When my aunt read Tangled Woods and Dark Waters, she asked me, "Where do you get the names of all these people?" In contrast to my story ideas, that answer is easy: Over a forty-year professional career, I met thousands of people, many from other countries. When I need to name a character, I can dip into my basket of memories and scramble the names to create new personas. If you make the proper disclaimers, you can get away with a lot in these arena. Read any of Pat Conroy's novels and you'll see the names of his friends show up (coincidentally) in the names of his characters.
This brings me to the topic of connections. After all, as writers, our craft includes forging connections that may exist only in our minds. Still, there are times when the circumstances of real life suggest connections that can be adapted for purposes of my writing.
My father flew a B-17 in World War II. Very late in his life, I drove him to a reunion of his wartime unit in the Washington area. En route, he told me tales about his comrades-in-arms, stories that lay unsuspected until advanced age loosened his memory. There were people I'd met many years earlier, but who, in his recollections, took on a very different shape from what I'd previously learned about them. I have a novel on the writing schedule, working title Wings of the Storm, based on Dad's experiences. When we cleaned out the files in my parents' house, I inherited boxes of material, some of which he'd kept since the 1940s. I'm positive there are connections in those boxes that will emerge when I start working my way through them.
Still, the recollections of the elderly need to be handled with caution. My uncle ran a contract mail delivery business for thirty years. One of his colleagues got so accustomed to hearing his stories of his early life that he asked my uncle for permission to put these into a book. The book that resulted, From Marianna to Moosburg: One B-17 Crewman's Story of War, Redemption, and Family Reunion contains some fascinating tidbits. This is particularly the case for information about my paternal grandfather, who died years before I was born. But there are a couple of factual errors, pretty inconsequential, but still bothersome, that restrain me from using the book as a source without some cross-checking. It's probably unfair to present the memories of the very old as an unvarnished source of truth. The possibility of inadvertently doing an injustice to real people demands caution in mining these memories.
How many connections are available for our use? We've all heard of "six degrees of separation," i.e., that moving through six levels of connections puts us in touch with a large portion of the human race. I used to tell my students, "If your family has been in this country for a hundred years, you're probably related to someone famous. If your family has been in this country for two hundred years, it's a lead pipe cinch." I gave one class an assignment to locate someone famous among their ancestors and the results were gratifying; two of my students could trace a clear path back to those who arrived aboard the Mayflower. Consider yourself. Think of five people you know, or knew, and for whom you have some knowledge of their lives. When you work outward from those five people, you will find that you have something like 5 connections, or between fifteen and sixteen thousand individuals. Obviously, you can't locate any information about all of them, or even a small fraction of them. But there are still plenty of starting points.
Just one example: the head usher (now deceased) at a church I attended was a midshipman about the U.S.S. Augusta in 1941. He was an aide to Admiral King, then commander of the Atlantic Fleet, later Chief of Naval Operations. In this role, he accompanied King to the Argentia Conference, where FDR and Churchill framed the Atlantic Charter. He personally met all the American Chiefs of Staff, as well as several members of the British high command. From just the contacts on this one occasion, he was connected to movers and shakers whose influence on the world stretches back many generations into the past. Had he lived to be 200, I could never have exhausted the flow of stories that ran through his connections.
Where do your connections lead you?