Tuesday, June 9, 2009


I've written in this space before about the various fictional projects I have underway. The current one on my plate, Purple Holly, is a novel and it's going well.

I decided to publish my daily excerpts in a separate blog, and invited a select number of people to check in occasionally to read the progress. It's an interesting way to motivate myself. But, given my penchant for slacking off, it's a good idea.

My daughter, Fallon, sent me an email from school (she's a junior in high school) yesterday which started a brief exchange that went like this:

Fal: I know you're not looking for opinion right now, but I really like what u have so far on your blog for purple holly.

Me: Thanks Fallon! How are you getting to KFC by the way? (she just landed a job at KFC)

Fal: walking it. haha

Me: Get a ride with Kyle! (Kyle's her boyfriend. He drives)

Fal: i would but he's walking home because his mom has to use the car today. hey, by the way.. what is your idea for purple holly? like what is your story line idea so far?

Me: The story line? Um...well. That's top secret. You'll have to keep reading :-P

Fal: Oh that's real cool. haha. didn't i have a doll named that or something?

Me: Yes. You had a doll when you were about Gabi's age and you named her Purple Holly. There is a doll in my novel. Named Purple Holly. There's also a girl in my novel. Named Purple Holly. I'm not saying anything more.

Fal: i know u want to tho
I share that for a couple of reasons. First, to illustrate that I do actually communicate with my children, even my 17-year-old. And this is the form in which in typically takes. I take what I can. She's a busy girl. She's 17. And I'm not cool. I do cringe at the complete evisceration of the English language at the hands of her generation, but beggars can't be whiners.

But also, I wanted to point out an example of how a story has its origins. How flimsy and fragile the idea-getting process tends to be.

The Purple Holly Premise: A 17-year-old boy, in a rural Maine town, aspires to be a great journalist someday and manages to convince the editor of the local newspaper to allow him to write a feature article. The editor, whom the main character looks up to, tells him he must choose a person and write their story. The main character, as part of his non-paying apprenticeship at the paper, collects arraignments at the county courthouse every Monday and one day spots Lucinda Jones, a girl his own age. Her mystical sense, her strangeness, attracts him in a journalistic way: He MUST write her story. So he pursues her, and after some resistance, she relents. But only if he agrees to give her a pseudonym, to protect her identity. She chooses Purple Holly. Through the course of the story, the main character comes to understand a lot about Purple: that she lives in poverty, that she is a wild girl, mystical, carefree, childlike in her view of the world. In the face of adversity, she has an optimistic, bright outlook. When the main character discovers the most shocking truth of Purple's existence, he decides he's ready to write his story for the paper, in large part to reveal the truth so that someone might intervene on her behalf. The end of the story is explosive, shocking, and nothing what people expect.

So that's the story, generally speaking, without giving anything away.

Now the pieces:

- I was a journalist for about a dozen years, so I draw on my experience, particularly as a court reporter who saw stories of physical, mental, and sexual abuse against women. Real stories.

- I've lived in rural towns in Maine and Vermont my entire life, so I draw on that.

- I knew a Lucinda Jones once. We all have, probably. She's the "strange" girl in class, the one who wears odd clothes, says odd things, is estranged from her peers because of her oddity. She's the one people pick on.

- Fallon, when she was about three, had a doll her mother and I gave her as a gift. She carried it everywhere. But it didn't come with a name. We would ask her the name of her doll, and she would always say she was thinking about it. Then, one day, while driving, from her car seat in the back, she said "I know the name of my baby." Playing along, I asked her for it. "Purple Holly."

I have no idea where she came up with it, but it hit me so hard I nearly drove off the rode. Not because I thought it would someday make a great novel. It was just a lightening strike kind of moment of inspiration. I put it away in my mental catalog for future use.

Fast forward 14 years and one day I'm playing the "what if" game that all writers play. In this particular case, I was stuck on a very simple premise: why are the Lucinda Joneses of the world so fascinating? What makes them the way they are? Non-conformists, against-the-stream, happy-in-their-own-world, etc.

I loved the notion of Lucinda, but notions don't make good stories.

After a few days, though, I had a newspaper, I had a courthouse, I had domestic violence, I had a narrator who wants to be a reporter, and I also had the ending.

See? There's no magic to it. Novels come from the far corners of your experience, get mixed together, and when the ingredients flash, and you see smoke, then you know you've created something that just might be a good story.


  1. The best story ideas do come from personal experiences. I think it has something to do with imagination - the sort of twisted imagination of a writer, that is - that can take simple things and turn them into a story that others will be interested in.

    I've been coming up with some seriously odd ideas lately. It could be the fever, though.

  2. I think that on some level we HAVE to draw on our own experiences; and then twist them all around to fit the story.

  3. I enjoyed reading about this process, and I look forward to the book very much. And BTW, haven't received Surfacing yet. Maybe today?

  4. Great story. I cannot wait to read it.

    Reality is fiction. When we write, we are always writing someone's story, whether known or unknown to us, real or fictious, our own or another's. I guess that I am trying to say that all characters exist in reality. Now in which dimension? Well that is another story.