By Martha Reed
Last March I had the great good fortune to visit Florida’s Gulf Coast for ten days’ vacation. After a grey Pittsburgh February, I reveled in the sunny climate, the flowering bougainvillea running wild, the palms, even the alligators dozing along the canals. We took long bike rides and stayed near one of the great beaches, and I woke up extra early every morning to walk the tide line gathering a bucket of shells. This idyll went on for a couple of days before my sister noticed that I had taken to staring off into space and mumbling. ‘You’re working on something, aren’t you?’ she inquired suspiciously.
Yes, yes, I was. You see, the one thing about my writing habit is that every time I’m given a new setting I almost immediately try to frame a story into it to see if one will fit. Introduce me to a new ‘native’ and I want to hear details about the local color, especially if it’s anything funny, ironic, or involves a ghost. Right away I start to research the local customs and people, their background and history as my brain starts tinkering with an idea. And that is exactly what got me into trouble last March.
In Florida, at a cocktail party, I heard a funny anecdote that I thought would make a great opener. I met some of the local folks, and started testing a set of characters. I wanted to use elderly retirees to show that even though these folks were old, they were still the same vibrant people they had been when they were younger; they just got old, and that’s going to happen to all of us. And I had to make these old folks tough – tough enough to kill. So my mind took in that 80-something age group and I decided I would need: 1) a retired lawyer (who would know the local probate law) 2) a retired Naval officer (who could handle a boat), and 3) two women as close as sisters. I made them Army nurses, who had survived Bataan and a Japanese internment camp together, and that made these women about as tough as you can get.
My grandfather served in WWII in the Pacific arena (4th Marine Division, Saipan and Tinian, and let me tell you that was no cake walk either), and Pop used to tell me stories about what happened, carefully filtered for my young ears. Being a diligent author, I wanted to get it right, so I picked up a terrific book about the experiences of the Army and Navy nurses, WE BAND OF ANGELS by Elizabeth M. Norman. Over the weekend, I read the book, and as I read chapter by chapter a dreadful thing happened: as I dug into the war-time experiences of these nurses, as tough as they were, they would never cold-bloodedly murder anyone – and my beautiful story fell apart!
On the theory that we have to suck it up and use what we are given, I let the idea cool down and reconsidered my original plot. Then I came up with another idea that I’m hoping will work out even better than the first. But has that ever happened to you? Have you ever researched an idea and worked yourself right out of a job?