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When Characters Take Over
Written by
Joan Dempsey
September 2017
Written by
Joan Dempsey
September 2017

How is it that 85-year old Ludka Zeilonka—art historian, professor emeritus, Catholic rescuer of Jews in Warsaw during WWII, Polish émigré who landed in America—came to be the protagonist of THIS IS HOW IT BEGINS?

She was a total nuisance.


I had set out to write a political novel starring a powerful Massachusetts state senator. I began writing, by hand, in a crisp new black and white composition book. I even wrote "The Senator's Story" on the cover. In ink.

But the poor senator didn't stand a chance.

His mother, the aforementioned Ludka, kept showing up, demanding to be let in.

I tried to ignore her—I had zero interest in writing about an elderly Polish woman. Plus, my senator wasn't Polish. His name was Douglas Gregory, for goodness' sake.

But no matter how hard I tried, Ludka kept insinuating herself onto the page.

And then something rather remarkable happened. It still gives me goosebumps to think of it.

One overcast day while out walking my two dogs, Logan and Beattie, I had a strong and sudden vision: 85-year old Ludka, crawling frantically across a smoke-filled room, a rolled up artist's canvas under her arm.

Suddenly, she had my full attention.

I wanted to know what was on that canvas. Why was it the one thing she was trying to save from what seemed to be a fire?

I opened up my composition book and began to write whatever came to mind about Ludka. I don't now remember how long it took before I found out what was on that canvas (it was years ago, after all), but at some point I discovered it was an oil portrait of Frédéric Chopin.

Now I know as much about Chopin as I do about elderly Polish women. So I set out to learn what I could, to see if I could find out what Ludka was doing with his portrait.

Of course I Googled it, and before long I discovered what I needed to know:

  1. Chopin was Polish.
  2. The earliest known portrait of him was painted by a famous Polish painter, Ambro┼╝y Mieroszewski.
  3. The painting had gone missing from an apartment in Warsaw after the Nazis occupied the city—and it hasn't been seen since.

Ludka, as it turns out, seems to have "liberated" the painting from that Warsaw apartment when she was fifteen years old.

At that point, I utterly surrendered both myself and the novel to Ludka.

Doug Gregory became Lolek Zeilonka, and I ended up in Warsaw for a month on a research grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation, learning all about elderly Polish, Catholic women who rescued Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto.

I'm eternally grateful.

You can see the portrait of Chopin here.

As for why Ludka carried the painting through that smoke-filled room ... well, I'm afraid that's too much of a spoiler to share.

Let's be friends

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