Thursday, October 20, 2016

An Idea Worth Pursuing

I have a good idea for a story. One of the cliche questions authors are often asked is where the story ideas come from. After Bob Dylan received his Nobel Prize last week, 60 Minutes (click on to see the interview) showed a brief clip from an earlier interview with Dylan in which Ed Bradley asked him that very question. The answer is: who knows? Dylan said it was rather like magic, and I can’t argue with that. I think sometimes you just achieve the right state of consciousness, and the ideas are bestowed upon you out of the aether. In my series, I’ve used ideas that have come to me in every conceivable fashion.

A recurring character in the series came to me in all his fully realized glory several years ago when I was at a concert of the Black Watch and Cameron Highlanders Massed Bagpipe Bands and watching a very young, very serious, athletic, rose-lipped, red-cheeked Scottish sword dancer with dewy black eyes and a shag of black hair.

The murder in The Drop Edge of Yonder is based on an actual incident that happened to one of my great-great-grandfathers on my mother’s side during the Civil War. (A lot of the incidents in my books are inspired by my own and my husband’s wild and wooly family backgrounds.)

The Sky Took Him began with an idea that came to me while I was on the Oklahoma leg of a book tour for Hornswoggled in 2006. I had set up an event in Enid, OK, which is my husband’s home town. I was sitting with my husband and his sister in a restaurant called Pasttimes, the walls of which are covered with historic pictures of Enid. I was facing a 1915 print of a street scene showing two women going into Klein’s Department Store on the town square. You know how they sometimes do the opening of a movie by starting with a still photograph that dissolves into a moving scene? As I sat there and looked at that picture, those two women became Alafair and her daughter Martha on a shopping spree. What, I asked myself, are Alafair and Martha doing in Enid, of all places?

One great thing about writing historical fiction is that when you do your research, you discover that what really happened is often better than anything you could make up. I decided to set the sixth Alafair Tucker mystery, The Wrong Hill to Die On, here in Arizona, where I live, rather than in Oklahoma, where Alafair lives. I figured this would be a nice little diversion for Alafair, and for me as well. But Alafair has ten kids and a large farm, so there are a couple of problems I had to solve before I even begin: 1. Why on earth would Alafair go to Arizona in the first place? 2. Once she gets there, what is going on that she could get herself involved in, how, and why?

So I hied myself off to the Arizona State University library here in Tempe and begin perusing the files of the Arizona Republican newspaper for March of 1916, the date I intended to set the novel. I knew I’d find something really good, for after five previous novels set in the 1910’s I’ve learned that life in the early Twentieth Century Southwest was nothing if not action-packed. Was I ever right. Plot points and atmosphere galore, and all I had to do was spend an afternoon unspooling microfilm.

Hell With the Lid Blown Off  is about a tornado. Because, I thought, I can’t write a series set in Oklahoma and not write about what life is like in tornado alley. I didn’t need to make anything up. I used some incidents from my sister’s experience in the Joplin tornado and some very strange tornado experiences from other relatives and even some pretty odd ones of my own. But it’s impossible to exaggerate reality when it comes to what a big tornado can do.

My upcoming book, The Return of the Raven Mocker (January 2017), revolves around the flu epidemic of 1918. No one knows for sure how many died in the flu pandemic, but modern estimates put the number at somewhere between thirty and fifty million people worldwide. More than six hundred thousand of those were Americans. Twelve times as many Americans died from flu in 1918 than died in battle during World War I. In early 20th Century America, every housewife had her arsenal of remedies for common ailments, and many of were quite effective. Even so, it is likely that more than a few people died from unfortunate home remedies such as turpentine, coal oil, and mercury. Some scientists think that many who died during the epidemic were killed by aspirin poisoning rather than the disease. In the book, I used a story about the curative power of onion, told to me many years ago by the person to whom it happened. My friend was a young boy, he developed such a severe case of pneumonia that the doctor told his mother to prepare herself for his imminent demise. In an act of desperation, his mother sliced up a raw onion and bound it to the bottoms of his feet with strips of sheet, then put cotton socks on him. In the morning, his fever had broken, his lungs had cleared, and the onion poultice had turned black. Is that what saved him? I don’t know. But that didn’t keep me from using the idea.


Irene Bennett Brown said...

Wonderful! Can hardly wait for the new book, lucky that it comes in my birthday month. Thanks as always, Donis, for writing such great novels.

Donis Casey said...

Thank you, Irene!

Charlotte Hinger said...

Now dig up something for my seasonal allergies.