Saturday, February 28, 2015

"You Can't Make this Stuff Up!" Lourdes Venard & Characters Inspired by Obits


SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Delighted to introduce Lourdes Venard, seasoned journalist, freelance editor and editor of First Draft, the newsletter for the Sisters in Crime Guppies chapter, who's come up with a brilliant (and rather poignant) inspiration for creating characters — writing obituaries. Yes, obituaries. She has also self-published a book, Publishing for Beginners: What First-Time Authors Need to Know. The ebook is free on Kindle this weekend hereRead on....


LOURDES VENARD: One of the hardest things for writers may be to create a character, with all their eccentricities and mannerisms, as well as a rich backstory. Sure, you can sit in coffee shops and listen in on conversations, or even plumb your own life. Or you can read the obits.

When I was a young reporter at The Miami Herald, I was offered the chance to move from one of the neighborhood bureaus to the main City Desk—a coveted spot for cub reporters. The catch?  I would also be writing obituaries.

Morbid as it sounds, this was actually appealing. The Miami Herald’s obituaries were little biographical gems, insights into the lives of the famous and not-so-famous. I found I loved it, and hard as it was sometimes to make that initial call to family members, I found the relatives wanted to share their stories. It was almost as if they had been waiting for that call: so tell me about your grandmother, your aunt, your cousin. I listened, sometimes open-mouthed, sometimes with tears in my eyes, as the stories spilled out.

I wrote about well-known Miami politicians, celebrities and Florida pioneers. But I also wrote about those who readers had never heard of. There was the Olympic fencer from an aristocratic Hungarian family who, when he immigrated to the United States, had to work as a gravedigger for a time before he became a fencing teacher. There was the Dixieland jazz musician who was a musical child prodigy at age 4 and as a teenager ran away to New Orleans, where he discovered jazz; he later played with The Jackie Gleason Show orchestra. There was the teacher with the wonderful name of Bain Lightfoot, whose earlier careers included professional ice skater, newspaper reporter and tavern owner. “He had read a lot, he was intelligent,” his wife said. “He found he could do a whole bunch of things.”

I even wrote about the Miami Beach civic activist who was a prolific writer of letters to the editor, which The Miami Herald printed—until the paper implemented a policy limiting the number of letters it would print from one person. The letter writer was devastated, but found a way around it—he would send letters signed with his wife’s name. I guess he got the last laugh: a full obit in the paper.

I wrote several times of long-married couples who died just a week or two apart. But perhaps one of the strangest obits I wrote was about a divorced couple who died together. The couple, in their 80s and married 57 years, had divorced nine months earlier. A few weeks before their death, they had begun dating again. They were on their way home from one of those dates when they died in a car accident. “They couldn’t live with each other. They couldn’t live without each other,” said one relative. “As luck would have it, they died together.”

As humorist Dave Barry (a Herald colleague at the time) always likes to say: You can’t make this stuff up!

I always tried to be respectful in the obits, but I also strove to make them interesting, looking for those offbeat or unique tidbits. This style of obit writing first gained favor in the 1980s. In the book The Dead Beat, by Marilyn Johnson, she writes about this focus on “regular people”: “People whose lives had been considered dull as linoleum to the general public were offered up as heroes of their neighborhood and characters of consequence. Even more important, every particular of their quirks and foibles—the brand name of their cigarettes, their taste in horror movies—was presented as a clue to the mystery of their existence in the fascinating story of their lives.”

The truth is, as I found out as a young reporter, was that everyone does have a fascinating life story, even if it’s not always apparent at first glance. In these stories, I found what fiction writers strive for: to build well-rounded characters whose lives are not always neat and tidy, but filled with heartbreak, humor and persistence in the face of adversity. In short, life in all its messiness.

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Readers, do you read the obits regularly? What's the most unique one you've ever read (not using names)? What else do you want to talk about this lovely Saturday? Please let us know in the comments!


In addition to working at major American newspapers for 30 years, Lourdes Venard is a freelance editor and editor of First Draft, the newsletter for the Sisters in Crime Guppies chapter. She has also self-published a book, Publishing for Beginners: What First-Time Authors Need to Know. The ebook will be free on Kindle this weekend — click here.


26 comments:

Joan Emerson said...

Generally I don't read the obituary columns unless someone I know has passed away.
Obituaries are tough things; there are people mourning the loss of each person listed there. And after a few times that those listings have included someone you personally knew or cared about or loved, it gets quite a bit harder to read them.
I must admit that I'd never thought of writers using the obituary pages for characters, but it does make perfect sense. And I must say I applaud your efforts to make the lives of "ordinary" people seem important. After all, the world is full of "ordinary" people who, in their own ways, are most extraordinary.

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

Lourdes, it's so nice to see you here! You had a wonderful background for writing mysteries--and what a lovely essay.

I do read the obits in the New York Times--they are so interesting and well-written. The local papers too, though that's less for the writing and story and more for the real people.

Hopefully we'll see this in a novel one day:)

Jill said...

My mother loves the obits! "The Deads" she calls them. As in, "give me the Deads, your dad's reading the front page. " :-)

Jill said...

My mother loves the obits! "The Deads" she calls them. As in, "give me the Deads, your dad's reading the front page. " :-)

Kaye Barley said...

This was just fascinating and wonderful - thank you.

I do not read the obits, but may just have to be a bit more diligent about doing that.

Was it Margaret Atwood who said, "In the end, we'll all become stories?"

Gram said...

My Aunt Bette worked for the Herald for many years and had many stories to tell.

Margaret Turkevich said...

I wrote the obits for my parents. It was a tough assignment. Because they loved to travel, I mentioned their favorite places, as well as the city of their courtship.

Karen in Ohio said...

As Oprah used to say, everyone has a story, right?

For years I've started my day reading the obituaries, and now that they are online it's easier. I also read the death notices for my hometown, since my mother so often forgets to tell me when people we know in common--or classmates--have passed away.

This was a recent one that struck me: "born February 28, 1933 died on February 21, 2015 at the age of 81. Father of 5 papa of 8. Teller of jokes; Giver of sarcasm; protector of many; blessing counter; hero; liver of life. Doer of crosswords. Keeper of secrets. Owner of memories; King of storytelling. Award winning compliment giver and one of the best human beings we've ever come across. He lived his life for the good of his family and for that, we will be forever grateful."

And a friend's mother was just "beamed up", according to her obituary, which sounds exactly as if her daughter, a cleverly amusing person, wrote it for her.

Kim said...

Thank you, Lourdes - what food for thought. I don't read the obituaries but your descriptions here of how important it is to seek out the richness in every life hits home with me as I struggle with some of my characters. This was the perfect thing to read before I start writing this morning.

Anonymous said...

This is fascinating. I read the obits in the NYT sometimes - but now you've opened a whole new world of potential characters for me. Thank you! Thelma Straw in polygot upper east side Manhattan... as I watch the street on Lexington and 92nd St,,, it looks like the center of the globe now, a crossroads of humanity! Every color and language passes by!!!

Judy Alter said...

Great post, Lourdes. Interesting and helpful. I skim the obits, but after reading this, I may read more carefully.

Susan said...

This is a wonderful post, Lourdes. Your own experience in editing newspapers brings out such a rich source of ideas for characterization. After all, the books we write are about just that: humanity in all its conflict, joys, and sorrows.

PK the Bookeemonster said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lourdes Venard said...

Thanks for the comments. Glad to see so many still reading the obits! And Margaret, yes, it is much tougher to write about someone you know.

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Welcome, Lourdes! So lovely to have you here today! And happy Saturday, everyone!

Michele Drier said...

Great post, Lourdes. I do read the obits (used to write them occasionally as well) and loved finding out those small facts that made the person human.

Sandy Cody said...

I never thought of reading the obits for character ideas, but I guess it's just like everything else - keep an open mind and who knows where it'll take you. Nice post.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this post!
Llyn K.

Julia said...

I confess I love reading obit columns, although I have never thought about using some of the stories to help create characters' backgrounds. It's a brilliant suggestion, though, and I'll be looking at obituaries with a new eye from now on. Thanks, Lourdes!

Judy Penz Sheluk said...

I'm not sure when I started reading obits, but I live in a smallish town and I definitely read them in the local paper. You can often tell what the person died from based on the charity of choice. My husband thinks I'm morbid! I tell him I'm a mystery writer...great post Lourdes! Will share on Pinterest on my Blog Posts for Writers and Readers board, plus FB and Twitter.

Norma Huss said...

Our local newspaper prints up obits that people pay for so they say whatever they want. Sometimes a person writes their own obituary at some point before their death, especially if they have no younger relatives. We've known of a few who did that. One man who was very active, extremely funny, and quite outgoing, but the last of his family---when he suffered a debilitating illness, just a day before he was to go to a permanent bedded facility, "accidently" fell out of a 4th floor window, but not before he wrote a great obit. (I guess that's not really the kind of comment you want to hear, but he definitely left the world laughing.)

Rosemarie said...

My husband loves his subscription to the local newspaper and the first thing he reads is the obits. Of course that is because he has lived in the small town for all his life and knows everyone. Me? Not so much an obit reader. However, I believe that everyone should write their own obit at least once in their lifetime. It is a great exercise in truly focusing on where you've been and where you are going and what you want to leave behind as a memory for others.

Hallie Ephron said...

Lourdes, about your Facebook picture?!?

You have the perfect background to write a crime novel, and also VOICE! So keep at it!!

I do read obits. Just finished reading about Leonard Nimoy. Fascinating ;-) And i of course look for people my age who are dying.

Jill, i LOVE your mom saying GIVE ME THE DEADS. She must be a character. And I know several writers who would love to steal her dialogue.

Lourdes Venard said...

Thank you, Hallie! Rosemarie, yes, writing your own obit would be a good exercise. Our book group, just this afternoon, was discussing what to write in letters we leave behind to family. We just read a book in which the husband was going to leave behind a devastating secret in a letter. We all decided if we find any letters lying around from our husbands, we just might open them before they die!

Mary Sutton said...

Checking in late (busy day, shipping The Girl off to a dance, first time she got a corsage).

I admit to to being an obit skimmer. If something grabs my attention, I'll read the whole thing. I guess maybe I'll pay more attention next time.

T.T. Thomas said...

I may have picked up the obit reading habit from my grandmother, but now it's fully my own activity. I read them as some kind of "honor reading"--as though doing so will confirm that these people's lives matter, or, mattered. Then too, I pick up some of the BEST character names. I especially love the obits with pictures of the dearly departed, although a few years ago, I admit to being stopped in my tracks when I saw one picture. The obit was basically to formula (newspaper formula) with no errant sons, daughters or other relatives promising to meet in the afterlife to play bridge or go fishing. But the photo? The man was in full Nazi officer uniform, and the photo was clearly his military one. It said everything--except which family member chose it to accompany his obit. Or did he choose it?