I’ve just finished writing a novel. My editor and I have passed it back and forth, and I sent what I think and hope is my final version back to her this afternoon. Although it’s my third book, it’s my first work of fiction.
It started as a nine-page essay, a summary of what I knew about my maternal grandfather. Although I was not close to him, I was prompted to write about him because of something I was told at a memorial for one of my many uncles. I’m not planning to divulge too much about the story here; I’ve tended to tell the whole story, along with the spoilers, once I get started talking about it. Suffice it to say the story is a saga of a Kansas-Utah-Wyoming-Oklahoma family, supported originally by my grandfather’s job on the railroad, which takes place in the 1920’s-30’s, and has ended up being kind of a Little House on the Prairie for adults, with a couple of scandals thrown in there which some people have found jaw-dropping. (Well, I never read Little House on the Prairie. I’m just guessing, from what people say about it.)
I had trepidation about writing fiction. I can tell a story about something that really happened to me, or to someone else if I was present to the event, but I’ve always thought of myself as someone who can’t really make stuff up. There is still a lot of creativity involved in telling a true story or writing a song about one’s experience. Even in writing my memoir and my self-help/travel/memoir, I kept a thesaurus close at hand and wrote and re-wrote until I felt like I got it all down pretty much as I wanted to. The creativity is in how you tell the story, what words are accurate to the experience and the feeling. I’m never 100% satisfied with the whole book. Parts, yes, or even most… “except for that one phrase on page..” This is, I think, the writer’s dilemma. We just want it to be… perfect.
But I had the bones of a true story, it just hadn’t happened to me and I hadn’t been there to witness it. I had what I’d been told by different relatives. So that essay (the one up there in the second paragraph) became the basis for an outline. Then I started researching to find out whether all or some of what I had been told was true; I found the people involved (not all family members, but, shall we say, “housemates”) in census records and genealogy sites; I found the orphanage (yes, there’s an orphanage) in historical sites. The railroad played a large part and I found old schedules and routes, in order to figure out if certain scenarios, where people could have met, etc., were realistic. I looked up a lot of historical details of the places and years I wrote about.
And then I created the personalities. I knew my mother quite well and she had told me stories of her childhood, although before she died in 1993, she never breathed a word of the scandals to myself or my sister. One family member had an explanation for the orphanage that turned out not to be true; she just preferred the story that was concocted over reality. I had a passing acquaintance with some of my aunts and uncles, who are the children in this story. So I knew what their speech patterns were, to some extent, and the kinds of things at least my mother liked to talk about, so I had an inkling of what the characters’ interests may have been. There’s a whole lot of domesticity in the book, especially in the early part, which sets up background for what’s coming. It will seem quite simple and unexciting to some, but I hope that I may have summoned a bit of the spirit of Jane Austen and the domestic life women in those earlier centuries were bound by, and indeed, defined by.
I did not know my blood maternal grandmother, and she is the key character of the story. She died when I was two. So I looked at her picture, I considered what it would have been like to have a dozen children and be married to a railroad man who was gone a lot of the time, and more or less said, “Okay, Grandma, I hope this is right, and I want to honor you with this story.”
I had some difficulty when it came time to creating a personality for my grandfather, because he was very tight-lipped most of the time. Although he talked to my father, and of course to my mother, his eldest daughter, I don’t think I ever had a conversation with him in the three years he lived two blocks away from us during my childhood. A meditation guide I practice with suggested this practice for finding a way to relate to someone you don’t like or can’t identify with: “My grandfather had feelings, just like me. My grandfather loved his family, just like me.” And so on. I did that, and although I still felt angry with the man posthumously, I was able to bring out some humanity in the man who sat at the center of the plot.
So now I have a book about my grandparents’ relationship and how it affected their children and others in their lives. Is it true? Not entirely. It has to be a work of fiction, because I don’t really know how people met or what their motivations were for the actions they took. But I think I made some pretty good guesses.
It was a challenging process. I really wanted to be true to the possibilities of what must have happened, or what could have happened. I didn’t know if I’d be able to do it, just make stuff up. But I’m chatty and I listen to others’ conversations, so it was not terribly hard to make up dialogue once I had written a chapter outline based on what must have happened, enhanced by what could have happened. Voila, a book.
It won’t be published until Oct. 1, 2024. Yes, you have to finish a book a year prior to its actual publication. There will likely be pre-orders available in about six months. But we don’t even have a cover just yet, although I’m told the artist is working on it.
I’ve often heard that all fiction is based on truth. Creators draw from their own lives or the lives of others they’ve heard about for their fictional work. When you see a Hollywood movie that is “based on a true story,” usually there’s a whole lot of leeway and not a whole lot of truth left, although there may be a big nugget. My husband always looks up the facts, often before we are even finished watching a “true story” movie.
Well, this book… its basic story is true. The where’s and the when’s, mostly true. The personalities and motivations and exact times and places where the apex events took place? They are all made up.
I bless this book, and hope it fully honors my grandmother, who didn’t have the opportunity to tell this story from her own point of view.