Forty years ago, I wrote down three life goals as part of a seminar exercise. I only remember two of those goals: to have all my novels published and own a car that worked.
There was one problem. I hadn’t written any novels.
I was a working a chapbook of my poetry at the time. The Last Thousand Years was published as a university prize. My poems appeared in small literary journals. I wrote fifty words at a time. Short poems with white space around words.
The world of real work with deadlines and endless meetings closed around me. As a journalist and communicator I wrote news stories, features, press releases, speeches, position papers, and hundreds of poems. If you write, you know stories ping off every second-hand observation, every moment listening in on someone else’s conversation, every pop of an idea while you’re washing the dishes. Although I didn’t know it, I was gathering material.
How is fiction created from personal experience? There was only so much I could say—like two sentences—about my life that would matter to anyone else. Where did the ideas come from that yielded a novel?
A novel needs desire, anticipation, conflict and epiphanies.
Even if I understood the three-act structure and how to build to a climax from studying Greek tragedies, how did I translate that to fiction? The goal I’d written decades before reminded me, there were novels lurking in my brain.
Being a journalist taught me how to put more than
fifty words on a page.
The world of prose—with all its dependent clauses, its multiple lines of inquiry, editors cut from the bottom—opened to me on pages of newsprint and magazine spreads. If I’d become a journalist in the digital age, with its tiny screens and foreshortened stories, I would never have become a novelist.
Still, going from 50 to 800 or even 2,000 words was a huge leap to 70,000 words. I needed another stepping stone. I wrote essays and short stories. Little by little, I wrote a novel—the typical semi-autobiographical work of a novice writer. After several rewrites I sent it out to agents and received lovely rejection notes. They told me I wrote beautifully but they weren’t interested in my project.
“Project?” I growled. “It’s not a project; it’s a novel!”
I tore the novel apart, salvaged what I could, and wrote more short stories. It’s easier on the heart to abandon 2,000 words than it is to let go of 80,000. Rejection makes each word seem worth less than it did when you typed it, but rejection is a constant part of a writer’s life. “You better have a rhinoceros hide,” wrote one kind editor who published a poem.
I was still thinking about short stories when Cromwell’s Folly hit me full force as I was driving to the bank. I heard the beginning of that novel in my head as if the story were being told to me by someone in the passenger seat. I turned to look at the speaker, expecting to see Detective Sam Lagarde in his tan felt Stetson outback hat, barn jacket and corduroy slacks. He existed only in my imagination. When I got home, I typed down the words he said as fast as I could and waited for the next installment.
Writers are stubborn, and persistent. We write because we breathe.
After years of reading Toni Morrison, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Barbara Kingsolver, the last thing I ever expected to write was a murder mystery. All I had to do was tap the keys. Cromwell’s Folly landed me an agent. And then a publisher. It still seems like magic. Three more novels followed in quick succession, an experience similar to having quadruplets complete with sleepless nights and lots of messes to clean up.
I am now waiting for my publisher’s edits and notes on a new women’s fiction novel, Blue Girl on a Night Dream Sea set for release in July 2019. [Sneak peek: To save her own life, Elena, a 21st century police commando, must save Hana, who has trekked across Bronze Age Lebanon to prevent a king from destroying her tribe. They’re stronger together. The problem is they’re 4,000 years and 6,000 miles apart.
While I’m waiting, I’m also completely revising a family saga that resists its confines, doing the final edits on a contemporary re-telling of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and polishing a novel involving a crotchety old woman preventing a young writer’s suicide and in return asks for a story every day as she’s dying. I’m also seeking a publisher for a novel told in linked short stories.
All those years ago my unconscious was prompting me to listen up. There are a lot of stories to tell. I’ll bet you have one, or two.
Ginny Fite is an award-winning journalist who has covered crime, politics, government, healthcare, art and all things human. She has been a spokesperson for a governor and a member of Congress, a few colleges and universities, and a robotics R&D company. She has degrees from Rutgers University, Johns Hopkins University, and studied at the School for Women Healers and the Maryland Poetry Therapy Institute. Her three murder mysteries, Cromwell’s Folly, No Good Deed Left Undone, and Lying, Cheating, and Occasionally Murder, are set in the rolling hills of Jefferson County, West Virginia. Her newest novel, the thriller No End of Bad was released in June 2018. She resides in Harpers Ferry, WV.