Mary Daheim's A Streetcar Named Expire
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Write What You Know
An essay by Mary Daheim, author of A Streetcar Named Expire

Mary Daheim, author of the Bed & Breakfast mystery series takes the adage, "It's not what you know, but who you know" to heart. Here, she describes the development of her unique characters.

Write What You Know...

That's the standard advice to writers. Thus, over ten years ago, I decided to write about what I knew best and who I knew best--my family.

Early on in junior high, I'd discovered that anecdotes about my relatives amused and intrigued my peers. Frankly, I was puzzled that a bunch of thirteen-year olds would care--let alone exhibit fascination--about Uncle Louie or Aunt Ruby or Cousin Stevie. My relatives seemed perfectly normal to me.

Oh, there was the occasional--dare I say aberration?--such as the great-uncle who gunned down the local prosecuting attorney in the middle of a downtown street, another pair of uncles who enjoyed setting fires (but only when they were kids and only on property owned by their parents), the aunt who got bored with small-town life in the '20s and joined both the Ku Klux Klan and the Communist Party, the 90-year-old grandmother who chopped down the neighbor's tree because it shaded her flowers and got arrested (but was immediately released because she was so old and besides, they'd been warned), and the fact that my mother's side of the family wouldn't be here at all if it weren't for an Act of Congress, featuring the British ambassador to the United States. And Congress, of course.

Since all this was taken for granted and little fuss was ever made, I assumed ours was just a typical family. The only thing that distinguished them was how much they liked to laugh, a boisterous, fun-loving group to be sure. Family gatherings in Grandma and Grandpa's big yard often attracted passersby who "÷just wanted to watch." We thought that was nice. Neighborly, too, even if we didn't know who the heck these people were.

So when I started the Bed & Breakfast mysteries, I chose a relative for my protagonist--Cousin Judy, a recent widow (yes, her husband did weigh over 400 lbs. when he passed away--or blew up, as she put it, being a nurse by profession). Judy and I were raised almost like sisters, two blocks from each other, only children close in age. She is smart, she is strong, she knows and likes people. In my whole life, I've only met one person who didn't like Judy--but that particular woman was very stuck on herself and voted for Nixon. Twice.

Having established my protagonist, the rest was easy. Cousin Renie had to be the sidekick (Renie is my family nickname, my given name being Mary Rene--and that's NOT Renee, it's one syllable, RENE--got it?). All the parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins began populating the books in one form or another. Not exact replicas, sometimes a composite, but they jumped out of the pages.

Alas, in the decade since I started writing the B&B mysteries, many of the older generation have passed on. But that's one of the reasons I love writing about Judith and the rest of the family--they can live forever.

I suppose it's my homage to all those wacky, wild and wonderful family members.

The funny thing is, they still seem normal to me.


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