What if…?

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“What if I could catch that little white hand that is moving around?” —My curious cat, Daisy

Where do you get your story ideas? How do you develop your characters? What plot(s) do you choose?

At a recent writers’ group meeting, we worked on a prompt inspired by what someone read about Stephen King. Apparently, some or most of his novels started with the thought, “What if?” What if a dog terrorized people? What if an outcast girl had telekinetic abilities?

As I think about it, my current novel started out as a “what if?” What if a man commits suicide and can redeem himself somehow? What if Hell is other people like Jean-Paul Sartre proposed in his play ‘No Exit’?”

The prompts the writers in our group came up with were very interesting. Some were simple:
What if I took a wrong turn while driving in an unfamiliar neighborhood?
What if I found a blue pine cone?
What if my clock started to rewind on its own?

All of these “what if’s” could lead to an interesting story if we use our imaginations. We would come up with different scenarios and characters using the same “what if.”

It is interesting to think about.

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Time and Place

 

“The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet.  His problem is to find that location.” Flannery O’Connor

My novel is set in the 1980’s but my characters flash back to their childhood and college years in the 1960-70’s.  I am having fun writing the story, but there are times I must stop and think, “When did MP3 players become popular?” or “Would my character remember the moon walk that way?”  It is an interesting problem to have.  It becomes more complex the further into the novel I get.

Until now, I have been a non-fiction short story writer, so writing a novel is daunting and unfamiliar territory.  I am used to short projects that don’t take much time and don’t require my interest for very long.  I sometimes feel I have an element of attention deficit because I like to finish a project quickly and move on to the next idea.  Writing a novel takes more patience and persistence than I am used to giving.  I enjoy my characters, though, and continue to see what surprises they offer.

I began writing the novel after the suicide of one of my college friends.  He was my mentor and spiritual guide in those turbulent years of breaking away from home and finding myself.  When he committed suicide 30 years later, I felt betrayed.  Had all I had learned from him about faith and love been a sham?  I was very angry and used my writing to lash out.  I used my writing to organize my thoughts and to eventually forgive him for taking his life.  It was apparent in my prose that I was going through of the grieving process.

At first, I was in denial.  It couldn’t be true.  Maybe someone murdered him.  Maybe it was an accident.  I explored all the options that were contrary to reality.  I felt pain and guilt.  Why hadn’t I tried to contact him?  It had been several months since last we spoke and even longer since we had seen each other.  Maybe if I had called, he wouldn’t have taken his life.

Then I was angry and wrote about how betrayed I felt.  “How could he do such a thing?”  How could he put his mother and family through this?  He killed himself just before Mother’s Day.  What lousy timing.  He killed himself before his 52nd birthday.  Why?  I stayed in the anger stage of grief for a long time.  (I sometimes find myself returning to it, but for shorter periods of time now.)

Identifying the bargaining phase of grief has been harder, but I think I manifested it by thinking my novel might help my friend be redeemed.  In the book, my character commits suicide, then suddenly finds himself “attached” to a strange woman.  Everything she does repulses him or causes him pain.  The premise is based on Jean Sartre’s “No Exit” in which “Hell is other people.”  My character is suffering because of this woman.  But he will eventually be redeemed through her actions.  In the grieving process, as I understand it, bargaining is when we try to make things better by asking God (or our belief system) if we do this, will He make things better or have things return to “normal.”

As I write the ending of my story, I can see where I am in the depression/reflection phase of grieving.  I am trying to make sense of it all and tie up the loose ends.  It makes me sad when I write about the finality of death as well as the “what could have been.”  Acceptance is the final phase of grieving and I am getting there.

It is common to flip-flop back and forth through the grieving process.  I have seen it before in my professional as well as my personal life.  I have lost both of my parents and three siblings to early deaths so the process is familiar.  What is not familiar is the nuance of death by suicide.

Writing through my grief helps me deal with it.  My novel is fiction, but the emotions are real.  As I write the story, I find it much easier to imagine the times and places my characters are traveling through.  The story is leading the way now that I have dealt with my initial sorrow.

 

A Cold Wintery Day

As I sit at the computer, taking a break from taking down Christmas decorations, I feel a draft on my legs. The thermometer reads 19 degrees outdoors and 69 degrees indoors. The sky looms overcast, gray and dreary. A light coat of snow covers the ground, showing some patches of brown grass in areas where the snow has melted. How I long for the sun.

I should work on my novel, but instead I am following the directions of the “Zero to Hero: 30 Days to a Better Blog” instructions and writing a new post. That is the problem with working on a novel. I am either easily distracted or, the polar opposite, totally engrossed in my writing.

I tend to write short stories so a novel is a huge undertaking for me. Short stories are easy because I can cover a topic and be done with it. Research is one of my favorite parts of short stories and articles. I read about the topic, then write up a few pages and am finished, ready to move on to the next project. A novel is a long-term commitment. Sometimes I want to divorce my novel.

I began my novel after a friend committed suicide. I started writing to help me cope with the grief and anger I felt. My friend had been my spiritual mentor in college. How could someone who taught me so much about life and joy take his own life? As I fictionalized the book, it became fun and the story was “writing itself” for a while. (I have heard other authors explain this phenomenon, but I never felt it myself.) It was very exhilarating. Then it stopped. Writing became tedious. I put my half-written novel away.

Now, a year later, I have it out again. I haven’t done much with it yet. The novel is hibernating in my computer and a hard copy lies dormant in a notebook waiting to be edited and expanded. I open it up and look at it once in a while, then decide I need to put Christmas decorations away, straighten up the papers on my desk, go through my old files, sharpen the pencils as I throw out old inkless pens, and write a blog post.

I have a love-hate relationship with writing. When I am “on a roll,” I love to write. It is exciting and time flies by. When I am stuck, it is like this day–bleak, cold, heartless, stark and cruel, making me long for the sun.