Writing Old Love was a labor of love for me. I wanted to write a novel with an adult woman; and I wanted to pay tribute to my hometown of Swanville, Minnesota. Swanville could have died if it weren’t for the civic clubs there and the tremendous spirit of community volunteerism that keeps the town alive. The event that epitomizes this civic zeal is the midsummer carnival. I used that carnival as a backdrop for my story.
The protagonist, Mary Caine is about sixty. I heard her voice first. She’s crusty and heart-broken. She misses her mother who abandoned her as a child and her father who died. She misses drinking. Most of all she misses her first love, Sadie Barnes who left town, married a man, and is rumored to be returning to Whistler. Mary is beside herself in anticipation and fear.
I knew from the voices in my head that it was Mary’s story but there were elements I couldn’t tell from only her point of view. I wrote the novel in third person with access to Mary’s thoughts. It wasn’t long before I knew the visual ending I wanted to write to.
The story evolved from those elements: a crusty character (with a talking crow), a small town with civic groups putting on a midsummer carnival, and the return of a lost love. From there it was just filling in the middle. What fun.
I like stories that have some mystery and some romance. I like watching failed characters do better or not. I like seeing where the story takes me. It is an organic process for me.
I used to have this romantic notion of an ideal writing area—I’m embarrassed to think of all the rooms I have redone and furniture and gadgets I’ve purchased to create that space. I also had very romantic ideas of the specific time writing I would spend in this ideal space. Apparently, that was a delusion just like my hope of having a waist.
Like most people I have many commitments competing for my time and attention. What I can say with honesty is that I write or noodle (think about my work) every day and most days, I also get some writing done. I usually write longhand in cheap notebooks. My wife and kids will tell you I have notebooks all over the house and even in the car. I don’t want to miss a good idea because I failed to have a place to write it down.
In terms of story ideas, often, like Old Love, a new novel begins with my hearing a line in my head. It’s usually dialogue, two characters talking to one another or the narrator’s voice. I need to write this down right away or I may not remember it again. I write fast and messy in order to get the ideas down as quickly as possible so that I don’t lose them.
In this early draft I am not paying any attention to spelling, grammar, precision of word choice, or where I might be going with the story. Early drafts are just about getting the words down on paper. The next time I write I will read the work from the day before and advance the story from there. If I am writing on the computer, I may do some editing when I read the draft next but I am not going to linger on it. It is a draft. It needs to grow and develop.
Having given up the idea of a dedicated writing space and time, I can write anywhere—at home, work, on buses. When I am stuck, stuck for me usually means I have an authorial decision to make and I’m afraid of making a mistake, I journal or give myself a writing assignment. For instance, what will happen if I do this versus that? What does this character want? If that doesn’t work immediately, I let my unconscious work on it. I may get the direction over the next couple days, in my sleep, or while doing something other than writing.
Mowing lawn is particularly good for working out plot points—snow blowing not as much.
I write lots of pages of crappy stuff trying to get to something that I want to make into a short story or novel. I usually have several novels in process at once and am reading several books for fun and research.
I am proud of how Old Love came out and glad for the time I spent listening to the characters in my head. Old Love was me writing the story I wanted to read. I’ve heard that advice before, but it was the most real to me in writing this novel.
What book do you want to read? What voices do you hear in your head? There could be a great story just waiting for you to tell it.