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.
My son, Jake, is working on his first novel and asked me if I would edit his work. As mentioned before, I hate editing, but what kind of mother tells her child no? Do you know what I discovered, though? I LOVE editing other people’s work! I love getting out my figurative red pen and marking grammar errors and incomplete sentences. I inserted the word “why?” no less than a dozen times into his manuscript. Why did your character say that? Why did that happen? Why, why, why? The one thing that I told him that I would not critique, however, is whether or not the book is “good.” Here was my advice for him: Write what you like. Write what you know. Write want you want to read. Write what feels good. If you worry about appealing to the masses, then you have put yourself in a place where you really don’t want to be as an artist. Appeal to yourself. Write a book that you pull off of the shelf and read again and again, simply because you like it. Sure, we want others to like it, too. We all have that dream of making it big—-writing the Great American novel that everyone wants to read. If that is your sole motivation, though, the book isn’t coming from your heart. Ambition is a fine quality but it has no place during the creative process.
As I continue to research my new book, I am re-visiting my own family history. I often use my father’s family tree for inspiration in my writing, but this time I’m reaching into my mother’s lineage. This picture is of my great-grandparents, great-aunt, and my beloved late grandmother (she’s the toddler on the right). My great-grandmother, Hettie Elizabeth, looks happy in her role as a young wife and mother, but I know that times were tough. Little did she know that just a few years after this photo was taken, she would be in a TB hospital, separated from her husband and two little girls. She died at just 26 years of age, leaving Jarvis Jackson Cromer a widower at the age of 29. Yes, believe it or not, my great-grandfather was only in his mid-twenties in this picture! I love his body language, though—–kind of like “Don’t mess with me…ever.” What I’m learning about the people of Appalachia, though, is that they were (and are) inherently strong and proud people. They were fighters. They worked hard and loved harder and never forgot those who departed earlier than they should have. As my grandmother was facing her own mortality, she picked up a pen and began writing her history. She remembered every moment of the day she learned her mother had died in that TB hospital. Seventy years later, the pain of that day lived strong within her. When I miss her so much that it hurts, I pull out her memories. I hope that they continue to inspire me.
During my summer hiatus from writing, I’m doing some traveling. My next book will be set in the Appalachian region so I wanted to visit the area. Appalachia has to be one of the most fascinatingly diverse areas in our country. Rolling hills grow into mountains, technology is valued less than family, and there is a depth of history that is tangible. The poverty can be overwhelming while the landscape takes your breath away. My husband and I stopped by a roadside stand–which was really a pick-up truck–to buy a bundle of firewood for our campfire. The young man and his even younger brother who sold us the wood will surely find their way into my book. The excitement from the younger boy at having a customer, the downcast face of the older brother who most certainly would have rather been out doing what teens do best——they touched my heart in a way that told me they needed a place in my story. I guess I’m cheating on my self-imposed break from writing, but it’s pretty hard to quiet the voices in your head.
I love summertime. No, let me re-phrase. I live for summertime. I spent the first part of my childhood in the south before my parents packed up the station wagon and moved us to Cincinnati. Summer is short and precious in the Queen City. After publishing my latest book, The Ghosts of Wolf Island Creek, I made a decision. I am taking a mental break. I’m putting down my pen for the next two months. I’m going to jog through the woods, I’m going to take weekend jaunts, and I’m going to read. That’s right, I’m going to do the thing that I love most, the thing that made me want to become a writer. I’m going to put down my Kindle (sorry Amazon) visit my old friend, the library, and I’m going to read late into the night, early in the morning, and on my lunch break. Don’t get me wrong, my fingers are itching to start my next book. I already have the setting in my head, I already know the conflict, and the characters are already introducing themselves to me. What I need, though, is some time to just be. I’m going to people watch and explore new towns and–oh, did I mention that I’m going to read? Being a writer takes discipline. You have to be committed to research, word count per day goals, and editing (blah!) This summer, I’m going to find the discipline to NOT write. It’s time to replenish my life experiences and seek inspiration. Let the summer begin!
My newest book, The Ghosts of Wolf Island Creek, is now available for purchase on Amazon.com. This book was a unique experience in a few ways. First, the cover art was created by my talented husband, Mike. I gave him a short synopsis of my book, which was barely in skeletal form at the time, and he spent the afternoon taking pictures and trying to capture the setting that existed only in my imagination. Secondly, this is the first book that I’ve written that came almost exclusively from my own family history. Although all of my historical books contain some element of my ancestors (who I obviously find fascinating!), in The Ghosts of Wolf Island Creek most of the characters were real people. The Cantrell family (who I first mention in Saved by Grace) really did have twenty-three children, all but two of them sons. Little records exist of Gabriel Cantrell, so he seemed like a logical pick for my main character. I was able to develop him into a fictional character without stepping on any toes of historical accuracy. Finally, this book is different from my others in the characters themselves. As I’ve mentioned before, I love flawed characters. There’s nothing worth reading in perfection. However, I have never developed a female character with as little gumption as Charlotte. I have never developed a male character who was as much of an oddity as Gabriel. I like them, though. They are like those slightly off-beat friends that you don’t quite understand but you enjoy your time with them anyway. Besides, they are perfect for each other. I love a little literary match-making even if I have to bring two people from different centuries together. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it!