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  • Writer's pictureLilac Mills

Why I enjoy writing older characters

I’m an only child.

My mother is an only child.

My father is an only child.

And my grandparents lived with us when I was growing up.

All this made for an older-person-centred childhood because, apart from my friends, of which I did have quite a few thankfully, I had no relatives my own age. Add my great-aunt and great-uncle, both of whom were older than my parents, into the mix at Christmas, and I had a really quiet festive season. My friends had their own families (usually with an assortment of people of their own age and of which I was absurdly jealous), so I usually had to amuse myself on Christmas Day. I remember seeing the four ladies squashed onto the three-seater sofa, my dad and grandad having grabbed an armchair each, all of them fast asleep after lunch. But woe betide me if I tried to change the channel on the TV and put on cartoons – each one of them would suddenly be awake and reaching for the sherry, and demanding I leave the Queen’s speech on because they “was watching that!”

As I was growing up, I was resentful that my parents had failed to provide me with a brother or sister. My sibling and I might well have hated each other, but at least we could have spent Christmas Day winding the other one up. Tormenting and annoying my brother or sister would have kept me occupied, or (and this was my favourite fairy tale) I may have actually been so devoted to them that I wanted to spend every waking minute in their company, the pair of us playing nicely together.

Instead, I had a grandpa who was as deaf as a post and who used to turn his hearing aids off when he couldn’t be bothered talking to anyone (quite often); a grandma who was also rather deaf yet refused to wear a hearing aid and insisted on speaking at the top of her voice (and don’t get me started on how loud she needed the TV to be turned up); a great-auntie and uncle (gran’s sister and brother-in-law) who had never had children and weren’t sure what to do with one or how to behave around one (I think they viewed me as some kind of alien being); and a frazzled mum and dad, who I constantly nagged at to play with me when all they wanted was to put their feet up and get stuck into the Quality Street chocolates, and not be whined at for refusing to play Mouse Trap.

At the time, I’m not sure I appreciated any of this, but on looking back, these intense family get-togethers have provided me with an endless source of material for the older characters in my stories, especially the women. Although I don’t base my characters on any one person in particular, I can see elements of my relatives peering out of the pages every now and again.

Take Gee-Gee in A Very Lucky Christmas, for instance. My own granny was just as cantankerous when she was arguing with her sister (my great aunt) and my mum. And Flossie in Summer on the Turquoise Coast reminded me so much of her in the way she used to say what she was thinking without filtering her thoughts first. She used to cause me no end of embarrassment when I was growing up but now I look back on my memories of her with love. She was certainly one of a kind.

Then there was another of my great-aunts, Nelly. She was tiny with a really deep, gruff voice and a bring-it-on attitude. She was a nurse, and nothing fazed her. I used to hear my gran sharing stories of what Nelly used to get up to, and Flossie most definitely has some of her zest for life in her character.

My mum says she can see herself in the main character’s mother in Sunshine at Cherry Tree Farm. I can’t see it myself, but my great-aunt is still alive (93! I hope I’ve got some of her genes) and she says the exact same thing. So it looks like I do incorporate bits of my family in my writing, even when I don’t think I do.

I have noticed I often tend to write eccentric, belligerent, and frequently demanding older ladies into my stories, and actually they are great fun to write. I feel I can let my hair down with them a bit and besides, our lives are multigenerational. Nearly all of us come into contact with people older than ourselves, often as part of our families, so why shouldn’t we include them in our novels?

My elderly relatives have made me what I am, have helped shaped me and left their marks on me. If nothing else, they taught me independence and resilience, and left me with a hope that one day I can be as weird and as wonderful as they are, if I’m lucky enough to live that long!

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