Last week I talked about the story as a gift. This week, I’d like to talk a little about the seed of a story and how, for me, the way the story arrives often tells me what kind of story it will be.
Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time talking with wonderful writers about where story ideas come from. There’s no single way that is best. For me, some “delivery” methods tell me that I have hold of a thematic element and I’m going to have to search for the story. This is the hardest way for me to access story.
When story arrives as a strip of movie or a few images, fully detailed, but without a hint of story, this really puts me through my paces. My second novel, TOUCHED, came to me with the image of a tall, slender woman striding down a dirt road in a 1920s dress. She was pulling a wagon, and in the wagon was a rocking chair. In the chair was a badly burned child, and riding on the back of the chair was a rooster. That was it. I knew my time period because of the clothes they wore. I knew they were mother and daughter, and that the story centered around their love for each other. What I had to figure out was that Duncan, the child, had been struck by lightning while dancing in a small, repressive Mississippi town in 1926. Her mother, Johanna, was an independent woman at a time when women were little more than cattle. Once I knew these elements, I let my imagination and subconscious go to work to tell me the story of these two character. TOUCHED was the result.
Over 15 years ago, when I’d finished TOUCHED and was trying to decide what to write next, I was staring out my office window and watching my horses graze. I hard two voices, both Southern and both female, bickering. One was just giving the other the dickens, bossing and sassing and being a pill. I couldn’t see them—I could only hear them. But I sat down and began to write, following along as fast as I could. The more I wrote the clearer they became. And I came to know them as Sarah Booth Delaney, amateur detective, and Jitty the ghost, who haunts Sarah Booth’s ancestral home in Zinnia, Mississippi.
To be honest, I didn’t realize I was writing a mystery. I never thought I could plot well enough to write a mystery, though I loved reading them. I cut my teeth on Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys and spent every penny of my allowance buying those books. What a shocker that I had actually written one, THEM BONES, that sold at auction. And thus my career as a mystery writer began.
Books come to me via character, sometimes plot (not often enough!), thematically, and sometimes from a setting, such as THE SEEKER, (by R.B. Chesterton, my “dark” pseudonym), which is set at Walden Pond in Massachusetts, far, far from my normal stomping ground of the South.
The trick here is to relax into the story and listen. That’s hard for a driven writer. Sometimes it takes a while for a story to reveal itself. I had an idea for a trilogy, which I want to just jump into. But the story isn’t set. It isn’t ready for work yet. It’s still growing and shaping. So wait I must. And listen closely, and trust in the story.
Carolyn Haines is the author of 65 books in a number of genres and under several pseudonyms. She was awarded the Harper Lee Distinguished Writer Award in 2010 and the Richard Wright Award for Literary Excellence in 2009. She teaches fiction writing at a Mobile university and runs Good Fortune Farm Refuge, an animal rescue. You can learn more about her at www.carolynhaines.com or her writing conference at www.daddysgirlsweekend.com