The Roots of My Novel

Today I was asked, “What is your novel about?” This is always a difficult question because my story has many twists and turns.

A few years ago at a Nebraska Writers’ Guild meeting, one of our members, an author with a NY Bestseller, told us we need to identify the genre of our book. I said “fiction.”

“But what kind of fiction?” she said.

I mulled it over and finally decided it is probably an urban fantasy since there is a “spirit” (for lack of a better word) in it.

So, when I am asked what my novel is about, I say, “It’s an urban fantasy.” Most people look puzzled at my answer. So, I go on to explain how I came up with the idea.

I started writing the story when a good friend of mine committed suicide. I felt totally betrayed when he killed himself because, in college, he had been my spiritual mentor. As I struggled with my religion and life’s lessons, he was my rock. He listened and educated me. He made me think about my beliefs. He helped me solidify my convictions. His suicide made me angry and hurt. So, I started writing about my feelings, our relationship and memories of happier times. As I did so, I thought, “What happens when someone commits suicide? Do they go to Hell? If God is truly loving and merciful, would He condemn my friend to Hell?”

My friend was such a great guy and helped so many people, I found it hard to believe that he would go to Hell. So, I considered the options. He did, after all, take his life, which is not exactly a saintly act. I felt he must have some way to redeem himself. His suicide made me re-exam my beliefs again, just as I had in college.

As I was writing, I tried to put my mind inside a person committing suicide. It must be a very helpless feeling to think your life isn’t worth anything or to be in so much pain, suicide is the only option you see.

I started writing about a fictional character, Jake, sitting in his car with the motor running, a hose connected to the exhaust pipe. I read about carbon monoxide poisoning and, contrary to what a lot of people think, you don’t necessarily just “fall asleep.” It can be an excruciating process as the red blood cells lack oxygen and every body system is affected. Extreme nausea, headache, body aches, panic, gasping and shortness of breath can all occur.

In the 1930’s, the Nazis used carbon monoxide to exterminate the Jews before switching to cyanide gas which was much more efficient and effective at killing. Carbon monoxide was not the best thing to use for mass killings.

So, Jake starts experiencing some of the symptoms while thinking about his life. Using flashbacks, I tell his story, how he used to be and how he had changed. When he dies, Jake doesn’t go to Heaven or Hell, but instead, finds himself “attached” to a woman he can’t escape. She is totally repulsive to him and he feels pain and distress at her mere appearance. As he takes his arduous journey, attached to this woman day in and day out, he comes to realize his pain decreases if he doesn’t judge her so much. If he finds her habits or appearance less repulsive, things go a little better for him. As he becomes more empathetic to her, he starts to recognize her as an old friend. When I told my adult son, a philosophy major, about my atory, he said, “Mom, that is like Jean-Paul Sartre’s premise in his play ‘No Exit.’ Hell is other people.”

Using that premise, that Hell is other people, I found things made more sense in my story.

As Jake journeys with this woman, he becomes involved in a crisis in her life. He wants to help her, but he is trapped. He watches helplessly as she tries to deal with the situation. He must find a way to communicate with her, but how?

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Davinci Syndrome

Have you heard of the Davinci Syndrome? It is the collection of signs and symptoms observed in creative people who have more ideas and visions than they can implement, making it difficult to complete a project before rushing off to the next.

Signs may include:davinci

  • rewriting, especially as the book is being written
  • editing the first chapter eight times before going on to the next chapter
  • procrastination, sharping pencils instead of writing
  • forgetting what was written in chapter 3 and ending up with your character living in Chicago in 1974 instead of in Iowa in 1969 in chapter 11

Apparently, Leonardo Davinci had so many ideas, he left some incomplete. Not only that, but some historians believe Davinci was a perfectionist and never truly believed his creations were done. Can you imagine thinking that the Mona Lisa or the Last Supper still needed work?

mona lisaBesides being a painter and sculptor, Leonardo Davinci was an architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist, and writer. Talk about multi-tasking!

I often feel like I suffer from the Davinci Syndrome. I am basically a short-story writer, primarily non-fiction. I am currently working on my first novel and find myself stuck as I rewrite and try to perfect my characters or plot.

IMG_1910With short-stories, it is much easier for me to write the story and move on to the next idea quickly, With a novel, I find I need a storyboard so I didn’t confuse the time or place in my story.

It is fortunate (or maybe not) that I am committed to my novel. It is near and dear to my heart. I will plod along, writing and rewriting, and maybe someday actually finishing it. I have a new group of writer-friends who are encouraging me and keeping me on track. Could they be the “therapy” I need to overcome my Davinci Syndrome?

My short story, “I Have the Coffee On” is in Chicken Soup for the Veteran’s Soul (2000) page 169. It is the story of the North Platte Canteen during WWII.