by Helen Pattskyn
Characters are the life-blood of any novel, and my work in particular is very character driven. A plot is important, of course, but most of my stories start out with the who and evolve into the what, how, why and when.
Since this one actually started with a when and a what and even a little bit of a why, I started out working backwards…but that’s ok. I am capable of flexibility, honest!
Almost immediately, I knew what some of the core issues were going to be (aside from the Big Issues of the 1950's). I wanted one fellow who was pretty comfortable in his skin and I decided to give him understanding, well educated parents because frankly in the 1950’s gay men and lesbians faced huge opposition, so there needed to be a few allies worked into the story from the get-go. Of course, that doesn't mean they never ask their son questions like: Why can’t you find a lady with the same ‘issues’ you have and come to some sort of an ‘agreement’? Hey, I said they were understanding and educated, not that they were prefect!
I also knew right away that this particular man was a high school science teacher and a Christian (sincerely so). Why? Well, I had this snip of conversation in my head of the two men talking and the other guy wondering how someone can be gay, a science teacher and still have faith in God. (I also like to ‘mix it up’ a little where religion is concerned; just because I’m Wiccan it doesn’t mean that all of my main characters are going to be. And really, a gay Pagan in 1950? Yowzers, talk about having the deck stacked against you…) As for why a high school teacher… can you imagine a more difficult place to be a gay man? (Minds out of the gutters, kiddies, I meant, can you imagine the environment? There is no way a high school teacher could come out of the closet if he didn’t want to end up fired. Or worse.)
Now, on to the other guy. He’s not so comfortable in his skin, and to make matters worse, he works for the Federal Government… but I don’t want him to be an FBI agent or anything like that, so he’s a letter carrier. It’s a mundane job, he’s hardly exposed to national secrets, but the point remains, Uncle Sam is his boss and according to President Eisenhower, the United States Government is not going to employ “sexual inverts” and “perverts” because they pose a risk to national security. (The idea is that homosexuals are easier to blackmail, never mind that no one is all that likely to blackmail a letter carrier.) He’s Christian, too, but only because going to church is one of those things that a person just does. He lost his faith a long time ago. (And no, faith and religion aren’t going to play a major part… except, well it was the 50’s and religion and faith did play a major part. But you know what I mean. The message isn’t one of finding faith in God, it’s one of finding faith in one’s self. Or Self, I suppose.)
Ok, on with the show… our letter carrier has a sister who is very comfortable with his sexual orientation, and she just happens to be a high school English teacher. Guess who one of her colleagues is?
So now I have three main characters and at least two supporting characters (plus a high school full of students and teachers) to think about. Since I’ve already got a few plot points (I’ll share those later on), I know that the principal is going to be a reasonable important supporting character—or at least someone we’re going to see—so that person (man? woman? No clue yet) needs to be a little more fleshed out than say the girl who sits in the third row during second hour… you can see where character development takes up a lot of a writer’s brain.
The first thing I needed to suss out was what the heck was I going to name these people. When writing something set in another era, I rely on old census reports to tell me the most (and least) popular names of the era. I wouldn’t want to make the mistake of naming someone born in the 20’s (because if the book is set in 50’s, the people were born in the 20’s or 30’s… so it’s important to get the census report for the right year!) Anyway, I wouldn’t want to name my girl born in 1920-something McKenzie or Baily; names like that as female first names is a strictly modern phenomenon.
Of course, I could at this point get away with using some of my favorite boy names: Marion, Beverly and Ashley… but I think I’ll stick with something conventionally ‘masculine’ here.
I decided I liked the name Maggie—Margret—for the sister/match maker. She knows her colleague is gay… my husband told me that there was a guy in his dad’s army unit who was gay. Everybody knew he was gay but nobody cared (or at least Dad and his buddies didn’t care) because they were all out there fighting for the same cause, all willing to die for one another. So I decided that Maggie knows about her science teacher colleague because her husband and he were in the army together... in Korea. Both served in WWII, but didn’t meet until Korea. Her colleague/friend came back from that war. Her husband didn’t. This has left her feeling bitter towards the military (he was retired, but was called back to active duty when Korea happened—I’m given to understand that depending on his area of expertise, this is very believable. It sounded good to me, anyway!) The point is that now she’s a single mom raising a couple of young kids…which also explains why she’s still working. Oh, the parents? They live on a farm in Oklahoma. We’ll come to them in a little while. Just assume that they’re typical hard working farmer types living in relative poverty outside of a very small town. Kinda like if you took the Waltons off the mountain and put them on a prairie, but with fewer kids. After the Donnelly family, from the Necromancer’s Apprentice, I’m done with honking huge families for a while. It’s a pain to come up with that many individual children, each with his or her own individual personality…but I guess there should be more than two. I’ll stew on it.
In the meantime, I decided to name the letter carrier Tom (or Tommy—he hates Tommy, but it’s what she calls him.) He was probably in the army, too, for WWII at least, because most men were.
It took a while, but eventually I named the science teacher Robert (it was very popular in the 20’s). Last name: MacLeod. I love a good Scottish name! No accents and no Gaelic this time, however. (Enid’s father, from the Necromancer’s Apprentice, speaks with an accent and uses a lot of Scottish idioms. On this one, I’ve got enough to worry about getting the parlance of the 1950’s down right!)
Oops, Robert needs a middle name. Hmmm… Adam. There’s a nice…erm, excuse me, a swell Christian name for you. Robert Adam MacLeod. Doesn’t he sound dreamy already?
Let’s start getting to know Robert (I’m starting with him because I’ve got Tommy lodged in my head pretty well already. I like to start with the characters I have the least handle on and move up to the ones I feel like already know.)
Robert Adam MacLeod – age 33. That means he was born in 1921.
His age is a semi-arbitrary decision. He needs to be old enough to have served in WWII, and be educated. A lot of servicemen came back from the War and went to college. I figure Robert was one of them. I think that’s where he had his first ‘real’ gay experience, too. Anyway, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. So Robert would have been 20—he probably was already in college, but enlisted to do his patriotic duty. He’s a very patriotic guy, I think. Very clear about right and wrong.
Because I’m witch, I suppose, and a student of astrology, I always do a birth chart for my characters (sometimes I read their tarot cards too. No joke. My cards are always very subjective when I read for myself anyway, picking up on the slightest bad mood, so reading for my characters is easy.) Anyway, I love Sagittarian men, so I think I’ll make Robert a Sag.
December 5 sounds like a good birthday. Which means he’s actually 32, because I’m not starting the story in December. That’s the other reason it’s important to know characters’ birthdays.
Robert was born at 1 a.m. (I usually pick easy round numbers for time of birth) in San Diego, CA. (he just feels like he should be from the West Coast guy. Maybe it’s because of this movie I watched a couple of weeks ago called A … or maybe The… Single Man. It was really depressing, but gave a decent look at what it was to be gay man in the 50’s.)
So now that I have a birth day and time, I can do a quick computerized chart and see if what I get matches up with what I’m starting to feel about Robert’s personality. If it doesn’t mesh up, I’ll choose a different date within the range for Sagittarius because that much I’m dead set on.
On 5 December, 1921, the Moon was in Aquarius—so far, so good. Given his hour and place of birth, Robert would have a Libra Ascendant. Perfect. No need to look at other dates/times. (I love it when it’s perfect on the first go—I feel like it means I’m on to something good!)
Since the Moon also tells us something about a person’s mother, and their relationship with her, it is clear that Robert’s mother is more accepting of his sexuality than his father—Aquarian energy is indicative of those who embrace new ideas… in worst case scenarios they are rebels without a clue, however… but I’m not feeling that from Mama MacLeod. Whatever she fights for, she knows what she's doing.
It looks like Robert’s Mars is in Scorpio (when reading for gay men, I tend to look at Mars rather than Venus to tell me something about the mates they attract.) I’m pretty familiar with Mars in Scorpio, that’s where my Mars is (mine is in the 12th House, though. Robert’s is in his 2nd. The second house is concerned with mattes of the home and finances.) Mars in Scorp energy denotes a streak of possessiveness in relationships. It also speaks of a person who will challenge themselves (in all areas of life, not just sexually…but sexually will think little of breaking taboos. So far that sounds exactly like the character I want Robert to be!)
On the other hand, his Venus is in Libra (which is a very comfortable position for Venus, just like Mars is at home in Scorpio.) Having his Ascendant, or rising sign in Libra also only serves to reinforce the idea that life should be fair. This tells me that Robert’s heart is going to year for equality, for balance, or ma’at (although he would never call it that, he’s a Christian!) Knowing some of the things I already do about Tommy, I’m seeing a fight in their future about how you met my parents, now why won’t you take me home to meet yours! (Maybe on this particular parental visit, Robert and Mom have a heart to heart about his sexual orientation… see why I do up charts for my characters?) But I’m assuming you remember back to when I said Tommy and Maggie’s folks were farmers in Oklahoma? That’s a far cry from the big city intellectuals I see Robert’s folks as.
Libra Ascendant people are also supposed to be attractive as well as charming. That swell. (Why is it that every time I say ‘swell’, I feel like I sound sarcastic?) So I’m starting to get an image of a fit, attractive man who takes care of his body. He’s from the West Coast, so he may know how to surf… not blond-blond, but maybe a darker sandy blond. Blue eyes. Classically handsome features.
Let’s go back to that Moon in Aquarius. The Moon rules over our inner selves, our private natures, the things that others don’t necessarily see when they first meet us. Robert’s Moon is in his Fifth House, which is the house of creativity and recreation. Aquarius is an Air sign. Air rules the head, the intellect. It can also be pretty hard to pin down. He might be the sort of man to read three and four books at a time. The Fifth House also rules over romance and relationships. Again, breaking taboos and social norms isn’t going to be a major problem for this man. It doesn’t mean he’s an idiot about it, it just means that he has the inner capacity to be rebellious. Again, that fits exactly with the person I want him to be.
Robert has his Chiron in Aries in his Seventh House. This is a painful placement all the way around, because while the Fifth House gives us some idea of who we flirt with, the Seventh House is indicative of who we are likely to marry. Chiron is the wounded healer, and often crops up in a chart in areas where we tend to experience pain. Now we can look at this positively and say it’s also where we have the capacity to heal others…but we get that ability because, like Chiron, it’s the place in our lives where we have been hurt so hard and so many times that we’ve learned which ‘cures’ work best. Chiron is the antithesis of Aries; where Aries is ego, Chiron is pure selflessness… which is all well and good, except that if you give ‘til it hurts, it HURTS! This in itself can be a hard lesson to learn. So now I’ve got another layer to Robert’s personality…
According to Jeremy Neal, “As ever with Chiron, there is some measure of bad childhood programming involved and we may have subsumed the lesson of an overly selfish parent with Chiron in Aries here.”
So taking what I’ve already discovered about Robert’s mother, that their relationship was distant because she was off fighting some cause or another… Civil Rights seems about right for the era… she managed to impart a measure of Chiron-like hurt. Her selfishness wasn’t that she didn’t care about her children, it was that she (at least seemed) to care more about her cause. I’m starting to think that his parents might be divorced—talk about a scandal! (And usually when I’m doing this, these sorts of notes would be in six notebooks written over the course of several weeks, sometimes well after I’ve started my story… I guess this is better…)
Ok, so now that I’m starting to get a feel for Mom, I want to make some notes about her. Just because there’s something Aquarius about her relationship with her son doesn’t mean that she herself is an Aquarius. In fact, I’d rather she wasn’t. She should be a Cardinal sign—those are the movers and shakers of the Zodiac and Mom sounds like a mover and a shaker to me. And I guess it’s time to name her. I was thinking about Edith, because I like the name, but now I’m thinking she needs a stronger name. Dorothy was a popular name in the 20’s—Dorothy is also the name of one of my favorite Doctor Who companions (she was named after Baum’s Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz) and Mom is starting to remind me a little of a grown up version of the Doctor’s Dorothy.
Cancer, Libra, Capricorn and Aries are the four cardinal signs. I’m thinking Dorothy MacLeod is more of a Libra than anything else. Libra energy craves balance. It’s Air, so its tendency is towards aloofness. Libra is ruled by Venus (which is of the Element of Water) and rules Love and Beauty. Libra energy tends to gravitate towards pretty things, art, music, the finer things in life. I’m seeing a woman with a lovely home who fights for equality in her given arena for all she’s worth. I’m not going to bother with a full chart, because I have a pretty solid idea of who she is now. Her moon should be in Leo, because she’s a fighter. She’s also not shy about being in the spotlight… I’m thinking this is the reason for the divorce (something that just wasn’t done back then.)
See, White middle class women were consigned to a certain role in life and if they didn’t like that role, well, too gosh-darned bad. A man could lose his job if his wife didn’t do the things that were expected of her—after all, what kind of man lets his wife run roughshod over him?
Now let’s say that even though Robert grew up in San Diego, he grew up there because that’s where his father lives… Mom lives in Atlanta. (I happen to love Georgia, and I wanted a Southern State to make the situation that much more prickly.) No judge would award custody to the husband in those days as far as I know…well, he might, given the reason Mom and Dad split, but I think Dotty realized that the kids would be better off with their father. She probably got rocks thrown through her front window and crosses burnt on her front lawn… better the kids be somewhere safe. (They may not actually even be divorced, per se, just living separately; it may not be a matter of not being in love, just a matter of keeping the kids safe.)
Which brings me around to siblings, because I think Robert ought to have a sister. Her name is Evelyn—Evvie for short. That’s Evvie, not Eevie. She’s quite adamant about this. She’s 26 years old and I’m not sure she approves (or is even wholly aware) of her brother’s sexuality. (Even if she were, she’s a nurse and homosexuality is a mental illness, after all—and like her brother, she is a Christian, and will not easily reconcile her faith with her brother’s sexual orientation.) She’s married to one of his WWII army buddies, so that could be an interesting dynamic. (Of course he may not know or approve of it, either. Robert was younger during WWII, and much more apt to keep something like that to himself.)
At any rate, here’s the backstory I wrote for Evvie earlier today:
Evelyn Kirso nee MacLeod, age 26
James Kirso, age 32
James and Robert served together during WWII—James came home with Robert on leave and met Evelyn (Evvie, not Eevie), who was then barley 17. It was love at first sight (although the parents didn’t fully approve in the moment.) Every time Evvie wrote a letter to her brother, she always included a short for James as well. Every time Robert wrote her back… by the end of the War, he told the two of them to just come clean with his parents already, he was tired of being a messenger boy.
Two months after James and Robert returned home after the war, James and Evvie were married. Robert served as best man. (Probably about 1945, after the war ended.)
Prior to the end of the war, Evvie finished high school and went on to college where she took an interest in nursing.
Although Evvie and James have been trying to have a child, they have not. She’s had a couple of miscarriages that she doesn’t like to talk about with anyone, least of all her brother. She and Robert aren’t particularly close.
Again, going back to astrology, I think Evvie is an Aries. Aries tend to be stubborn, quick to anger, but also quick to calm down. They can be passionate about what they believe in. So… let’s see, let’s give her an early April birthday… April 4th, at Noon.
That gives her a Moon in Virgo… organized, practical… sometimes maybe a little too much so. Sounds perfect. Except I don’t like that Leo Ascendant. Let’s try again… oops, I just realized I typed in the wrong date. Well, I like that Virgo Moon, so I’m willing to sacrifice the Aries Sun.
28 April, 1928, at 3pm. Sun in Taurus, Moon in Virgo, Virgo Ascendant. That Virgo moon means she has a very different relationship with her mother than her brother does. Virgo is ruled by Mercury.
Taurans, unlike Aries, are slow to anger, but when the do get angry, they will gore the recipient of that anger like a bull gores its opponent. Whereas rams butt heads, bulls plough you under. I think that works nicely. Maybe I’ll make her husband an Aries. I think that might suit better, anyway. (I have an image of his initial outrage when he finds out Robert is gay... and after the initial shock wears off, he remembers...insert war-story here...and realizes that it's all good. Evvie, on the other hand, sees the issue from a more pragmatic stand point, what does her brother think he hopes to accomplish by all this, kinda thing.)
Remember, too, the Cardinal Zodiac sighs are like the Knights of the Tarot--they charge out and get things done. The Fixed signs are like the Kings. They desire order. The Queens are the Mutable signs, soft and feminine, changeable and malliable.
The Court cards are the people in our lives... so looking at what I've got so far,
I'd say that Robert is a Cup personality... probably a Knight. He wants what he wants and leads with his heart. His mother, on the other hand, is the Queen of Swords all the way. Evvie, on the otherhand is every bit a Pentacle... quite possibly also a Queen (that's my card, by the way. Sometimes I little too pragmatic for my own good.) Her husband is a Wand, probably a Knight. Although I haven't touched on Robert and Evvie's father, I've got a mental image of him and he is very much the King of Pentacles. Earth and Air are not overwhelming compatable, even on the best of days...
So now I have one major player, along with his overall background and baggage. Whew. That’s enough for one day, eh?