted nun, Rose found her calling: nursing. Nursing provides her with security, a feeling many people find in intact families.
A Character’s Work: As a community nurse, Rose’s need to be needed fulfills her humanity. Rose’s profession gave me the opportunity to put her in the homes of Donora citizens, an eyewitness to the suffering. While shuffling through town during those dark days, Rose pieces together the worsening events, giving the reader insight into why so few people reacted to the alarming situation until too late.
Creating faceted characters—it’s the task of any writer. Rose is an amalgamation of so many women I knew in life and studied through this process. Love her or hate her, my hope is that she causes a stir. For a bold woman is a sight to behold.
Who is your all-time favorite, brazen female character in a book? What makes her strong and unforgettable?