Friday, July 04, 2014

The Genesis of a Novel

A few days ago, my publisher asked me to write a few paragraphs describing the beginnings of Found Things, my debut middle-grade novel. We all know that stories don't appear out of thin air; they don't materialize from nothing. I knew that too, but I felt honestly tongue-tied--or, for a writer, finger-tied--to describe how or why this story began in a way that would sound interesting to other people.

Over the next five days, I tried and tried, but after filling five single-spaced pages, everything I wrote sounded hollow. I had promised my publisher something, though, and when I promise something, I deliver. Then, one afternoon as I drove home from work, I began talking to myself in the car, answering the question "Why did I write this book?" And something about being alone and steering and braking and accelerating helped me remember the seed of Found Things, its genesis, and why I love this story as I do.

Here's what I sent to my publisher:

I began writing Found Things during a break in writing another novel. For quite a while I'd been thinking about the idea of miracles--why some people call everyday occurrences miracles, and other people do not. For example, why did people of only the Catholic faith see Mary in things like rock formations and food, while others saw only a pile of rocks or a piece of bread? Then it dawned on me that those who find miracles are looking for them--and expecting them--and so they recognize miracles when they see them. (In Found Things, Mama says something like that: you won’t find it unless you know what you’re looking for.)

As I thought about all this, a character appeared to me--a girl who talked like she was from the South (U.S.), though I knew she didn't live there--and the image of her emerging from a river. I didn't know why she had been in the river or why she talked the way she did, but I began writing what she had to say just as she said it, and trusted that the story would reveal itself if I listened carefully.

Eventually I knew more about this girl: her brother had recently disappeared, which tore her family apart; she felt different from everyone else at school; although she was afraid of water, she collected broken things that washed up on the riverbanks and made beautiful collages from them; she wished she had a best friend; she wanted to believe in miracles. And her name was River.

I was raised in Massachusetts but spent a lot of my childhood in Henniker, New Hampshire, the small town where my grandparents lived. The Contoocook River runs through the town, and a covered bridge crosses the river. As I wrote Found Things, I pictured Henniker, heard the gentle voices there, and remembered the magic of being eleven, when miracles happen all the time.

If you're writing a novel, or have finished writing your book, or are in the middle of writing it and have come to resent it, remembering why you began writing it--those first glimmers, the first seeds--may help you fall in love with the story all over again.

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