Where do we get our inspiration? Certainly, we don’t live in a vacuum—at least hopefully not. It’s the people who surround us who can provide the spark for a character. But wait! There’s a danger here, surely. Have you read a novel written by someone you knew well? There’s a great tendency to try to figure out who the characters might be in real life. And so, rarely have I ever modelled a character on a living, breathing human being. At least not so you’d notice, I hope.
But, having practised law for thirty years, I did meet some clients who, by their natures, begged to be immortalized.
Here’s the story of the “birth” of Norma Dinnick, a major character in two of my novels in The Osgoode Trilogy—Final Paradox and A Trial of One. For a number of years, I was responsible for an elderly lady [age 98] under a power of attorney for finances and personal care. In my law practice, this meant looking after just about every conceivable need.
So, this elderly woman owned a small apartment building an lived in one of the units on the main floor. As she grew older, she unfortunately succumbed to various forms of dementia. She had no relatives who could help. It was getting dangerous for her to live there alone where only a few other units were rented. I was at her apartment one evening trying to counteract the effects of paranoia when she really succumbed to mental disorientation, such that it was impossible to leave her there alone. I called the ambulance.
While we waited, she sat on her living room couch talking to a wide variety of men who had suddenly appeared very vividly in her own mind. I was surprised to say the least because her conversations with them were—what she would call—“blue.” I would call them fascinating because, of course, I was seeing her only as a old, frail and very disoriented woman. Hard to envision her as young, attractive, vivacious and flirtatious [to say the least].
At that moment, the character of Norma Dinnick was born. Here was an elderly person who, on the surface, seemed “nice” and grandmotherly. But no, in reality—this was a woman with a very colourful past. That was the spark and from that spark grew Norma Dinnick, the sweet little old fraud artist!
In the first few pages of Final Paradox, you will meet Norma Dinnick, Harry Jenkins client. Harry, a lawyer, is the protagonist of The Osgoode Trilogy. Her trips back and forth between lucidity and madness, keep Harry off kilter. Together, they go upstairs to check an apartment from which she insists she hears sounds.
Fussing with a jumble of keys, Norma teetered to the top of the narrow stairs. At the door, Harry knocked sharply. He could hear the accusations in court. Unauthorized entry by landlord, with her solicitor in tow. With exasperated sighs, Norma worked one key after another until the door swung open into the silent room.
Light flooded through the extraordinarily large bay window. Harry set his briefcase down and drew in the cool, musty air. He looked through the living room, dining room and on into the kitchen. His view of the apartment was entirely unobstructed by rugs, drapes or furniture. Dust motes floated in the light and the silence was broken only by laughter of children playing in the street below. Norma stood off to one side, dwarfed by the cold and empty fireplace.
“Please, Harry, you must get them out. They’re driving me mad.”
“But Norma,” he said quietly, “I don’t see anyone.” He edged closer to her.
Her face puckered with annoyance. He thought she might stamp her foot. “Of course not! They’re only here at night.”
“But I don’t see any furniture, either.” Harry knew that his client was at least partially delusional. Fortunately, the law recognized that you could still make a will even if you saw the occasional apparition.
Norma’s lower lip trembled as she muttered, “Please. You must get the tenants out. I can’t stand it any longer.”
“All right, Norma.” He put his arm around her. “I’ll try my best,” he concluded doubtfully, wondering how to give legal notice to a phantom.
So, for me, one client was a huge source of inspiration. Of course, my client was not a master-fraud, but there was enough in that moment of conversation as she sat on the couch to create a character strong enough for two novels. With people, you’ll find inspiration in the most surprising situations.