A few weeks ago, while greeting people at my mother-in-law’s memorial service, I experienced a moment when I felt as if I’d just stepped into a Stephen King novel. Or a Twilight Zone episode. Whichever it was, I was absolutely unprepared for it.
A character from my STRATFORD UPON AVONDALE mysteries stepped up to me and offered her condolences!
I know my face certainly must have shown my shock, but the woman handled the situation just as my character would have done. She graciously pretended my jaw hadn’t dropped, my eyes weren’t bugging right out of their sockets, and I wasn’t stammering words that didn’t make any sense.
Ruth Williams. I’d just met one of my favorite characters from Stratford. When I created this cozy mystery series I knew I wanted the series to continue through several books, so I made sure I created characters with which I’d enjoy spending lots of time. Villains aside, each character is someone I could be friends with. Yes, their personalities run the usual human gamut, from charming to sassy, to eccentric or quirky. But I like them. Some more than others, but I feel affection for each and every one.
However, some are in a class by themselves. Ruth Williams is one of those. As I describe her in book three—in progress—Ruth is an elegant yet warm and friendly African American woman, with kind eyes that let a person know she’s always there to listen. In her mid-sixties, Ruth quickly became a surrogate mother to my protagonist, Maggie O’Flynn, when Maggie moved into the village.
And here I was in the vestibule of the church, making a fool of myself in front of my dear Ruth Williams. Or Mrs. Johnson, as it happened. Though I immediately recognized Mrs. Johnson as my Ruth, this was a Ruth twenty years into the future, as the sweet woman standing before me was in her late eighties.
But she wore a flowered dress right from Ruth’s closet, a hat that Ruth had just worn in Maggie’s tea room in COME, BITTER POISON, and pumps with heels I wouldn’t dare try to wear, but Mrs. Johnson moved so gracefully in those high heels, just as Ruth would have done. Most importantly, her smile was warm and welcoming and she kindly ignored all of my apparent stroke symptoms.
Time for a confession. I had a hard time paying attention during the service. All I could think about was that somewhere in the pews behind me sat the living embodiment of a person I had made up! Ruth Williams, as much as I love her, is not real. But there in that church this lovely woman sat, remembering my mother-in-law.
While chatting with family and friends during the reception I tried to remember if I’d ever met Mrs. Johnson, and had somehow brought that image to mind when I was writing Ruth. I asked one of my husband’s cousins about her and learned that she had been their grandmother’s next-door neighbor. Wheels started turning in my head—had I met her years earlier while visiting with my husband’s adorable grandmother? Grandma Mary died twenty-five years ago. So if I had met Mrs. Johnson, and I was starting to think I had, she would have been about Ruth William’s age at the time.
I steeled myself and set out for the table where Mrs. Johnson sat with our cousins. I gushed, and giggled, and finally came clean with her. I told her all about how I was a mystery writer and that she was the living embodiment of one of my favorite characters. I feared her reaction so much I nearly bumped over someone’s lemonade that sat near me. Her smile lit up the room! She couldn’t have been more pleased. I went on to tell her that I might have met her at Grandma Mary’s house and just maybe my subconscious put her in my books. I told her about all of Ruth’s lovely qualities and she was tickled pink.
My dear mother-in-law, Dorothy, never got to read any of my books, and I know she would have enjoyed the cozies. But I can’t help but wonder if Mrs. Johnson was a little gift from Dorothy. A seal of approval for my writing.
Because she couldn’t have picked a better character to bring to life for me.