Wheatfield Near Fort Pierre, South Dakota. Photograph by Robert Clements

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Where do ideas come from?

Beaver Bourget's Lobster Boat, The Odyssey, Quaker Point, Maine - photograph by MC Rogers

I mentioned my book Rubinrotes Herz, eisblaue see in my first post.  The English title is Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea.  It hasn't been published in English (yet), but high hopes abound in that area.  Why has it been published in Germany and not here, in the U.S.A.?  Because publishing works that way, sometimes.  The short version is that my agency has international contacts, and one such contact saw the manuscript, took it to Europe, and a wonderful German publishing house, which specializes in books about the sea and seaside communities and environments picked it up.  I have been fortunate to work with the most wonderful professionals during this process.  At any rate, the book is out, and so is an audio tape, and I feel as if I've struck gold.  It's all dizzying and out-of-body and fabulous.  I love that something I made up, found a voice for, and wrote down has found its way into the world. 

But I wanted to talk about how things happen.  How things begin.  How something tiny can turn into a creative work that keeps on ticking until the story is told.  Did I sit down and conjure up a voice?  Did the voice come to me in a dream?  Did my eleven-year old narrator, Florine Gilham, come to me and say, "Write my story?"  Well, no, not really.  I didn't even know she existed until a dear friend, who was starring on stage in the one-woman show Shirley Valentine asked me to be her assistant. The show can be grueling for the actress, and I was there as prop, make-up, and general backstage calming-down buddy, kind of like the post horse that accompanies the thoroughbred to the starting gate.  Well, we all know what the thoroughbred does, but what happens to the post horse after her plod to the gate? 

In my case, I was reading a local newspaper, glancing at the letters to the editor.  One such letter was written by a woman who was distraught because someone had stolen a lawn ornament from the lawn of a friend.  In perfect Maine Coastal dialect, this friend described in great detail what the ornament had meant to her friend and to that friend's family.  The lawn ornament stolen in question was one of the seven dwarfs.  Sneezy, as a matter of fact.  Trying to explain here why this combination of elements struck me so hysterically that I dropped the newspaper and guffawed is useless.  But I got the idea to write about this family, not the woman who had written the letter.  I wanted to tell the story of this family's despair and grief regarding the unfortunate Sneezy's loss.  When I sat down to type, this woman's voice came into my head loud as thunder and twice as brash.  I immediately named her Florine.  And for over seventy-two pages, Florine unfolded her life story as an adult living with her family in a trailer by the side of the road.  The voice never wavered.  It was like sitting down to tea with a really good friend, every time I sat down to type.

Later, in a writing group, one of the members questioned Florine's relationship with one of her family members, which set me to writing the backstory, to be added to what was now obviously a novella.  The backstory became Rubinrotes herz, eisblaue see, or Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea.

Florine's voice was so strong, so a part of my imagination, that I could pick up her story at any point and she would almost say, "Now, where were we?"  Or, other times, when I didn't feel like writing, I manifested her presence standing in front of me with an exasperated look on her face that signaled to me that she didn't have all day, for chrissake, get cracking.  So I did, and her story got told, and now it's being sold and happily, pretty well accepted.  In German, at least.

Voices like Florine's just don't come around that often.  And often, they are not the voices you wish would come around.  I wanted, for instance, to finish the soft-Irish-accented trilogy that I'd started years before.  It was romantic, everyone was pretty, and rock and roll was the theme.  In comparison, Florine's adult speaking voice (yes, I hear that most definitely) is a bit crowish and a little loud.  Her childhood voice is often pugnacious and stubborn.  But here's the important thing.  ANY voice is a gift.  Any voice that strong, that insistent, has something to say, and the writer should damn well listen to it.  Let her, or him, tell their story.  Let you, as the author, shape it, mold it, and mark it with a 'P'.  It could be a wonderful collaboration and partnership. 

I don't know if Sneezy the dwarf was ever returned to his place on the lawn.  I don't even know if the lawn was in front of a trailer.  What I do know is, I got a story out of it.  And that story continues to unfold.  It's a work in progress.  It's also magic, or pretty darn close to it.  Listen.  Who wants out of your imagination and on to the page?  You might be surprised.  Let it happen.       


  1. God bless Sneezy. And you're right--those voices are a gift...and voices like Florine's do not come around that often. You made them all so real that sometimes I think I'm going to bump into one of your characters at Marden's. I'm glad they're going to stay awhile and tell us more.
    PS Thank God for the elf. Or in this case, dwarf.

  2. Loved your Book, can't wait to read more about Florine. It's so wonderful! Thank you so much!