Sometime in the late 1990s, while they were on vacation, friends of mine wandered into a gallery in the town where they were staying. It was purely by chance. But they loved the paintings they saw on show there and were intrigued by the artist, a young woman, beautiful and obviously talented, who had killed herself after a nervous breakdown.
When they returned to Los Angeles, where we were all living at the time, they told me what they had seen and the little that was known about the artist. An interesting story, I thought, and expected that to be that.
But it wasn’t, as it turned out. The story kept coming back to me, popping up in my head even while I was finishing my second novel and working on various television projects. I couldn’t stop thinking about that young woman. Why had she done something so awful? How terrible could her life have been? How did her family and friends deal with it? Who were they? Who was she? The questions just kept coming and coming.
That’s the way it is for me. Ideas for my work come from just about anywhere. From incidents in my own life, of course (though I never write about myself in any straightforward sort of way). An anecdote over dinner, an overheard conversation in a restaurant, an item in a newspaper, even a line in a book can start me wondering. It’s not the thing itself, really, but what it means to me that seems to matter. And usually I’m not even aware at the time how much of an impact what I’ve heard or read has had. It’s only later, sometimes years later, that I realize how deep an impression it’s made.
The process is always the same. Woody Allen made a joke about it in Annie Hall, something about taking a notion, developing it into an idea, turning it into a concept. It’s a great laugh line in the film, but that’s how it goes. When a seed gets planted, if you can’t root it out, it starts to grow, taking on substance, shape. It becomes a story, with a beginning at least, and a climax.
From the fragments I knew of the young artist’s life, I constructed a character, my character, Lily Canning. I considered changing the time period, as I changed so much else (the locations, the cast of characters, everything, really). But the more I thought about it, the more 1917 seemed the perfect year for my story – a country in turmoil, on the verge of war, an ongoing revolution in the art world, a society moving into the modern age. It seemed the right backdrop for the issues I wished to explore — despair, death, grief, how people deal with them, how some indomitable souls not only heal, but thrive.
I did endless amounts of research on suicide, on the history of the era, on New York City and the Hudson River Valley, where I chose to set my story. And when I felt comfortable enough in the period, when I knew it as well, perhaps better, than I know my own, I began to write.
Working in television, on shows like Dallas and Dynasty, I was required to write an outline for each script I did. Left to my own devices (meaning whenever I’m not paid for it), I never work from one. So, writing a novel for me is like setting out on a voyage to an unknown country. This time, as I went along, I discovered Lily’s beautiful home in Minuit, a fictional town on the Hudson. As I needed them, her parents, cousins, friends put in an appearance. I took time out to get to know them before traveling on. By the time I reached the end of my travels, I had touched on all the issues that had piqued my interest to start with, and I understood a little better why Lily had done what she did. And I had my new book, THE RIVER, BY MOONLIGHT, finished at last.
It took me a long while to reach that point. For readers, it will be a much shorter journey, but one I hope you’ll find as interesting as I did.
If you’d care to read an excerpt, please visit my website. You’ll find my biography there, as well as information about my other novels, and links to related sites. And you can leave a message for me there, too. I’d like that.
Camille Marchetta is the author of The River, By Moonlight. If you would like to find out more about the author, visit www.camillemarchetta.com.
Leave a comment and on Feb. 29, one lucky blogger will receive a free copy of Camille’s book! Winners will be announced at www.virtualbooktoursforauthors.blogspot.com.
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