I hear from time to time writers complain about being asked where their ideas come from. Maybe it is my interest in the brain, thought processes and the origins of everything from words to scissors but I find it fascinating to hear how random events come together to form a plot, a setting or a character.
What makes that one thought different?
Why does that one idea keep niggling at us until we just have to write it down?
And once written down why do some ideas take on a life of their own and others stay quietly in dusty journals?
The short answer is: Nobody knows.
The long answer is the individual retelling of a book’s journey-conception to completion. Here is the genesis of Helen’s Seasons and five lessons you can take away from the journey.
1. It’s True good ideas really will stick
Recently both on “So You Want to Be a Writer” and on “The Creative Penn” podcasts I have heard authors renounce the age old wisdom of writing down every scrap of an idea.
As a journal devotee from the age of 8, I baulked at so cavalier an attitude to those precious seeds, known as random-thoughts-that-might-make-a-good-story-someday.
Of course, the original idea doesn’t at all resemble the final product.
The original seed for Helen’s Summer was sown in September 1997, when I was 17 years old, yes it was 20 years in the making. and yes I did record the moment in a journal but when the seed first sprouted in 2004 I had recently moved to Perth and had no access to my journals. I did eventually find them and review my entries but not until after the first draft was written.
Good ideas really do stick!!
My parents took brother number 2 and I to New York to visit brother number 1 and his wife who were living in Brooklyn Heights. At that age, I was avidly and continuously researching the history of New York City and Brooklyn in relation to child labour; especially newsies, factory workers, immigrants and orphans.
So thorough was my knowledge of Manhattan I could navigate the streets from Brooklyn heights to Central Park without a map. Oh if only I could remember it now.
2. Inspiration Rarely strikes where you expect
To my surprise, it wasn’t the Metropolitan Museum, or the historical buildings or Grand Central that triggered my imagination. It was getting lost somewhere on the borders of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, I don’t remember what my brother wanted to show us but we found ourselves pulling up to the Vanderbilt’s summer house on the banks of the Hudson.
It was getting lost somewhere on the borders of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, I don’t remember what my brother wanted to show us but we found ourselves pulling up to the Vanderbilt’s summer house on the banks of the Hudson.
We were too late to tour the house but went through the displays in the stable block, the grandest stables I have ever seen, even the Vanderbilt’s horses were kept in palatial elegance.
And the Gardens.
The Garden’s were magnificent. I would have gladly spent an entire day there but there was not much in the Victorian gardens to interest the male members of our party beyond speculation on the quality of the fishing and if you could farm edible fish in the decorative pond and if so how big they might get.
As I walked I naturally saw the gardens through the eyes of an impoverished city child, one of those tenement raised young ones who had never seen grass and thought it was something to eat. What would they make of all this green?
Then standing at the back of the house, peeping in the windows and surveying the afternoon sun across the terrace I could see a young woman, simply dressed, with a bouquet in her hand and complete delight on her face at the novelty of such flowers.
That was the birth of Helen.
3. It’s okay to put seeds into storage
My original idea was a cross between Mansfield Park and An Old Fashioned Girl, a lower middle-class girl who had never been outside the city, makes friends with a rich girl who out of pity and compassion invites her to the country for the summer. The story was going to be about friendship across the social divide and of course, the girl was going to meet some improbable person and marry very well.
I never wrote that story, but the image of the girl and the feeling of the place never left me.
Then in 2004, I moved with my husband to Perth, Western Australia where most of the flowers and trees were entirely unknown to me. Every visit to Kings Park, or Whiteman Park or John Forrest National Park was an exploration, a discovery and a delight.
We were still newlyweds and temporarily living with my in-laws which brought home to me how disparate was my background from my husbands. When I think of my early childhood six people in a single-wide trailer on a dirt road in Wyoming compared with my husband’s childhood in Singapore I marvelled anew at how we came together to form such a good team.
I learnt that his mother came from a family with servants and they were not the sort of people who go to expensive San Francisco restaurants and order nothing but clam chowder but the sort who don’t look at prices and order multiple dishes.
For some reason the botanical wonder of my new surroundings and learning more about my husbands background converged with the image of that New York city girl crossing the lawn at the Vanderbilt’s house with a posy in her hand.
4. when the seed finally sprouts- ask lots of questions
Who was that girl? Why was she there? Who does she meet? How do they meet?
A rags-to-riches story had lost its appeal. I wanted something more probable, I wanted a real heroine, with grit, and wit, hard working but naive. That ruled out her being associated with the wealthy family.
I wanted an educated working girl, that brought me around to a tradesman’s daughter.
A forgotten trip to the Whiteman Park Print shop resurfaced in my memory, combined with my own love of tactile work, metal, ink and words.
A print shop was the obvious place for Helen to be.
The seed finally sprouted! I wrote feverishly every chance I could and completed a first draft in a few weeks. My first completed novel!
I decided to go over it, edit it and print it out for my Mom when she came to visit in August 2005, and I shared it with a very few close friends (namely my two Jessica’s).
5. don’t be afraid to try new avenues
Then at the end of 2014 one of my Jessica’s was encouraging me to try self-publishing. She said something to the effect of “Don’t you have that story about a girl and those gardens, why don’t you work it over and publish that as a practice.”
“What a good idea,” thought I. ” I’ll spend 2 months on it, clean it up and publish it in time to give my niece when we attend the wedding of brother number 3.”
But as I read through the story I thought Helen and Theodore deserved better than that.
So here we are March 2017 and Helen’s Summer is finally released with Helen’s Autumn and Winter in production.
I am a blogger, a twitter aficionado, an Indie author with my own imprint, 1880’s Press, and my first series underway all starting from a little seed of an idea 20 years ago.
To read Helen’s Summer for yourself and see how my scattered collection of seeds bore fruit go….