Jennifer Ziegler, whose writing has been praised for its quirky and dimensional characters, says she’s always been an observer of people. “I grew up in a smallish town; I got nuggets of back story on everyone around me, which…translates well to storytelling,” she says. “Sometimes I believe I’ve pulled a character out of thin air only to realize later on that they’re actually very similar to someone in my past.”
In Revenge of the Flower Girls (a delightful romp in which 11-year-old triplets Dawn, Delaney and Darby are determined to stop their beloved older sister Lily from marrying the wrong man), Ziegler develops and juggles not one but three main characters, who take turns narrating the action. Though others in the book occasionally have trouble telling the triplets apart, Ziegler didn’t. “I kept them straight in my head by thinking of them as individual characters rather than one character multiplied by three,” she explains.
“I knew that each sister would have a similar narrative voice, but each character had to be distinct. When I write novels, I often have to stop myself (or editors will stop me) from sharing too much about my characters’ inner lives or histories. In this case, I was asked to share more, which was a fun change.”
How does one transform real-life characters into fictional ones? Ziegler says it starts with those “quirks and other distinctive traits that charm me the most about people…I think my brain borrows one person’s physical form, adds the speaking habits of another, and sprinkles in the hobbies or eccentricities of yet others to create characters. Several folks in my extended family are actors and terrific mimics, so I think I get that from them—the ability to take traits that are unique to people, things like the way they flail their arms or laugh or repeat certain phrases, and magnify them slightly like a caricature artist. Then I take those qualities and give them to brand new fictional people.”
In the case of the triplets, Ziegler says the characters’ delight in presidential history was the key detail that unlocked their natures for her.At a party, she had met parents talking about their twin girls who loved playing presidential trivia but who didn’t seem to realize that their friends were not as excited about it as they were. “That was like the note that tuned the entire chorus, and suddenly everything made sense for me,” Ziegler says. “It told me who these girls were and how they would approach this problem they had. Because presidents write their memoirs, and because history is all about reporting, they would of course relate this whole event in first person, taking turns to be fair. And it made sense that they wouldn’t be embarrassed or secretive about their love of history and government—because there were two other people their own age around them constantly who also loved it. If anything, having this ‘mini club’ boosted their passion for these subjects.”
People are often surprised to hear how carefully Ziegler plots her work, something she says helps her be more efficient. “I outline ahead of time—long, detailed, 15-page breakdowns of the book.” Though she believes that this type of prewriting is rare in the business, she sees it as a necessity. She doesn’t particularly enjoy making outlines. “But if I don’t have a map to follow, I’ll write lots of scenes where my characters hang out and do funny stuff, but the main story doesn’t advance,” she admits. “I used to call such scenes ‘character development,’ but now I know better. Now I don’t waste time on sections that will end up getting cut later.”
Living with another writer (Ziegler is married to children’s writer Chris Barton) also benefits her writing process. “Chris is the type of writer to whom structure comes naturally, so he is a terrific Sherpa if I start going astray in my story. Because of his nonfiction background, he’s great at research and I tend to get overwhelmed by it. So we complement each other well.” The best part about being married to another writer? “He gets it. He understands when I stress out over a subplot and clinks glasses with me when I finish writing a particularly tricky scene. The worst part is that he can also recognize my lame excuses for not writing. If I’m scared to start a task or feeling inadequate or inundated, he can tell and will make me admit it.”
Ziegler wrote Revenge of the Flower Girls to allow readers “to disappear into small-town Texas and hang out with a slightly kooky family and hopefully enjoy the experience.” But, she adds, if the book inspires readers to “try rhubarb pie or play in the sprinklers or take more seriously the concerns of a young person—that would be a wonderful bonus.”
Jessie C. Grearson is a freelance writer and writing teacher living in Falmouth, Maine. She has co-authored two books and several essays on intercultural subjects and reviews art, books, and audiobooks for a variety of publications. She is a graduate of The Iowa Writers’ Workshop.