Those of you who frequent Facebook know about Throw Back Thursday, when people post photographs from their pasts. I like to torture my son by posting pictures of him when he was a baby. But recently I had reason to contemplate my own childhood, when Julia Robb, an author and a friend of mine, read my soon-to-be-released novel CHASM CREEK. She asked, “Where did you get those great kids? They had to come from somewhere.”
The answer was simple: the kids were us. My brothers, my sister, me. Of course, our lives weren’t quite as exciting as our imagined counterparts. But the fictional siblings’ personalities are pretty much based on how I remember us as kids. I admit I did this out of pure laziness. With four children in the story, I didn’t want to have to start from scratch with each of them.
My friend’s question led me to think about inspiration and where ideas for characters and stories come from. Suddenly, I was surprised to realize that my first chapter’s opening scene had not changed from the very first draft. Despite numerous revisions and rewrites, despite major changes in other parts of the story, CHASM CREEK had always begun with two strangers riding into Esther’s yard seeking help. That vision had been in my mind before I wrote a single sentence.
So where did that scene, so indelibly carved into my psyche, come from? I sat on a guardrail beside the two-lane, asphalt Memory Lane, and peered into deep woods that lined either side of the road. Naked, black branches crowned the trees and etched designs on a gray sky. Snow began to fall. Soon the blacktop was covered with a thick layer of white flakes. The road would be getting icy . . .
We lived out in the country. My father took the family car to work in the city each day, leaving my mother home alone with four children. Recollections flitted through the growing gloom of dusk, and I remembered a childhood incident. On a snowy day we were all inside when two men knocked on the door. They told my mother they’d run their car off the slippery road. One of them had a cut on his forehead; blood ran down his face. I think his nose was broken. My mother opened the door and let them in to use the phone. The injured one sat at the kitchen table while my mother gave him a towel filled with ice cubes. He held it to his broken nose while my mother cleaned up his cut. I couldn’t have been more than five years old at the time, yet I remember he had curly black hair.
Now Esther, one of CHASM CREEK’s main characters, is not my mother. She’s not based on my mother. There is nothing about her (looks, personality, background) that resembles my mother. But there was that incident. Exciting enough in our ordinary lives to be memorable, a memory that had faded away. Until decades later I find myself looking back, and I wonder what my mother was thinking when she—alone, isolated, with four young children—helped two strangers that showed up at her door. And I realize I must have been wondering that as I wrote Chapter One.
Have you ever realized a present-day decision was influenced by subconscious memories? Do you think it’s a blessing or a curse that our minds can work that way?
Thank you, Julia Robb, for initiating my inner quest. Julia’s novels are available on Amazon.
CONTEST: There is something wrong in the photograph of the three children (hint: it is not that one kid is missing – my little sister was too young to be included). First person to spot what it is and put their answer in a Reply will get a free copy of my flash fiction-short story collection, RAMBLINGS.
For information on the imminent publication of CHASM CREEK, the book launch party/signing, and other events, go to www.patriciagradycox.com. Thank you! See you next month!