Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Destination: Life : : The Writer’s World

With this post Anne McAllister embarks on a year-long journey through places, experiences, emotions and everything else that goes into creating a fictional world. She hopes you’ll come along for the ride.
©Jacklyn Kennedy
Even though this series is called “Destination Life” I’m not so sure life is about a destination.
I think it’s more about the journey.
And for writers that journey really is a lifetime project.
You begin to work before you even know that’s what you’re going to do.
When I was five, for example, I fell in love with a cowboy. I didn’t know that forty-odd years later I’d be dragging up that memory and making a book – or a dozen – out of it.
When I was seven and spent part of a summer in Colorado with my grandparents, I walked miles (or maybe a mile) alone along a parched, cracked dirt road and up a mountain. Lots of years later a ten year old fictional girl in my head did exactly the same thing at a turning point in her life. It gave her a new perspective. Who knew?
When I was twenty and stared starry-eyed into my beloved’s eyes at our engagement dinner at the Biltmore anne-photo smallHotel in Santa Barbara overlooking the Pacific, I didn’t have a clue that my 64th heroine would be at the Biltmore staring across the table at a hero she was ready to strangle and yet, thirty pages later and half a world away in Bangkok, she would fall into his arms. (Incidentally I borrowed Bangkok from a friend. That’s another cool thing – the experiences don’t actually have to be your own!).
I didn’t know that adopting children would be grist for the mill or that breaking my foot could, under the right fictional circumstances, be laughable. At least my editor thought it was laughable. My hero, he of the broken foot, still doesn’t see what was so funny.
I didn’t know seasickness could have an up-side or that bodysurfing would be a metaphor. I didn’t know that the old man who lent my daughter a horse would lend me a fictional one or that he would make a cameo appearance in my first book. So it’s not true that what’s real is real and what’s fiction is fiction and never the twain shall meet.
They dreamchasers_usmeet.
Once upon a time I cut out the photo of a drop-dead gorgeous man in a long-sleeved dress shirt in the Penney’s catalogue and sent it to the art department, hoping to get him on the cover of my book.
Amazingly, there he is. And because of that one action (combined with a whole lot of others), my whole series of Savas-Antonides exists. Parenthetically, so does my book Imagine, because upon discovering that I’d sent his picture to the art department, Mr Gorgeous said to the cover artist, “I’d like to meet that woman,” and a few months later, he did.
So . . . you never know.
A writer’s life is like a great recycle bin. You sit down to create a story and you don’t make it out of nothing. You bring to it pieces of everywhere you’ve been, everyone you know, all the books you’ve read, the movies you’ve seen, the feelings and experiences you’ve had. And all the things that everyone else you know has done, thought, hoped for, dreamed about or refused to do, too.
You can try to find just the things you’ll need and line them up, ready to stick in your story. But the fact is, you never know what you need until you’re writing it.
And then life provides it.
You bring your perspective to all of these things, you imagine and you embroider and you shape. You discover patterns and possibilities. You stick things in, you take things out. You look at them from one point of view and then another.
It fits – or it doesn’t. And if it doesn’t, you do it again. That’s called rewriting. We all do it.
And then when it works, when it looks right, when it resonates with something inside you that says, “Yes!” you stitch all of it together – the odd bits and the old pieces – and you make something else out of them – something that wasn’t there until they all came together: something real and beautiful and, above all, emotionally true.
That’s the joy of the writer’s world, I think – that we not only get to experience life the first time around, but that we can re-discover it, re-use it, re-imagine it in a million different ways.
We take the old, the used, the experienced, the stuff that happened not just to us but to others, too, and we find new life in it. We think about it, re-imagine it, twist it, turn it, and in doing so, we capture new visions and old truths. And if we do our job well, those truths – our books and our characters -- will resonate with readers all over the world.
How much fun is that?
savasswildcat_us Anne’s next book, coming in April from Harlequin Presents Extra, is Savas’s Wildcat, the emotional truth that came out of piecing together memories of Balboa Island, grandmothers, babies, large interfering families, cats, librarians, San Francisco, real-life Greek heroes, and men who wear long-sleeved dress shirts from Penney’s -- though not in this book (although, come to think of it, is that a long-sleeved dress shirt she sees on the cover? Hmmm.)


  1. That’s the joy of the writer’s world, I think – that we not only get to experience life the first time around, but that we can re-discover it, re-use it, re-imagine it in a million different ways.

    What an excellent post, Anne. I'm amazed what appears as I write. Things I thought long buried pop up and appear on the page. My mom told me she loves how my rancher heroes have a pink ribbon tied on the knife they use to cut open hay bales--because she has a pink ribbon on her hay knife. Little things, big things. And as you say, you never know when you're going to need them.

  2. Jeannie, that's it exactly -- you never know what it will be, but your mind is full of great bits that somehow lend themselves to the story and the characters and the emotions you need to convey. It's not always the first thing that comes to mind, either. Some of them are temptations that lead us -- and our characters -- astray. But when you get the right bit (as I did the other day), it is like hearing a clear pure tone that tells you, yes! You've got the right piece in the right place at last. Write on!

  3. So I think maybe the male model who you eventually met was Greek? All I know is as a reader I enjoy your cowboys and your Greeks and your other heroes as well. Thanks for the insights into your journey and I'll be watchingfor more of them.

    1. Hi Kaelee, He was American. I've borrowed him -- or bits of him -- for my Greeks and my Greek-Americans and my Irish and a Welshman and... now that I think of it, the list goes on and on! But in Imagine, I had a heroine who was a romance writer who had sent a picture in to the art department of a man she thought looked exactly like her hero. And like my cover choice, hers said, "I'd like to meet that woman," and made a point of doing just that the next time he went skiing in Vermont. The similarity of life to art ended there, but it was a fun book to write!