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 here. Read 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.