Because I had been so closely tied to her I assumed things about her. However when I based the character of Louise on her I was surprised about the fact that I had limited knowledge of a middle aged woman who gave birth to me months after my dad died.
A character in a novel doesn't necessarily show any political views. They may not be defined as academic or street smart. However when writing about a character in preparation for putting them into a story getting as clear a view of that persona as possible is important. That doesn't mean there won't be surprises along the way.
I read a portion of my story to a writing group. I explained to the group that I never knew my dad, but the piece I shared made him a living breathing human being. After the reading I received a number of comment cards. One of the comments struck a deep cord in me. The writer spoke of how lucky I was to be able to create such a kind and loving dad. She said, "Mine wasn't so nice."
I guess, in a way, I am lucky to be able to make the character, Nels, the kind of man I would want my own dad to be. However, the pitfall to that luck is that I wanted to paint him as a saint. Through writing this book, I worked on character development: how he moved, the tone of his voice, the motion of his body.
I discovered a tool online for developing characters for stories. It's 100 questions to answer which give a 360 degree look at a character. Through the exercise, Nels came to life in an entirely different way. Things such as political leanings, emotions, what made a person angry, what school they went to, were they academically smart or just street wise,enlightened me to a man I could create.
On a research trip to Utah I found old directories at the local library that list addresses and the people who lived at those addresses. I found my dad but there were a number of gap years when it seems he just vanished. The "Nels" in He Asked Her to Dance has a very real sense of place, that's why I decided to put him on the family farm. It's a place that actually existed but my real father had left long before he met my mother.