Those of you who have been following What Women Write know that I recently finished The Oak Lovers, a novel based on the lives of my great-grandparents. Unless you’ve been stopping by since 2009, you may not know what compelled me to write their story.
My favorite childhood stories all involved a colorful character named Carl Ahrens. I adored the outrageous tales about young Carl running away from home to live with the Indians, befriending Calamity Jane, or making a catastrophic attempt to fly off the barn roof. He was a cowboy in pioneer Montana one night and the next he traveled the California coast by covered wagon.
Though I knew Carl was my ancestor, it wasn’t until I was much older that I associated the adventurer with the frail old man in the family photographs. How could a man who suffered from a crippling form of tuberculosis have had all those adventures? What about the woman beside him in the photos, the one who kept a comforting (or perhaps possessive) hand on his arm? He gazed at her instead of the camera, a look of naked adoration on his face. What was their story? I had to know it and, once I did, I had to tell it.
Many writers claim they had to write a particular book, but the reasons behind the need vary greatly. Today, authors Therese Walsh, Stephanie Cowell, Kathryn Magendie, Cathy Marie Buchanan, Judy Merrill Larsen and Erika Robuck join us and share their inspirations.
There are so many layers to this question, and it might be answered in as many ways. At a base level, I think I was compelled to write because I sought professional gratification. I'd left a career as a researcher and writer for Rodale Press to become a stay-at-home mom. I had no regrets--not a single one--however I missed the world of more cerebral work. This persisted even after I began freelance writing from home, because that didn't satisfy my need to evolve as a writer. Once I hit on fiction--trying my hand at some children's picture book concepts before deciding to write a work for adults--the bug bit hard. My reasons for writing evolved then, became partly about recovering from the death of my father and other real-life events. But at root, I think I simply needed to feel like a relevant professional with something to say, and with the skill to say it.
I was so passionately interested in writing Claude & Camille because most of my friends have been in the arts and, like the young Claude Monet, most of them have had a hard time managing their art and the needs of a normal life. Since the arts often bring little money, how do you pay the rent? And if the writer or singer or painter has a day job, she must fit her painting or writing in the evenings and weekends. She is constantly saying, “I can’t do any of these lovely social things because evenings and weekends are my time to…” It can be a real tension in a relationship; it can cause marriages to fail. If you are devoted to an art it takes an awful lot of time and money. So the story was dear to me because I lived it and many of my friends lived it. Claude & Camille is a bittersweet story because by the time Claude Monet had succeeded as an artist, he had lost Camille. I wanted to ask, “What is art worth? What was the cost of the beautiful water lily paintings?” It has no easy answer.
While letting my first book (Tender Graces) simmer before chopping it to pieces (laughing), I wanted to see if I could write a draft of a novel in 30 days—not for nanowrimo, for at the time I’d not heard of it; I just wanted to see if I could discipline myself to the task. I started with a vague notion of a “special” girl who has scars on her body and lives in a small mountain. In the back of my mind was an article I’d read in Reader’s Digest magazine about a little girl who had a congenital insensitivity to pain, and how her mother had to watch over her so very carefully. Well, I wondered, what would happen if the mother couldn’t watch over the little girl? And what if this was during a time, and in a place, where this wasn’t a known condition? What if the girl and the town thought she was afflicted or cursed? I began writing: tippity-tap-tip-tap—wheee!
There I was la tee dah’ing away on a story-path and then one day during a walk in the forest on my mountain cove here in the Smoky Mountains, Sweetie “came to me.” She was so real in her faded cotton dress. She told me I had it all wrong—had her all wrong. I’ve never had this kind of experience with a character before. I may never have it again. And whenever I’d stray, she poked me until I had it “right.” Sweetie also affected the ending, which I angsted over so very much until I finally let it “go” and knew it was the only ending that could “be”—period.
Sweetie remains one of the most special of my books because of this feeling of something outside of me that can’t be explained. I had to write her, and I had to write her as “Sweetie” wanted me to. She, and I, could not rest until that was done. I have never seen her or felt her since finishing the book. I miss her but I’m glad she’s happy.
When I set out to write The Day the Falls Stood Still, the story of William Red Hill, Niagara’s most famous riverman, was a natural place to find inspiration. Born and bred in Niagara Falls, Ontario, I grew up awash in the lore of Red Hill. I’d see the rusted-out hull of the old scow lodged in the upper rapids of the river and be reminded of him rescuing the men marooned there in 1918. I’d see the plaque commemorating the ice bridge tragedy of 1912 and know he’d risked his life to save a teenage boy named Ignatius Roth. I’d open the newspaper and read a story about his son, Wes, carrying on the Hill tradition and rescuing a stranded tourist. The hero of my story, I decided, would be loosely based on Red Hill. In creating a riverman with an extraordinary—perhaps even mystical—ability to predict the erratic behavior of the Niagara river and falls, I saw a chance to showcase the wonder I feel when I stand at the brink of the Niagara Falls.
With All the Numbers, as well as manuscripts I've completed since, I've found that the story itself nags at me until I can't NOT write it. A scene will come to me--or several scenes, and I know that I have to dig deeper, I want to know what happens, I have to listen to these characters and help them get from point A to point Q or R or wherever they need to be. I suppose that all sounds very vague or all "whoo-wooey," but it's how it's worked for me.
Erika Robuck – Hemingway’s Girl (coming September 4, 2012)