They Came to Me
My characters came to me while I was supposed to be making lesson plans.
All right, I was procrastinating.
Do you ever find that while you’re supposed to focus on a task, your mind drifts? I used to hate having to re-direct students when I could see that they were in their own world. Even when I was sharp, I wasn’t angry with their drifting. When I was thirteen or fourteen, my preference was for the classroom’s back corner, even when I loved a subject. I’d draw or daydream while I took notes or pretended to do so.
In Hallucinations, Oliver Sacks details the Kubla Khan moment some people have right before falling asleep. A very clear image suddenly appears—not in the brain’s deep theater but projected onto our eyelids’ curtain. POP! A picture flashes like one after those old-fashioned bulbs flare. Some people hear sounds so vividly that they start awake, too. That’s how it happened to me.
August, 2011, a back-to-school Sunday. Writing samples to review, new freshmen students’ names and seating charts to memorize, a short story unit to tweak. “The Most Dangerous Game,” “The Interlopers,” “The Necklace,” “The Cask of Amontillado.” A hot breeze stirred the poplars and maples on the other side of our creek. Cicadas sawed away, their crescendo announcing sunset. A book lay heavily on my lap, the last of my summer reading, a student’s recommendation. The story was so good, I hated to leave it. Shadows stretched on the grass where my dog, Bella, lay panting.
Out of nowhere, I heard, I saw the voices. Arguing. A woman’s, well-bred. A man’s, harsh, Cockney. Faces, fair and dark. Hers to the left, his to the right, struggling, circling. Force—her arm jerked by his hand. Her defense was surprisingly strong. Damn—she mustn’t reach that lock, or he’d be finished. Her thoughts—he was a wolf, a beast! Too strong, she had to get him off her!
Late-nineteenth century clothes. The woman’s dress was fashionable and expensive—an intense, unearthly absinthe green, his coat was gaudy and ragged—a faded purple velvet. “Lavender’s blue dilly-dilly, lavender’s green….”
The woman was worried, frightened, almost frantic; so was he, though he struggled not to show it. Hungry and tired, both of them. The locked door, they were both fixated on it.
“What you needs is tamin’!” He lunged at her again.
The woman misunderstood his laughter. She wasn’t merely offended. She was outraged, terrified.
That seemed to set him off. They fought—really going at it.
I wanted to help them, to explain that it was all a misunderstanding. At least, I hoped it was.
Then just like that—poof! They were gone.
Woods and hot breeze, my lesson plans and all that needed to be done for the first week of school. How many times had I taught that short story unit? Dear Bella rose, yawned hugely, and shook her snow-white, lanky flanks, ready for a walk.
Where do stories and characters come from? Why, on that hot afternoon with my student’s book in my lap, did I have that particular, extraordinarily colorful dream?
I’ve no idea.
The scenes that have come so similarly and haunted me all my life have always emerged out of nowhere. Just like that. Oh, I know in my heart of hearts the origins every one of these fragmented, misplaced jumbles. Anyone who knows me long and well can probably see right to the source. I’m much too disorganized to set myself a task (Write About a Strong Woman at the End of the Nineteenth Century) or a thesis (What Would So and So Do If We Put Her or Him on the shores or Illyria?). Heaven, forgive me! Even in grad school I never once used an outline.
I’m of a mind that all characters and stories come from a writer’s innermost need or desire, though I prefer not to know much or look too closely at what those might be. I am continually fascinated by the arts, the exposition of the private and intensely personal. When I first pick up an author’s work (or listen to a piece of music or experience a painting or dance, or enjoy a sport), I’d rather know nothing about its creators or participants—not at first. I sincerely rejoice in those artists whose works remain when all we know of them comprises a few sentences.
I believe in the Human Story. Some of us are lucky enough to tap into or be swept away and transformed by it as creators, readers, viewers. Some get the honor of passing it on to others as parents, teachers, artists, librarians, booksellers, bloggers, performers, and the plenitude of communicators we now have at our digital disposal.
All I know is that this arguing pair, Winifred and Court, burst upon me on a hot afternoon and wouldn’t leave me alone. I chased after them all autumn. They and their friends haunted me on walks, interrupted me at intersections, baffled me in produce isles, and dazed me while I graded quizzes. By December 2011, I had a first draft. Writing about Winifred de la Coeur, Court Furor, and their world was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.
Where Your Treasure Is now available for preorder on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Indiebound bookstores. Launch date, April 23, 2021.