I keep a lengthy list of story ideas. Some have materialized and have been published. Some are in the works. And some are just ideas. I list them and reference them periodically, letting potential story lines “free associate” somewhere in my brain, in hopes that I can retrieve them when I’m ready to move on to a new project.
Last time I described the origin of Autumn Colors, my first novel. Today I’ll focus on my second book, In Her Mother’s Shoes. When I tell you about the cover content, I expect you’ll have some idea about the source of the story.
The book’s cover features letters exchanged during World War II between my mother and my father, and some between her and other friends. One was with a young man who was a German prisoner of war. No one has been able to tell me if he ever made it home. Overlaid on the spread of letters is a pair of pink, satin dancing shoes. They are also my mother’s, from her early days and happiest memories, dancing to the tunes of the nineteen thirties and forties. She was a marvelous dancer.
She had a very tough early life. And even though she had relative security and the stability my father brought to our family, her early years spilled over into how she related to her children. She was a good woman who wanted to do the right things, but the damage done to her in her childhood often derailed her best intentions. The book’s character Katherine is modeled after my mother, although with a lot of literary license.
We learn what we live, so the saying goes. And so the children of Katherine reflect many of her behaviors, including feeling deeply but rarely showing those feelings. The main character, Meredith, appears somewhat cold and stoic early on. As she learns more about her mother’s background for the first time, she begins to see the parallels in her own behaviors and in her relationships with her own children.
Lest you assume that Meredith is modeled on me, let me set the record straight. I have no children, so much of the story line is pure speculation. Meredith takes a lot of risks and puts tremendous effort into understanding enough about her mother to grow to appreciate her. And to consciously work on changing her own behaviors with her children, so the negativity and harshness isn’t passed down to yet another generation. In the end, Meredith is able to honor her mother’s memory and forge more solid and loving relationships with her children.
When new writers are told to “write what they know,” it doesn’t necessarily mean always writing autobiographically – unless you choose to write a memoir instead of a novel. Rather, you can take pieces of your own life experience and weave a story around those pieces, asking a lot of what-ifs, inserting knowledge gained through education and relationships, and tying it up with a satisfying ending. Mine tend to be happy endings, but an ending can be satisfying while still tugging at your heartstrings. Or – if a sequel is planned – by implying that while things might be just grand at the moment, a new crisis is waiting just around the corner.