Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Not From Lack of Trying

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?

8 comments:

Joyce said...

Interesting story, Martha. I'd love to hear more about those nurses!

Something like that did happen to me, but fortunately it was only with a subplot. I didn't have to start over, but I did have to change the idea a bit to make it work.

Tory said...

TOTALLY. I wrote my entire first manuscript (400 pages, no less) based on a fallacy about orthopedic medicine. I had my teenage heroine stuck in the bed in casts. Apparently, that went out of style a long time ago! Now, they get people up and moving as soon as possible.

It was my first novel, and very, very bad in many ways. I've talked to other authors and find it's not uncommon to have your first stuck under a bed somewhere, for nobody else's eyes but yours.

So I don't feel so bad. Except that I subjected a couple friends to reading it before I realized its destined fate . . .

Working Stiffs said...

Yes, it's funny how accurate fiction has to be! And no matter how hard you try, there are always some bloopers! And usually it's my Mom who catches them ... after we've gone to print!

Nancy said...

Martha, I love your story idea! The nurses could be the sleuths, couldn't they? With help from their lawyer friend?

I can't count how many cold trails I've left behind. They say never throw any pages away, though.--Someday you may be able to resurrect that stuff that spoke to you so intensely.

Joyce said...

Tory, I put my very first book through the shredder. It actually had the ghastly title "Circle of Death!" It was very satisfying to see it chopped up into little pieces.

Kristine said...

Great post today, Martha. I love the idea of Army nurses as characters. I'm sure you can make them work for you, even if it's not in your original idea.

Gina said...

Martha, the thing that astonishes me about your post is that you've actually identified a group of people, none of whom would commit a cold-blooded murder! That could be a story in itself. What sets these nurses apart from the rest of humankind?

Candace Salima (LDS Nora Roberts) said...

More times than you know. I'm sure your alternative is great . . . I know my mind started cooking up all sorts of plot lines that would work with your original premise. None of which I will use in my own books, solemn promise. Can't wait to see what you've come up with.