By Martha Reed
People often ask me where I get my story ideas and I tell them that mostly I craft them together from the bits and pieces I overhear at cocktail parties, or from something I hear while riding on the bus, or from an earlier experience in my own past. Sometime folks think that I base my characters specifically on them, and I can honestly say I never have, but it is true that a personal idiosyncrasy or two may work itself into a character I’ve already created if it fits into the previously established outline.
There is one other source for my gift, and I got a huge dose of it this weekend: it’s my family, and we celebrated our family reunion on Flag Day, June 14th, 2008. It didn’t hurt that the reunion was held in a big, spooky old house full of ancestral ghosts with grim black and white portraits staring down from the walls while the lightening crackled outside the long casement windows and the rain poured down in buckets. It was pure Agatha Christie or just like the opening credits of the PBS Mystery series.
One of my cousins retired last year and the real treat of the event was an eight generation family tree she created. You may scoff, but let me tell you once you get into studying the lines and tracing the descent, the stories come out. I was afraid folks would get bored and stand around, but it was standing room only in that conference room where the chart was laid out. It’s human nature to try to make connections – even where none exist – and I pulled up a chair and let it go, listening to Aunt X reminding everyone that her great-uncle disappeared to Texas at the turn of the (last) century and how he took the family recipe for sour-mash whiskey with him or that Cousin Y traced her descent back to a Puritan minister’s wife taken captive during Prince Philip’s War. (I had to look that one up, anything before 1776 is pretty sketchy, I had a public school education). We’ve got bankers and bootleggers, schoolteachers and ministers, and a couple of pretty good painters. But it’s the faces in the pictures that haunt you.
Another cousin brought in a garbage bag of old photographs from his mother’s estate, and for the first time I saw the faces of some of these people. In particular, there’s one picture of six sisters – six! – ye Gods, I can barely contain my own two. They are all fully mature women, and you can see the life written on each one of them. I’ve seen pictures of these women as girls, all young and fresh, but this photograph is different. One woman, a widow, lost her young husband at Antietam and you can still see the sorrow in her eyes. She also has the most carefully dressed hair, all severe part and tight curls, and I don’t know what that means or implies. The youngest sister, still in her twenties, is smiling into the camera, but I know her future, too: her husband will turn out to be difficult and her only child will die at a very, very young age. I’ve seen the grave.
So where do the stories come from? I think they come from having a sympathetic character and a disciplined, trained imagination. I can see a photo, or a perfect setting, and turn my focus on it, and something begins to stir. Sometimes it’s a feeling, sometimes an image, and honestly, sometimes it doesn’t work out and the idea flickers and dies. But every once in a magical while, the story gets stronger, and little connections get made, and they link to bigger ones, and then some detail from my memory creeps in and fills a small gap, or I hear a perfect bit of dialogue, and I write it down, and then one bright and marvelous day the story stands up and totters on its own like Frankenstein’s monster, and it’s alive.