I believe I’ve mentioned before that the question above is one of my least favorites. When I’m standing in front of a crowd of people, fielding that one is a struggle. My assumption is that the questioner is asking about the idea for the plot. I do my best to stay away from real cases, so those have to gradually emerge from my head into existence. I don’t pick them up from newspaper headlines.
The thing is, a lot more goes into stories than the bare bones of a plot. The characters have to come alive on the page. They have to seem real enough so that readers can connect with them. If that doesn’t happen, the book ends up being little more than an empty shell.
I don’t know how many of you are familiar with Steven Sondheim’s musical, Sunday in the Park with George. The George in question was George Seurat, a French artist known for being a “pointillist.” His paintings are made of up thousands of tiny dots of paint rather than brush strokes. The song that really touched me from that was “Bit by Bit, Putting it Together.” As soon as I heard it, I had goosebumps because I realized that’s what I do, too, putting stories together bit by bit with words rather than with paint. I’m coming to realize more and more that the “background” bits in my characters’ lives are often made up of a patchwork taken from my own.
For instance. When Bill and I married, we came up with the bright idea that bringing a pair of new puppies into the household might serve as middle ground as we worked to blend our two families. Within days of returning from our honeymoon, we brought home two eight-week-old red dog golden retriever puppies. With an electronics engineer as the head of the household, the dogs were named Nikki and Tess after Nicola Tesla.
We lived in a house that didn’t have a fenced yard, so walking the dogs on a leash was a necessity. Guess who did the lion’s share of walking? The person who wasn’t going to school and who worked from home.
Bill and I were newlyweds with several kids in the household. We had a tiny coffee pot in our ensuite bathroom, and we didn’t emerge from behind closed doors until we had consumed two cups of coffee and read the newspapers—one for him and one for me. One day he was perusing the want ads in his and said aloud, “This is a sad story.”
“What?” I asked.
So he read it to me. “Free to good home. Eleven year-old golden retriever. Why don’t you give them a call?”
We needed another dog like I needed a new hole in my head, but call I did. It turned out, the family’s kids had moved out and the parents were downsizing to a no-dogs-allowed condo. They lived only half a mile or so from where we did, so the next day, we packed up kids and dogs and moseyed over to their place to meet Mandy. She was a lovely platinum golden, but when I reached down to pet her, my hand came away dirty. She seemed nice enough, but the woman looked at our crowd of people and dogs and said they were hoping she’d go to a place where she’d be a solo dog. “Okay,” I replied, “but if no one takes her, give us a call.”
Three weeks later, they did. When we went to pick her up, she came to us without so much as a blanket or a toy, and she was still dirty. She was wearing a collar that was so tight we had to cut it off. Her hind legs were covered with matted fur three inches thick. I don’t know how she was even able to walk. It took hours to get that mess cut off. And we soon discovered that she had no idea how to walk on a leash. The only way to get her to do her duty was to let her loose. Then she was fine. Not only that, she taught Nikki and Tess that they, too, could go where they were told without needing a fence.
The previous owner had told us that Mandy had arthritis, so we began giving her baby aspirin which seemed to help. One thing I noticed about her was that she hated flies. If one was buzzing around the family room, she would stalk it and snap it out of the air. I have a feeling that when she was so filthy, flies really tormented her.
At first she came upstairs and slept in our bedroom, but after a while the stairs became too tough for her. We soon learned that Mandy was terrified of going to the vet, so every trip to the vet’s office was accompanied by a Burger King stop for a Burger King Junior for Mandy.
One day, six months in, when I opened the front door to get the newspapers off the porch, Mandy spotted some crows strutting around in the front yard. She took off after them and came back, a few minutes later, with one hind leg clearly out of commission. Our local vet recommended a visit to a specialist. I was in tears walking her into their office where I was told to leave her with them. An hour or so later the vet called to say it was bone cancer and there was nothing to do but put her down. I asked if I should come back, but they said, “No, she’s settled now. It’s best if you leave her be.”
So we did, but I was brokenhearted. The following week, Bill had a work conference in Hawaii, and I went along, laptop in hand, so that while he was in meetings, I could work. I was writing Payment in Kind at the time, the book in which Beau finally meets his long-estranged grandparents for the first time. I was writing, yes, but I was also still grieving. Then a miracle happened. When Beau arrived at his grandparents’ home, his grandfather was sitting on the front porch with a platinum golden retriever named Mandy sitting at his side.
We had Mandy for only six months. I like to think we gave her a good retirement, but she lived on in several more of my books, and she’s still there—in print and in my heart.
And that’s where I got one of my ideas.