After I Put My Novel on the Shelf, “Someday” Came

Filed in Book Writing Inspiration by on October 25, 2017 • views: 1285

When I say I’m a dreamer, I mean it literally.

I also have nightmares. My dreams are weird and my nightmares terrifying.

A psychiatrist might wonder if I had a rough childhood full of traumas and abuse, but my childhood was wonderful. I grew up on a farm in central Illinois where I used my free time (when not doing farm chores) reading every book I could get my hands on, watching the clouds turn into elephants and teddy bears, and wandering barefoot down the dusty road on a hot summer day to wade in the ice-cold water in the drainage ditch.

I don’t remember my dreams from childhood except for one crazy recurring nightmare. A bread truck that delivered to my grandparents’ farm jumped over the fence to chase me. I jumped the other way over the fence and the bread truck followed, over and back until I woke up. I believe my grandmother did all her own baking, so I have no idea where that bread truck came from.

A Dream Image Spawns a Story, but Editors Wouldn’t Accept It

If I dreamed a lot in high school, college, and my early adult/parent years, I don’t remember them. In the last twenty years of so, however, my mind, and my imagination, have shifted into overdrive. It was the afterimage of a dream, the only thing I could recall after waking up, that triggered my upcoming historical novel, Wishing Caswell Dead. That afterimage was an old tintype photo of a young girl with light-colored hair.

Characters in dreams usually disappear right away. But this girl did not. She hung around, popping back into my mind at odd times. Sometimes the only way to get rid of nagging ideas is to write them down; the only way to get rid of nagging characters is to tell their story.

I didn’t have a solid idea for the young girl, so I decided to try a short story told from her first-person point of view. Jo Mae Proud came to life and the story spilled out as though she were dictating. This Jo Mae didn’t feel like the girl I saw in that photo, and it’s very unlikely my Jo Mae ever had her photo taken unless photographers in the 1800’s took school pictures for kids, but the story seemed right. Perhaps more of a vignette than a short story, it was rejected by the magazines I sent it to.

Over a Period of 10 Years, I Wrote the Life Out of My Main Character

I tried to put the story away, but I had introduced other characters in Jo Mae’s life, flawed characters like Jo Mae’s brother Caswell, her mother Mary, and a traveling preacher. They piqued my curiosity. I decided to expand the short story into at least a novella and tell each character’s history, describing how they all came together at a pivotal moment in the little Village of Sangamon. Caswell and the Preacher was a tale of conflict between good and evil with Jo Mae caught in the middle.

There were more characters now clamoring for a bigger part in the story—the gentlewoman farmer, the lonely schoolmistress, the owner of the general store, and the old Kickapoo Indian who had settled in the woods by the Sangamon River.

I wrote five versions of Wishing Caswell Dead over the years, cut and pasted chapters here and there, enhanced story, condensed story. I failed to interest any agent or editor in the novel at any time during the ten years I worked on it. I finally wrote the life right out of Jo Mae. It seemed a sad ending to her story. I put the novel on the “maybe I’ll look at it again someday” shelf.

How the Novel of My Heart Finally Made It Into Print

“Someday” arrived sooner than I expected.

Five Star/Cengage created a line of historical novels called Frontier Fiction that expanded their line of westerns. The time frame for Wishing Caswell Dead fit the genre. I revived version three of the novel, polished it up, and submitted to the acquisitions editor.

There was a little hitch when a plot point seemed likely to sabotage acceptance of the story, but we got past that hurdle without the need for a rewrite. The novel of my heart, the one that bugged me from its beginning around 2006 to its acceptance in 2015, was going to make it into print.

I still hold my breath, worrying that something might go wrong, even while I’m dancing on clouds with happiness.

Linda Egenes made this statement in her November, 2016 post for Writing and Wellness: “When the manuscript is truly ready, the publisher will come.”

I believe that. It happened to me.

Reach Out and Grab Your Stories or They Will Disappear

I also believe that stories and characters that want to be heard can appear in an instant and move on just as fast if we don’t reach out and grab them. Read Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert for more on that theory.

If not for that original dream image that stuck in my mind, I doubt I would ever have tackled historical fiction. I was in the right place at the right time, with my overactive imagination and a tendency to dream a lot, to intercept Jo Mae’s story.

Writing Wishing Caswell Dead has taught me to keep my mind wide open to possibilities, pay attention to subtle ideas and messages, and make time for quiet reflection about everything from my vivid nightmares to current events.

As Elizabeth Gilbert writes, ideas float around us, offer themselves for development, but quickly move on to someone else if we’re not receptive. Serendipity and synchronicity are not just words in the dictionary. Pay attention and you’ll see for yourself.

I Know Something Big Will Happen Once I Get Started, and I’m Afraid

Knowing how I feel about this novel, and the fact I’ve had three others published in Five Star’s now defunct mystery line, it might seem I move with ease into my writing zone. Not true. As with any activity that invites intense focus, including painting in watercolors or fixing my website/blog, I resist. I check social media. I clean bathrooms. I take a nap.

It’s as though I know something big will happen once I get started, and I’m afraid.

If I were to sit down with the intention of writing for one hour, I might regain time consciousness four hours later. What if the work I produce is no good and I’ve wasted all that time? What if the euphoria of accomplishment is crushed by recognition the paintings will be trashed or page after page of writing deleted with a click of a key?

Getting into the writing zone is like time travel. I move into an alternate reality, and I don’t know what I’m going to find there. Writing is scary that way. And yet, I can’t stop doing it because it feels so good when it goes well. It feels so good to paint a flower that really looks like a flower. Wouldn’t it be awesome to finish the changes to my website/blog and be proud of my work?

My Challenge: Get the Job Done Before It’s Too Late

I keep trying to remind myself that writing cruises along a smooth road much more often than it crashes against the brick wall.

I currently have three projects in the works. All are fairly well developed but require revision and self-editing before submission. Pick one, I tell myself, and get the job done. Okay, I respond, as soon as I eat lunch/walk the dog/clean the bathrooms/write this blog post.

There’s another challenge I must face besides just the writing. Five Star has dropped their mystery line, and all three of my novels are contemporary mystery/suspense. That means I must find a new publisher that takes unagented submissions or get an agent. It’s a little depressing to start all over again.

I wonder sometimes if I should set those mysteries aside and focus on a sequel to Wishing Caswell Dead. No, no, no, I tell myself. You have too many unfinished projects. Finish what you’ve started.

That’s exactly what I need to do. All three of my works in process involve mental illness, depression, or addiction. When these story ideas floated by, I grabbed each one and claimed it for my own. I need to follow through and finish before the ideas give up on me and wander away to tempt another writer who doesn’t procrastinate so much.

That’s my challenge. Get the job done before it’s too late.

(Read more about Pat in her previous post for W&W: “When Pain Makes it Hard, How to Keep Writing.”)

* * *

Patricia Stoltey (aka Pat) lives in Northern Colorado with her husband Bill, Katie Cat, and Sassy Dog.

She has written two amateur sleuth mysteries, The Prairie Grass Murders and The Desert Hedge Murders. Her standalone, Dead Wrong, was a finalist for the 2015 Colorado book awards in the thriller category.

The release date for her newest novel, Wishing Caswell Dead, is December 20, 2017. The hardcover is available now for pre-order at Amazon.

To learn more about Pat and her work, please see her website/blog, or connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and Goodreads.

Wishing Caswell Dead: In the early 1800s in a village on the Illinois Frontier, young Jo Mae Proud wishes her cruel brother dead. Forced into prostitution by Caswell, Jo Mae discovers she is pregnant and vows to escape.

When Caswell is injured by a near lightning hit, he becomes more dangerous, and more hated. The flawed residents of the Village of Sangamon harbor many secrets. Caswell knows them all. Will he tell?

Jo Mae runs away and eventually finds shelter with Fish, the old Kickapoo Indian who camps by the river.

Wishing Caswell Dead is a historical mystery about the evil that hides within a village, one girl who is determined to save herself and her child, and a violent murder no one wants to solve. Available for pre-order from Amazon.

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Comments (9)

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  1. Sharon Schnelle says:

    Your article touched me so much and made me feel less weird. My first novel developed from a writing class but it was more mechanical than emotional. So one day early in the writing process, I decided to say “hello” to my main character as I was driving to the store. And he responded! We talked. Hard to keep my attention on the road. He was all around me in spirit, inside and outside, and so full of incredible beautiful energy. In the store, every man I saw made me jump as my character’s energy momentarily became them. I finally told him his energy was too much for me, please tone it down. He did, and we have been working together ever since. I’m now nearing the end of the second book of his trilogy. I feel that he was looking for a writer, desperate to tell his story, and all I had to do was say “hello” to connect with him.

    I also feel that fear of writing. It happens just like you say. Even though it is a wonderful feeling once I start to write, the giving of myself over to the process that wells up from deep inside me, is scary. But keep doing it – it is like opening a door from one room (world) to another. It’s easy, and oh the rewards of that creative muse.

  2. Angela Noel says:

    I, too, read Gilbert’s MAGIC LESSONS and believed she had it right: inspiration seeks the willing. I sincerely enjoyed your story and the true-to-life saga of moving forward, then back, then a little bit sideways for a time. Your perseverance and love of both story and character shines through. Thank you for the inspiration.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Angela! Writers (and all folks, for that matter) need to be flexible. Times and circumstances change so fast, we have to adapt and flow. And always be aware.

  3. Since a book I wrote a completely different version of over 15 years ago is going to be published in a couple of months, I really do agree with you that you can’t give up on a story. Even though I wrote (and published!) a version of this story back then, I was never happy with it, and didn’t feel it really told the characters’ story. They kept after me, and now I’ve finally done justice to them and their world.

    And I’m excited to learn I share even more with you than our outlooks and writing interests. I spent the first ten years of my life in rural northern Illinois. My father was a minister and the church was in the country, surrounded by dairy farms. It was such a lush, rich natural world that I spent many hours exploring. It still calls to me, although knowing that world no longer exists there, I satisfy my yearning for it by visiting Wales (and to a lesser extend, Ireland), where you still get that feeling of the natural world along side the one of humans.

    Anyway, this is a wonderful and inspiring blog post and at lot of authors need to read.

    • Thanks bunches, Mary. I didn’t realize you were an Illinois farm kid too. Some of my best memories come from those years, even though I had to work my rear end off doing chores and helping in the fields. I just decided last week to write another Village of Sangamon novel — I’m back doing fun research on Illinois outlaws in the mid 1800s.

      Congratulations on resurrecting your old novel into a new version — the characters will love you for it and shine as they never did before.

  4. April Moore says:

    I’m so with you on the urgency to cultivate ideas before they’re gone. That same part in Big Magic has always stuck with me, too, which is why I won’t give up on my WIP, no matter how slow I am at working on it! Great post–congrats on Wishing Caswell Dead!

  5. Thanks so much for letting me tell my story on the Writing and Wellness blog, Colleen.