Monday, December 1, 2008

Where characters come from

by Mary Margret Daughtridge

In my work in progress, my hero has traumatic brain injury or TBI. His name is Davy. It’s estimated that as many as forty percent of troops returning from Iraq have TBI. The insurgents' weapon of choice is the IED. Even if one doesn't sustain external wounds, the shock wave from the explosion shakes the brain inside the skull, causing injury that is often difficult for medical personnel to recognize.

I don’t consciously model my characters on people I know, but I suppose it is inevitable that I draw on my own background and experience. I don’t think I would have created Davy, if I hadn’t known Diane Spitler.

There are friendships that are so immediate, so intimate and so seamless that they feel inevitable, ordained. That wasn’t Diane and me. For a long time we only tolerated one another because we had a mutual friend. But in the end she taught me a lot about grace under fire and about courage.

Diane was aggressive, competitive, short-tempered, and highly intelligent. She had striking blue eyes, a complexion that despite her fifty years showed not one line or wrinkle, and prematurely white curls.

She had moved to a town several hundred miles away to take a job as a physician assistant, so I hadn’t seen much of her for a couple of years. I was at a friends’ house one morning in June on a day that was already edging toward hot, when Diane called. My friend listened for a few minutes a puzzled look on her face, then gestured for me to pick up the extension.

Diane was terribly upset, babbling in this torrent of words, but we couldn’t understand what the trouble was except that she had a headache. What sent chills down my spine was that it didn’t sound like Diane. The rhythm and melody were off. Imagine listening to “She’ll Be Coming Around the Mountain” sung to the tune of “Over There.” That’s what listening to her felt like.

Diane had glioblastoma. A swift and deadly tumor in her brain. She had surgery and radiation, though it was understood they would only delay the inevitable. The surgery left her with aphasia, difficulty both speaking and understanding.

Names were gone. She called one friend, My Buddy. She called her cat, Crystal, My Little Girl. She knew what she meant to say, she just couldn’t make the right word come out.

When it became clear that the heartbreakingly short remission was over and the tumor was growing again, she and I were talking one day about what she should do with the small window of health. I asked her, “Is there anything you’ve always wanted to do? If so now would be the moment.”


“Nothing?” I persisted. I’ve put off so many things because I lacked the funds or the courage or the will power to go after them.

Her Paul Newman blue eyes twinkled, and she chuckled the way she always did when she had a joke up her sleeve. “I want to…” She waved her hand as if encompassing the horizon. “I…done.”

And she had. An intensely physical person with extraordinary drive, if she took a notion she was going to do something, she did it. And if she took a notion you were going to do something…but that’s another story. She had been a Red Cross worker in Vietnam, a college professor, a research scientist with NASA, an astronaut candidate. She had written books. She had flown planes and scuba-dived. She played the drums. The list goes on. She didn't want to die, and anyone would say she was too young, too vital and yet, she was done.

If women could be SEALs, and if she’d wanted to, Diane could have been a SEAL.

Davy is like Diane. He has had a life that fitted him perfectly and he has done everything he wanted to. He has a presentiment of his death and faces it without fear or regrets. His prediction comes true. His life is wiped out by a rocket propelled grenade. The only problem is that he doesn't die. Now he wants his life back.


  1. Wow, what a story, MM. Diane sounds like a dynamic and courageous person. I'm sorry that you lost her too young. It's a great tribute to her that you can bring her energy and zest for life to your wriitng though Davy's character. I can't wait to read the book!

    My friend lost her 50-year-old mom to a GBM four years ago--just after my mother succumed to pancreatic cancer. Two of the more deadly forms out there. Another friend had a GBM at 50, had a recurrence two years later, and is still with us and going strong nearly a decade later. He's an inspiration to all who know him.

  2. Thank you for sharing Diane with us, MM. People like this need to be shared. They remind us all of what is important, and what is not. And it does not surprise me a bit that she comes through in your book; she obviously has had a powerful influence on you. Now she can influence many more.

  3. As always, reading your blogs is like reading poetry--really GOOD poetry. Lovely story about a vibrant personality!
    My mother died at forty-seven, and while she accomplished a great many things in her life, there were still a multitude of experiences that she didn't get to enjoy. Your Diane sounds like she had a great life, and I look forward to reading about Davy's!

  4. Hey Mary Margret-

    This is such an inspiring post. Such a great thing to read about people who persevere through it all with a vitality for life. Thank you for sharing!


  5. Heartbreaking yet inspiring. Thanks. Looking forward to reading the story.

  6. Marie and Christina,

    Thanks for pointing out that the book gives Diane a chance to touch more people. Now that you've pointed it out, it's perfectly obvious, and yet I hadn't thought of it that way. Aren't we funny creatures.

    I'm sorry you lost your mom so young. My mother died at fifty-four. That is far, far too early.

    Some day I'll tell you the story of how Diane took a notion that I was going to write fiction. :-) Of course, you know how that story ends already, so maybe I won't.

    Thanks for checking in!

  7. That's wonderful inspiration, Mary Margaret. Thank you so much for writing this!


  8. MM, I agree with Cheryl...your posts are always beautiful, even when they're heartbreaking. Thanks for sharing the story with us. It's lovely that knowing Diane gave you Davy (and by the way, your description of how your friendship started had me laughing...sometimes, it's FAR from a beautiful beginning).

    I can't wait to read this story and see how Davy gets his life back. You've hooked me completely:-)

  9. Wow. So sorry I missed this yesterday. If your story hadn't already been on my TBR list, it would be now.

  10. Wow, MM. I'm sorry I'm late in commenting but I'm so glad I didn't miss your post.

    Thanks for sharing Diane with us, through the post and through Davy.

    Robin :)