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From Here To There
(March, 2005)

by Susan Crandall, author of Promises to Keep (Warner Forever)

All right I admit it; I can come up with a thousand-and-one ideas for a novel and absolutely none for a thousand-word article. It’s a shame, really. In my novel writing I’m occasionally quite clever. I can turn a beautiful phrase. I can transport you to a place that exists only in my mind. I can create a character that will have you running for the Kleenex box. But ask me to write an article and I feel like a tenth-grader at one a.m. with an essay assignment due first period tomorrow.

So there’s only one solution; I’ll write about finding those ideas for novels and tell you a bit about how I get them from here to there, from spark of inspiration to full-fledged story.

Promises to Keep by Susan Crandall
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Unlike many authors, my stories do not spring forth as a complete plot arc, with secondary characters already in place and the scenes already in my head. My stories begin small – very small (picture a grain of sand -- yes, that minuscule). For example, my first novel, Back Roads, began with a single image (a car abandoned on a country road at night with the lights on and the radio still playing) and a family dynamic (siblings taken in to be raised by an aunt and uncle, but only one of those siblings was wanted; the other was excess baggage). From there I developed my characters, first the siblings, then the character that was to spark the conflict and bring the unwanted sibling into her own. I took a woman ready for change and gave her the opportunity and the man who would set change into motion. I created a very loose plot around the abandoned car, got to know my characters, and then I started writing.

Character development is one of my most crucial tools. I like to have a pretty good idea who my characters are, where they come from, what their desires and dreams are, before I start that first chapter. If I learn about them as I go, I often discover things about them that alter the way they would have reacted to a particular circumstance earlier in the story and have to go back and rewrite. I’m very stingy with words. I hate waste. Once those babies are down on paper (or computer screen), I just hate to give them up. Once I have my characters pretty well sketched out, then I take a look and see what will test them; what could happen in their lives that would present the greatest challenge to their beliefs, values and dreams. What will force them to grow as people and make the readers root for them to reach their happy ending. (Yes, I do normally go for the happy ending. You see, I really get to know these people and I just sleep better at night knowing I didn’t leave them completely broken in the end.)

For example, for my March release, Promises to Keep, I embarked on telling the story of Molly, the youngest Boudreau sibling (The Road Home and Magnolia Sky told the stories of her older sister and brother, respectively). Molly had overcome many financial and social obstacles to become a doctor, a pediatrician. I had to discover what she had sacrificed emotionally to get there and what would submit her values and her fortitude to the greatest trial. For Molly it had to do with the protection of a child. How far would she bend her ethical standards, how much personal sacrifice was she willing to make, how much danger was she willing to place herself in, to what extent was she willing to bend the law in order to protect the baby of a murdered friend? I always try to showcase my main characters in an opening scene that will give the reader a sense of who they are. Sometimes this springs forth as easily and effortlessly as drawing a breath. Other times it’s like hard labor (and I do mean the giving-birth kind); each word, each sentence brought forth after an intense and protracted effort. It’s slow and it’s messy and sometimes it’s pretty ugly. But like all labors, it does end; the result is satisfying, a portrait that can be only of that particular person, shining in its individuality. My longest labor to date for an opening scene is four weeks. I’m hoping it’ll get easier with each subsequent “birth.” But I have my doubts. Each one is as distinctive and unique as the book it brings to life. I’m often asked if I outline. The answer to that is a resounding, NO. Not that outlining is a bad thing. I just can’t do it. It’s not a natural process for me; I’m not a list maker by nature. Plus, I find that my particular brand of creativity is hobbled if I lay out things too specifically or too far in advance. I do however have about a thousand post-it notes, scraps of paper and backs of envelopes filled with scribbled notes – none of which are running square with the page. The writing is all angled uphill and scattered in no particular order. In an effort to organize me, my husband suggested spiral notebooks for each novel. For each of my last three books, I’ve started a notebook with tab-marked areas for character notes, time-line notations, location lists and plot points. And occasionally I actually make a note inside one of them.

The stories tend to flow from me, sometimes taking turns I hadn’t anticipated. (This would be known by the very professional term, the “seat-of-the-pants approach” to story construction. Yes, I’m publicly admitting I’m a “pantser.”)

I start small, think character detail, then let it fly. I know it doesn’t sound very structured, but for me it works. Whether outlined and structured, or minute grain of an idea and brave “pantsing,” I suppose each writer follows his or her own course in this creative mystery of storytelling.

So I begin each book with both joy and trepidation. A great universe of uncharted possibilities stretches before me. Yet, I’m unsure how I will ever fill up four hundred pages. Days go by where it flows steadily as a waterfall. Other days my imagination feels like a dried up riverbed. Still somehow, the mystery of storytelling unfolds in its own course.

Like the grain of sand inside the oyster, the idea begins small and insignificant and with each passing day grows layer by layer, until in the end, it results in a beautiful pearl. And yes, I have to admit, there are those days when it doesn’t feel like a pearl in the making, it feels like just an irritating grain of sand.

Copyright © 2005 by Susan Crandall.

Posted with permission of the publisher.

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