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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Stringing Together a Novel

For some people, novels arrive fully formed in their brains, via a dream or a story the author has been nursing for years. Broken Wings was more like a pebble here, a pearl there, a flicker of an idea that wasn't quite flesh and bones. It actually had its origins in the stories my mother-in-law and dad told me about living through the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl days.

You see, when I first started writing, I went to a conference and learned they have contests! I was fascinated by that and went home and wrote a short story. For eight months I wrote, researched, and polished my entry which I called "Sand Plum Summer." It took place during the Depression and was about a young girl who prayed for a baby brother. On Black Sunday, a dust storm whipped through this farm family's corner of Oklahoma. The next day, three children were found in a shack. Their mother, out picking sand plums, perished in the storm, and the children (yes, a baby brother!) were taken in by the farm family. I loved this story, entered it in the contest, and much to my surprise, it won 1st place and was the first money I ever earned as a writer.

I thought of the characters off and on over the next few years, and it kept coming back to me that the oldest of those three orphans surely had a story to tell. Why were they stranded? What did she remember? At some point I knew her mother was fleeing an abusive husband. But was there a story there?

Then one day I read an article in the Tulsa paper about the possible renovation of the Big Ten Ballroom which had hosted jazz greats back in the forties and fifties. Maybe this orphaned girl grew up and became a jazz singer. She would, of course, be old now so perhaps she needed to tell her story.

About that time I'd also read a couple of "framed" stories where an older narrator tells a fascinating story of his or her youth (Water for Elephants, The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet). I began stringing the pearls I'd gathered together, but still didn't have a real story.

When my first novel was accepted, the editor (bless her heart) asked what else I had. My agent sent her a completed young adult story I'd just written. It was rejected. Do you have something else?

Well . . . there's this jazz singer.

After that, things went into high gear as my agent and I brainstormed how the story could be told using the fragments I had. We had to have current conflict and situations. I knew the singer would be telling her story to a younger person and came up with a young professional woman in need of a friend - a woman who's being abused by her fiance. Abuse became the silk cord that held the beads in place and united the two characters. We added a few more beads, discarded some that didn't work out. In a four day period, I wrote a synopsis (summary) of the story and three chapters. My agent submitted it, and a few days later, I was offered a two-book contract.

Broken Wings is a story of friendship, perseverance, and loss, but there is great hope in the characters. And I'm nearly certain the jazz tunes I played non-stop while writing the story seeped into the pages. In five short weeks, the book will be on bookstore shelves. I hope you'll pick one up and give it a home. Already I'm thrilled at this early review. It's a scary, but thrilling, thing to put one of your babies out there. I'll be hosting some contests here and on FaceBook in the next few months so I hope to see you there.

I'm off to gather some more pearls to string together for a new story. Maybe I'll stumble upon some gems!

3 comments:

Camille Eide said...

Thanks for sharing the process. Stories are born in so many ways and it's good to see how yours came about. I can't wait to hold a copy of this baby in my hands! Two copies, actually: one for each hand.
:-)

carla stewart said...

Thanks, Camille. You've been there every step of the way - thank you for your encouragement and critique!

Julie Garmon said...

I loved reading this!! So excited for what this book will bring to the world.