“A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it.”–Samuel Johnson
I was talking to one of my patients today and we were discussing how much we both enjoyed reading. She told me that she loved to read because she could make the people and the places in the story whatever she wanted them to be. I asked her what she meant and she said, “The characters can look like whatever I want them to look like. The setting is what I want it to be.” Now, as a fanatic reader, I know she’s right. When I read, all heroines magically look like me. If the author describes a character or a setting in such a way that it doesn’t feel right in my head, I just change it. That’s what readers do, right? As a writer, though, it took me aback to think that someone might do that to one of my books! These stories were gifted to me by my imaginary friends. I gave birth to these tales and, frankly, it wasn’t always an easy labor. As I mulled over her words, I realized that I was looking at this in the wrong way. I write to share my imagination, my fantasies, and all things scary, lovely, and weird. If someone is enjoying my work enough to meld their own dreams with mine, that’s pretty cool. It’s all very kumbaya, but I like the thought that we’re all connected in our literary world. I’ll start the book, you finish it.
I sometimes feel like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde rolled up into one neurotic mess. I have a demanding job—–demanding of my time and my abilities. By the time I leave work, the sun is setting and I am exhausted and, at times, resentful that I have no mental energy left to write. I try to pound out a few pages, though, knowing that the work will need serious editing at some point. The next morning, I feel mentally refreshed but have no time to write. I have to hit the road and start a new day. What I have found, however, is that the morning drive to the hospital is a perfect time for me to develop plots and characters and figure out the next chapter in my story. Admittedly, I can get lost in that other world. One early morning this week, I was walking through the still deserted hallways of the hospital, apparently speaking out loud as one of my characters. I say “apparently” because I didn’t know I was doing it until I passed a doctor. My voice trailed off and I shifted my eyes in embarrassment as he looked at me curiously. Truth be told, I often speak out loud as my characters. I find that it helps me determine if what I’m writing sounds realistic. I didn’t know, until that moment, that I do it in public, too. As I held my lips tightly shut, I chastised myself. “They’re going to lock you up in the Behavioral Unit,” my serious self yelled internally. My writer self answered, “Good. I’ll have more time to write.”
My newest book, Lost and Found in Laurel Ridge, is now available on Amazon.com. I always knew that I wanted to write a book set in Appalachia because this is where my family tree is rooted. Many years ago I started researching my family history and was pleased to find that my ancestors settled this country. Mainly immigrants from the British Isles, my ancestors left their respective countries (England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales) behind to try for a better life. They fought in the American Revolution and settled Kentucky, Virginia, North & South Carolina, and Tennessee. When I wrote this new book all I had to do was shake my family tree for characters. One of my ancestors really did have his lunacy papers signed by John Hancock. That is quite a claim to fame! The character of Miss Bird is based on my own great-grandmother. She passed away when I was just two years old, so I took literary liberties, but I wanted to honor her by writing about a strong female who spoke her mind, met challenges head-on, and believed in love and loyalty above all else. The main male character, Jack, is a conglomeration of many of my male relatives who have the Appalachian spirit in their blood. They are blunt, big talkers, moody, and eschew anything popular and in-style. My dad recently told me that I’m an “attractive, middle-aged woman.” He meant it as a compliment. When I developed Jack, I had him, my brothers, my uncles, my cousins, and even my sons in mind. I have frequently described them all as missing a portion of their frontal lobe. They can be charming and charismatic and often draw people to them with their energy but their tendency to speak their minds at any costs mandates that you develop a thick skin. I wanted my main character of Erin to come to Laurel Ridge fragile and timid. I wanted her to be hurt and angered by Jack’s manner. Her personal growth includes learning what makes a man like Jack tick, which is not dissimilar to my own journey with my family. I hope you enjoy Lost and Found in Laurel Ridge.
What makes a writer? We could suggest that a writer is one who is an artist, who loves the written word, who seeks to educate and enrich others….or maybe a writer is just somebody who likes to fabricate new truths. My parents are packing up their house and moving back to Florida. We lived in Miami when I was a child and when my parents decided to move us to Cincinnati, my dad went first to get settled with a job. My mother and the four children: me, Ricky, Michael, and Timothy all stayed behind to finish out the school year and sell the house. My mother encouraged us to write our father often. Last night, they gave me a box of my report cards, artwork, and letters. In this particular letter I’m informing him, as only a a six year old girl can, that all of my brothers are bad and I am good. Oh, and by the way, let my cousin Sheila know that I’m coming soon. I laughed so hard, I cried. Even as a child, I was manipulating the truth to suit my needs. I mean, how was he going to know the difference? If I wrote that my brothers were being bad but I was good, why wouldn’t he believe that? The power of the written word is infallible. Maybe some of us are just born to fabricate; we love to write about the world as we see it or even just as we wish it would be. I like to think that I now have in my possession my very first short story.
I celebrated an important anniversary at the beginning of this month. September marks one year since I first self-published. I remember that day very clearly in my mind. It had taken me days to go through the process of converting my book to be Kindle-ready and all that was left was to click the “Publish” button. I sat in my living room, my finger hovering over the mouse-pad, thinking “I’m not really going to do this, am I?” The fear of exposing myself to the world and, even worse, the fear that no one would care, was momentarily overwhelming. Something funny happens to you in your 40’s, though. The downside is that you develop certain new fears. You worry about your health, your now adult children, your aging parents, and your financial security as retirement becomes a spot on the distant horizon. The flip side of that, though, is that you shed old fears. You don’t care nearly as much what people think about you. You become more comfortable in your skin, however wrinkly it now is. So, I clicked “Publish.” I was giddy with relief, happiness, and the trembling excitement of embarking on a new adventure. When I sold my first book, I cried. When I got my first review, I ran through the house telling anyone who would listen, “Someone liked it!” I told my brother last year that writing was a fun “hobby.” He corrected me and said that once somebody pays you for your work, it’s a job, even a career. “You’re a writer,” he told me. It took me a little while to accept it, but he’s right. A year ago, I became a writer and I love every moment of it. So my advice to anyone who dreams of being a writer? Just click “Publish.”
As I come to the end of my self-imposed hiatus, I have a confession. I cheated. It was my intention to put down the figurative pen and re-charge my batteries this summer. I wanted to travel a little (in between those silly obligations like work and family) and open myself up to new experiences. It is very hard, though, to ignore the voices in your head. As you’re communing with nature in Appalachia, relaxing on a beach in Florida, or even just sitting on your back patio listening to the cicadas, new characters are whispering in your ear. They are telling you their story and urging you to introduce them to that handsome man in the corner of your brain. So, at times this summer, I could be found on my laptop, jotting down a few words…or chapters. My husband would look over at me and say, “What are you doing?” and I would look up with guilt and say, “Facebook.” We would stare at each other, him waiting for me to admit my failure to relax and me waiting for him to chastise me for returning to my second, much-loved, job too early. Hello, my name is Sandy and I’m a compulsive writer.
Writers see the world differently. Every voice we hear, every face we see, every hand we touch could become story fabric–Buffy Andrews
In my real life, I work in an urban hospital. It is fifteen floors of pain, hope, new beginnings, and heartbreaking endings. I’m lucky enough to have a career where I get to talk to people–even better, I get to listen. Just in the past year, I have met the following people: a fighter pilot from WWII who was shot down over the South Pacific, a small-town Louisiana girl who came to the city in 1945 to become a swimsuit model, a woman who married her husband on a television show in the 50s, and a nun who ran a health-care clinic in Laos. I listen to their stories with fascination, already imagining how they will fit into my next book. My other senses come in to play during the course of a working day, too. I see the trepidation on a patient’s face as they are being wheeled into Radiology, fearful of what the MRI will reveal. I touch the hands of the sick, feeling the tremors, the pain, and the frailty. I give words of encouragement–therapists are the ultimate cheerleaders!–to patients who want to throw in the towel. Finally, the smells–oh, the smells of a hospital. They are as unique as the smells of a church…or a barnyard. Enough said. I love what I do, but I love writing more. Trying to find balance between my two worlds is not always easy, but they are intertwined. My day job helps creates the fabric of my stories. It’s easy to find inspiration to write—-it’s in nature, it’s in solitude, it’s in books and movies. It’s also in observing and listening to those around you. Everyone has a story; we just have to be willing to take the time to listen. We were given one mouth and two ears. Listen at least twice as much as you talk.