Thursday, June 30, 2016

Where the words came from

Very, very, VERY long background on the project that has occupied me for the past two months (and four days).

Let me start out by saying once again that I am NOT superstitious and I do NOT believe in "omens." I do think, however, that our brains latch onto things from deep in our subconscious that trigger connections we sort of forgot about until that subconscious throws them in our faces again.

That's what happened back in April with a shared Facebook story about a duplex in Toronto that was basically unchanged from the time it was built in the 1950s or so.

It looks like a typical '50s duplex, very similar to the one my aunt and uncle built shortly after my cousin was born, which was 1956. The three of them lived in the downstairs unit, and my aunt's widowed mother, whom we called Aunt Petie even though her real name was Gertrude, had the upstairs. 
My Uncle Dick is my mother's brother, so Aunt Shirley was only related to me by marriage. Her dad, Cornelius Stryker, was a commercial artist, a career my aunt also followed. She was an only child, and in turn only had one child, my cousin Connie. Connie also went into the arts; she and her husband Paul have a graphic arts and printing business in the Chicago suburbs.

You'll understand all these details . . . . eventually.

We were a very small and geographically close family, so holidays were spent at the in-laws' homes as much as the family's. My dad's family, the Wheelers, also lived in Edison Park not far from the Strykers, and his sister, also Shirley, was friends with Shirley Stryker who married my mother's brother. In fact, the Wheelers' house on Owen Avenue was not more than a few blocks from the Strykers' on Olcott. My dad and both Aunts Shirley went to the same grade school, Ebinger. Thus I was relatively familiar with the Stryker house, where Aunt Petie lived until 1957 or so, when I would have been nine years old. And that's old enough to remember things.

As the oldest of the five cousins born in that time period -- my brother and sister are half a generation younger -- I was eventually granted special privileges when visiting the Stryker house, the biggest of which was to use the upstairs bathroom. It was a marvelous, mysterious blue, totally unlike any other bathroom I had ever seen. The stairway was beautiful polished dark wood, with a large landing in the middle where it turned 180 degrees. On that landing was a glass fronted case containing my aunt's collection of dolls from all over the world, gifts from a family friend. I was also the only one of the children allowed to sit on the landing and look at the dolls.

I loved the house. And over the years, even after Uncle Neil Stryker died and Aunt Petie moved in with my Uncle Dick and Aunt Shirley, certain details of the house remained absolutely crystal clear in my memory, as clear as the crystal knobs on the interior doors in the house. I remembered the very modern chrome and glass end tables in the living room, the dining room, the closed-in back porch where we kids played, the white painted brick fireplace with its never burned white birch logs. The back yard with all the tulips -- the Strykers were Dutch and the yard had hundreds of tulips -- and the kind of creepy basement, too, all stuck in my memory.
There was another creepy thing about the house.

During the Depression, Cornelius Stryker worked as a window dresser for some of the department stores in downtown Chicago, and he supplemented his income by making plaster of Paris figurines which he then painted and sold. I still have a set of five little puppies that my aunt gave me after he had passed away. But one thing that he had made scared the crap out of me. It was a head, maybe of a person or maybe of a frog or maybe of something in between, and it was painted green and it had its mouth wide open. The inside of the mouth was painted red. The whole thing was about as big as the palm of your hand. It was used to hold a pot scrubber, such as an SOS pad or whatever, and it sat on the counter in the kitchen, and I was terrified of it.  Absolutely terrified.  I can still see that thing in my mind's eye, creepy as hell.

I have other memories of the house that may not be quite as clear or may not even be memories so much as they are products of my imagination.

On the other side of the kitchen from the counter where the plaster thing was, I recall a little breakfast nook, pretty much like a booth in a restaurant. The two benches and the table were painted bright red enamel, and there was a window overlooking the back yard and garden. That window faced east, and to block the morning sun at breakfast time, there was an ordinary pull-down window shade. The pull on the shade was a little red plastic charm of tulips growing in a wooden shoe. I have no idea why I was so fascinated by that red plastic shade pull, but I was, and I remembered it with absolute clarity.

As I said, Uncle Neil died in the mid-1950s, and Aunt Petie sold the house in Edison Park and moved in with Uncle Dick and Aunt Shirley and Connie, somewhere around 1957.

Fast forward 40 years or so, to 1997. My career writing historical romances was in the process of dying, but I am a compulsive writer, as you may have noticed, and so I kept on even though I knew I would never publish anything again. I got an idea for a contemporary gothic -- similar to what Barbara Michaels wrote -- involving a house modeled on. but for various reasons not identical to, the Stryker house. As I began to write it, the details I remembered about the actual house came more and more and more into play. I hadn't originally intended to be quite so exact, but it seemed as if my subconscious was writing parts of the story around some of those details.

Unfortunately, there were certain things I didn't remember. I thought I'd just write around them, or make up something, but nothing fit right. So one Saturday, I called my aunt to see if she could refresh my memory. She had, after all, grown up in the house.

This was in the days -- 1997 -- when long distance calls still cost some real cash, so it was quite an investment for me to call from Arizona to Illinois, but we had a long and delightful conversation. She was pretty surprised at how much detail I did remember, especially the crystal door knobs, the evil grinning scrubbie holder, and the plastic shade pull. She offered to draw me a floor plan and send it to me, so I'd have the details of the layout, in particular of the second floor, since I had never been up there very much. (Only the bathroom!) The floor plan diagram arrived a couple weeks later, along with a most truly bizarre extra.

To my surprise, the floor plan did not include the breakfast nook that I remembered so vividly, but, well, I apparently misremembered.  To this day I don't know where that pseudo-memory came from.

I continued to work on the novel, incorporating some of the details she had told me about, but 1997 was a traumatic year for me for a wide variety of reasons. It was also a financially troubling year, more so even than all the other financially troubling years I'd been through. In 1998 I put virtually all my fiction writing aside and made the bizarre decision to return to college; I got my BA in 2000, then stuck around for a master's in 2003. Those five years were filled with more trauma, emotional as well as financial, but I got through it. Just when things should have been leveling off, my husband was diagnosed with lung cancer, and died 10 weeks later in 2005.

I've dabbled with fiction through all this, but haven't really done much. I have gazillions of files on the computer, plus notes and sketches written longhand and filling a fat folder in the file cabinet. Every once in a while I get the folder out and transcribe some of those notes in an attempt to put everything in digital format, but I usually get discouraged and quit.

Several years ago, I picked up that particular novel and thought I'd work on it again. Self-publishing via Amazon's Kindle had given me the opportunity to put some of my historical romances out there again, and I thought it would also allow me to bypass all the trauma of dealing with editors and agents and the attendant bullshit, and I figured what the heck. I hit up good ol' Google to see if I could get some exterior pictures of the real house just for inspiration, and as luck -- or omens? -- would have it, the house happened to be for sale at the time. One of the real estate sites, Trulia or Zillow or whatever, had a whole portfolio of interior pictures as well, and I greedily gobbled them up and tucked them in the digital file folder. One of those photos was of the kitchen counter, exactly as I remembered it except for the grinning mouth figurine. The breakfast nook with its window and shade and plastic tulips was nowhere to be found.

But alas, for whatever reasons I never went any further than collecting the photos. The book itself continued to languish.

Until this past April.

The article about the Toronto house, frozen in time, brought all of that back, for some reason or other. Maybe it wouldn't have except for the fact that my daughter in New Jersey bought a house last summer that in many ways resembles the interior of the Toronto house. There's a lot of pink in Rachel's house, a lot of decor left from the 60s and 70s which the original owner from whom they bought it never changed. Ultimately, though, those subconscious connections all led back to Aunt Petie's house in Edison Park and the gothic novel I had started 20 years ago.

Again, I do not believe in omens, just odd coincidences. But maybe that's what it took to start me writing again, writing on that particular novel, writing until 1:00 a.m. and then dredging up the original text files -- still dated 1997 -- and going back to work on it.

Because there was that little bonus gift, that bizarre little extra in the envelope Aunt Shirley sent me back in 1997.

She told me that the house had been sold again a few years before our conversation, and somehow the new owners had contacted her to try to put everything back the way it was structurally at least when Neil Stryker built it. So the white paint had been removed from the red brick fireplace and the chimney opened to make it functional again, and the two stained glass windows that flanked the chimney had been uncovered. (They were boarded up sometime in the 40s; I never knew they were there.) The original kitchen cabinets had never been changed, though the blue bathroom was gone and there had been other alterations over the years.

As far as I know, she never went in the house again after our conversation, but I don't know that for sure. Still, 1997 was 40 years after her mother had moved out, and insignificant little things don't usually last 40 years.

What she had included as a gift with her drawing of the floor plan was the red plastic shade pull from the kitchen nook window. There was no way she could have known in 1956 or 1957, when the house was sold, that such a tiny thing would have any meaning to me at all. Maybe it did to her as well; I don't know. But why, of all the things in the house, did she still have THAT? And why, of all the things in the house, did I remember THAT??

That first night last April -- it must have been the 25th -- I wrote about 1000 words on the book, and the following evening I compiled all the separate chapter files into one document on the computer. It desperately needed proofreading and there were other details that needed to be fixed. The whole timeline had to be brought forward 20 years, and the technology as well.

But I was amazed as I skimmed through a brief synopsis I'd written that there were certain very creepy details, things that I had planted in the plot of the novel that foreshadowed events in my own real life over the course of the subsequent 20 years. I've wanted to go back to writing -- gee, can you tell? -- for a long time, but life seems always to intervene. I'm not at a point where I can financially devote myself to it fully, but my anger and frustration over certain other things need an outlet.

And the little plastic shade pull with the tulips and wooden shoes was still in the file cabinet, along with the floor plan of the house in Edison Park.

I honestly didn't expect anything to come of it. But night after night, morning after morning, afternoon after afternoon, I continued to add words to it. What began as something like 13 chapters and 44,000 words grew, and grew, and grew. I hit horrible snags in the plot that I thought would put an end to the thing, but somehow they seemed to get worked out. A subplot that I was very fond of couldn't get itself resolved because it meant veering off from the main thread, so I made the painful decision to just do away with it.
The fictional location is not, of course, Edison Park. And I've made some major alterations to the floor plan of Aunt Shirley's house to better fit the story. None of the characters are based on anyone I actually know.

I haven't decided on the title. It has always had a working title, and I happen to like that title very much, but it may be too much of a spoiler, and I'm not sure if it will be commercially viable. There's plenty of time to worry about that, however, while I do the editing and rewriting needed for a project that went on hiatus for 20 years.  And I have to find cover art, one of the tasks a self-publishing author has to take over from the vampire publishers.  (Can you tell I don't like them?)
When I hit 100,000 words, I could hardly believe it. My first complete novel, written when I was 15, ran to about 115,000 so it wasn't the raw number that surprised me. It was that after all these years I had stuck with it that far. I honestly thought I had lost my touch, that I was too old, that my other books had been flukes.

A couple days ago, I hit another snag, one that was looming as insurmountable. I didn't want to take a day off from it, because I literally had written every single day since the bug bit me. Most days I added around 1,000 words, but sometimes it was over 2,000. And it was so much damn fun. So I made myself write, made myself think, made myself create, and the block passed and I got through the insurmountable problem.

By Sunday, 26 June, I was down to the last "action" scene. I had hoped to get through at least half of it that day, maybe finish it the next, then write the mop-up denouement. In the middle of this last scene, my mind went blank. An absolutely crucial detail just plain wasn't there. I was well over 134,000 words by this time and I couldn't believe the final confrontation was going to fall flat.

I've always been one of the writers who plots everything out, writes a detailed outline/synopsis to start, and who doesn't like surprises. This book has been a surprise from the very beginning, or at least from its "new" beginning two months ago. The sketch has always been very clear, but details have seemed to fall into place on their own. So why was this one detail not showing up?

I don't know. I don't know where it was or where it came from, but it finally made an appearance and made everything make sense.

It doesn't have to be perfect, it only has to be finished.

It's far from perfect. In some places it's not even good! And it wasn't really quite finished just because that scene worked out. There were more small revelations to be made, but those were backstory details that had already been worked out. On Monday, 27 June, I finished the last action scene, and on Wednesday, 29 June, I wrote the final lines.  There is still a lot of editing to do, but it's finished.  It's the first novel I've completed since 1995.

And I'm damn fucking proud of myself.

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