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!
It happens every time. As I am writing the final scenes of my book, I feel the melancholy rolling in. I know that I must say good-bye to my characters and it’s always a bittersweet parting. Anyone who writes knows that you don’t just think of your characters when you’re actually writing. You think of them while you drift off to sleep, while you’re supposed to be working at your day job, and while your husband is telling you that the grout on the bathroom floor is cracking. Your characters are talking to you all of the time; you created them, now you can’t shut them up. They are your friends, your enemies, your lovers. Then comes the moment when you must end the story and say good-bye. I’ve said before that I often pull one of my books off of a shelf just for a visit. There are characters I like more than others, but they are all my babies. As I put the finishing touches on my newest novel, I must take a deep breath and prepare myself for the inevitable good-byes.
If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans–Woody Allen
A week ago, I had reached character nirvana. I couldn’t write quickly enough. The path of my newest book was laid out in front of me like a literary smorgasbord. Less than 24 hours after my last post, I took a tumble down a flight of steps. Not on purpose, of course; the steps just got in my way of safely making it from the second floor to the ground level of my home. I spent the next several days in pain and misery, covered in bruises and skin tears and, in general, hating life. I didn’t touch my computer once. My characters languished, stranded in the creek in which I had left them, waiting for direction. As I returned to my book for the first time in days, I was irritated and frustrated that I needed to find that sweet spot in my writing again. I know I’ll get back there but I hate losing control over my life and my writing. We like to define ourselves as writers, but sometimes we are reminded that we are above all humans; clumsy, easily-bruised humans.
One of the best moments when writing a novel is when you achieve character nirvana. It’s that moment when you really tap into your main character’s psyche and understand his or her motivation and eventual path. In the beginning of a new book, you’re just getting to know your characters. Some days are harder than others–you can’t figure out what they would say next or how they would react in certain situations. Some of the words seemed forced and the flow of the novel seems compromised. Then, something magical happens. Somewhere, in the middle of a sentence, the characters become real. They take on shape and substance. You’re no longer searching for the right words; you’re just writing down what they’re saying. They have become real people finally. It’s a beautiful moment in the life of a writer.