Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Writer's Wednesday : : What's In Your Well?

Anne McAllister is at the bottom of the revision well, anticipating the moment she can push the "send" button (how's that for mixing metaphors?) and have a life again.

In the meantime she's celebrating her anniversary today -- and revising.

The first time I sat down to write a book (as an adult), I had two characters, a house, a horse, and a happy ending.

Somewhere along the line, I think the horse got lost (but it's been a while now and maybe he did reappear in the final draft. He was an in-and-out sort of character). The hero and heroine stayed. The house stayed. And eventually I got to the happy ending.


Sometimes I wonder.

But the answer is, I think, that every time I got stuck I kept dipping into the well of experiences I'd had for the first 30 odd (very odd) years of my life.

I had no idea that I would be using them in a book when I was having them, believe me. But they proved my way of getting from beginning to end.

My heroine moved to Wisconsin from California to teach about the same way The Prof and I moved to the midwest and for exactly the same reason. The house she moved into was the one I see out my kitchen door. The horse was one that bucked off my daughter regularly -- which could be why he came and went in the book. And the character called Salty owed a lot to a very salty gent named Jack who seemed more fiction than fact even though I actually knew him.

Dipping into the well of my life didn't stop there. The hero, Colin, was an archaelogist because I had a son who was mad about Raiders of the Lost Ark. (If you want a dip in that well, check out the link to the original trailer).

I needed a reason to get Colin home from Yucatan (and thus have a book in which the two main characters actually met). Isn't it lucky, then, that a couple of good friends of mine were also regularly malarial? Not that they actually thought so -- or that I asked them. Besides being malarial, both of them are also priests. I kept the malaria and threw out the roman collars. You have to draw the line somewhere.

What I learned from writing that book was that "where I get my ideas" is as simple as remembering where I've gone and what I've seen and who I've met. I may start out with a couple of deliberate dips into a particular well, for example, going to bull-riding school was done with story aforethought, you might say.

But the things that happened there -- who I met and what I saw and heard -- none of that was predictable. It was pure serendipity, and I'm still amazed how much of it got into The Cowboy and The Kid.

The French bulldog, Ted, in The Santorini Bride came from stories about a friend's charming canine, Chuck. And anyone who reads my blog or Kate Walker's knows that everytime the cat called Sid turns up in my book, there is A Cat of Superior Breeding (ACOSB) in Lincolnshire preening and looking around for autographs to sign.

At the moment I'm dipping into my well of remembered crushes from my high school days, so I can give Anny authentically humiliating emotional intensity when she is face to face as an adult with the man she loved from afar back then. It's not hard -- that emotional intensity isn't very far below the surface even now.

And I'm watching DVDs of a physics course in preparation for understanding my next hero (like I said, sometimes you have to deliberately fill that well). But not everything will be new. I'm also going back to my summers on the beach as a kid, reliving the sun and the sand and the sea. I don't know how much of it I'll use but I'm glad it's there. And what else I'll need, I expect I'll discover along the way.

Sometimes these bits of serendipity appear because people I knew 'back then' have, bless their hearts, gone on to have wonderful exciting interesting lives of their own. And they share them with me.

Growing up I had a good friend who colored way better than I did. This is not surprising. I was not artistic. Everyone colored better than I did. But especially -- memorably -- Melody.

She says she never thought she was artistic because she couldn't draw. As my ability extended only as far as drawing dead trees in winter -- without color -- I begged to disagree.

And I'm right (!) because Melody Crust has gone on to become a fabulous fabric artist. Her work blows me away.

And the minute I saw it, I knew I wanted to write about a fabric artist. Mine turned into Ally Maruyama, who became PJ Antonides's wife. I don't think Ally would ever have come to life without Melody's work to inspire her.

So what's in your well?

Which bits of your own life -- or your friends' -- have you used in your own creative work?

It doesn't have to be fiction. It can be poetry, painting, bricklaying, quilting. You name it.

What's the most surprising bit of your own life you've doctored up and put on the page?

My treat-loving Golden Retrievers will pick a winner from among the comments and send them a copy of Ally and PJ's book, Antonides' Forbidden Wife. Check the comments on Thursday or my blog for the name of the winner.

Anne's next book, One Night Mistress . . . Convenient Wife will be coming from Harlequin Presents and Mills & Boon Modern in November.

She dipped into her days on the sand in Manhattan Beach and her husband's cousin's lawyerly expertise for that one.


  1. I do know the start of Taken by the Viking where Annis the heroine encounters the Viking beserker was taken directly from an encounter with a drunken Icelander who tried to snatch my youngest son on the street in broad daylight. Even now I can close my eyes and hear the man's voice. Thankfully my husband refused to allow the situation to progress. I went back to the hotel and wrote the first twenty pages or so of the book.
    Writing can be a great way of exorcising.
    It is slightly harder with historicals but I do enjoy visiting places and hearing about people's family stories.

  2. The bronchiolitis scene in my very first Medical was straight from real life - started writing it at my daughter's bedside to get me through the anguish of having my 6-week-old baby in hospital on her first Christmas.

    The dogs in my books - even when they're spaniels in disguise - have the quirks of my spaniel.

    I've definitely borrowed houses; bits from our holiday in Sussex will be finding their way into my next Medical; and I went on a stained glass course last weekend in preparation for my Venice book. (Unlike my heroine, I can't draw and I definitely can't cut curves in glass! But the picture I made was inspired by Provence - the location of my next two books.)

    And I'm also quite shameless about grilling people about their holidays and asking to see their pictures. I have even been known to ask people to take pictures for me... (Thank you, Michelle!)

    Very scary experience in Iceland, Michelle. Glad your husband kept your youngest safe.

  3. Kate - at this moment, my neighbours are taking pics for me on their vacation. In exchange I am watering their plants and feeding their cats.

    Anne - what a great post. Writing has given me so many gifts. One being the desire to simply live and experience things as everything is fodder for research! I've met so many great people and done things I might not have thought of, and life has been richer for it.

    Sometimes you don't know that the day trip of today will feature in a novel in the future.

    And as a PS - I think of you each time we are at the park and we meet a very sweet flatcoat out for a walk with her owners. :-)

  4. Happy Anniversary to you and the Prof Anne!

    I have an ongoing argument with my accountant about what is or is not a 'viable expense' for an author I keep trying to tell him that *life* is a viable expense - where else would we get our inspiration? I don't have dramatic memories like Michelle (thank heaven!) and T'other Kate that I've put in my books but lots of jobs people have had etc come from people I know and places I've visited will turn up in books too.

    Hmm - now that you've mentioned ACOSB he is preeening himself just as you say, but stretching out in the sunlight says he's too busy to sign autographs (pawprints) today. He did say that he would look wonderful on one of Melody's fabulous quilts (he would) and when I pointed out the price tag said that perhaps you could buy it for him, Anne - as a viable expense for one of your research subjects. And a smackeral of salmon wouldn't go amiss either.


  5. Michelle, How frightening your experience with the Icelander and your son must have been. I can see how that would have been a story-starter, for sure. Hopefully most of your other 'dipping in the well' experiences are not so traumatic.

    Kate, I suspected those dogs of your characters owed something to one you know very well! And yes, I've begged pictures off people as well. It's lovely how willing people are to take the time to do it. And most love to talk about their experiences and their travels.

    Donna, a flatcoat? Oh, I miss Gunnar soooo much. I think there will have to be a flatcoat in one of my books soon. The trouble is, the book is supposed to be about people, and it would be about a flatcoat and the people who happened to live with him. But we both know what the focus would be!
    Lucky you to have friends who will go on vacation where you need them to go -- armed with a camera. And nice of you to water the plants!

    Kate, yes, aren't Melody's quilts beautiful. She has such a wonderful eye for design and color. I wouldn't have a clue how to go about it. I would have no ideas at all -- nothing in my well to do with that, so I'm very fortunate her quilts were there for inspiration. As for Sid and the quilt -- he would look lovely on one. But I think he's more likely to get a smackeral of salmon first! And thank you for the anniversary greetings.

  6. Happy Anniversary Anne!

    The most surprising bit of my own life I've doctored up and put on the page?
    Funny thing is, when I thought about your question, I realized that I started to "recycle" all my personal dramas in my creative work:
    I wrote several poems after my pony passed away, when the guy I wanted to be my Mr. Right decided I wasn't a very good reason to stay around and after my beloved grandpa died and left me behind with so many questions. Oh and I wrote one poem about "being yourself" in 7th grade when I wasn't very popular due to my marks.

    My parents split up last year and it broke my heart even though I'm in my mid-twenties. When I decided to shed no more tears, I sat down and started writing. Shortly after I started writing I met a man I knew as a child. He was a friend of my much older cousins then. Three year old me loved his hair and his jokes and I decided to marry him someday. These are the stories no one ever forgets and he reminded me that it is time to get married - after more than 20 years of engagement. We had a good laugh.
    But after some days I decided to give the girl in my story someone special and used a sexier version of my former childhood crush to light up her life.

    I'm not an artist but I spray-painted quite a lot last year. My pain is pink and grey. ;-)

    I think there isn't a single piece of creative work I did since my late teens that doesn't contain a tear or two but of course there are good and funny things from every day life, too. Co-workers, pets, travels,...

    Sorry, this got much longer than I wanted it to be...

  7. Carolin,
    Thanks for sharing how your life has been the source for so much of your creativity. It's amazing, isn't it, how we can 'recycle' events and emotions and find new meanings in them or come to terms with 'old' ones.

    Love the story about your twenty year 'engagement!' That could definitely make a book. And if we all used that as a starting point, we would all have very different stories colored by own own experiences and emotions and attitudes.

  8. Hi Anne. Happy anniversary! I'm refilling the well at the moment so I'm paying extra attention to all those around me for inspiration. My day job puts me in contact with all sorts of interesting people so there is no excuse to not finding something or someone to write about! Take care. Caroline x

  9. Caroline, It's important to refill the well, isn't it? I need 'down time' regularly or I simply stare at the screen and nothing comes to mind at all. I am reminded, though, when I do have ideas but far to many of them, that I need to start with one and just go bit by bit -- or bird by bird as Anne LaMott would say. Thanks for the anniversary good wishes!

  10. Mitch and Micah, my treat-loving Golden Retrievers were enchanted not just by the treats but by the notion of a 20 year engagement, so they picked Carolin as the winner of Ally and PJ's book.

    Carolin, if you will go to my blog (link in the What's in Your Well? post) and go to the bottom of the page, you can contact me via the "contact Anne" link. Or go to my website and contact me from there with your snail address and I will send out a copy of Antonides' Forbidden Wife to you.

    Thanks to everyone who shared the contents of their wells. I loved reading all the comments.