Thursday, October 22, 2009

You Can Go Home Again : : Anne McAllister

Hardly a writers' conference goes by -- or a library talk or an article in a newspaper or magazine -- that doesn't somewhere contain the sentence, "Where do you get your ideas?"

People who don't write -- and sometimes even people who do -- seem to want to know that more than they want to know anything else. Except for how much money we make!

I think it has to do with the 'mystery' of writing.

It seems like it should be easy because we've all done it, haven't we?

Everyone over the age of six has written a composition about what they did on their summer vacation or about their favorite pet or, if they are like my youngest son, they write fabulous adventures using every gun every known to man because he spent his youth devouring Gun Digest.

So it should be simple. Everyone should be able to do it.

But they don't. Because the ideas aren't the hang-up, when you get right down to it.

We all have them. Ideas for books have, to be honest, come from things I've done on my summer vacation. They've been inspired by places I've been, songs I've heard, fortune cookies I've opened. They've been infiltrated by my favorite pets -- and several other peoples' pets as well. (Hi, Sid!).

And if I haven't got all the guns known to man in my books yet, well, it may be just a matter of time -- or genre.

The ideas are the easy part. You just use what you know, what you remember, what you feel, what you're interested in. You find the story in it -- and you've got a book.

Well, sort of. But that's the basics. Even though, after 63 books, I find myself digger deeper and deeper into what I know so I don't use the same stuff over and over again.

Still, I do use it. When I wrote my newest book, One-Night Mistress ... Inconvenient Wife, I needed a place that was upscale and yet not really glitzy. I dug through my mind for what I knew -- and I ended up going clear back to the beginning and basically 'went home again.'

I grew up in Manhattan Beach, California. While I spent summers (those well-used vacations that got me through nearly 20 Desires and Special Editions and a single title!) in Montana and Colorado, I spent school years on the beach of So Cal.

And even though Manhattan Beach changes regularly and quickly, some things about it don't change -- The Strand, the pier, the broad walkup sidewalk streets, and most of all, the informal beach-oriented lifestyle.

It's an upscale community now compared to when I grew up there. You do pretty much need to be a millionaire to live on The Strand these day.

So it was a perfect place to put Christo, my hard-driving lawyer hero, because it gave him the beach on his doorstep so he could kick back and relax and go surfing when he wanted to (see how useful growing up on the beach was?). It was an equally good place to stick Natalie because it was his turf and she was out of her depth.

I went home again in my mind a lot while I was working on the book. I also called my friends who still live there and picked their brains about how things have changed. (Writing is good for maintaining friendships).

Of course, 'going home again' to a location wasn't enough to get the book from my brain to the page to the bookshop. Books are more than settings and ambiences. They require a lot of bits and pieces that make up the patchwork. Occupations, families, backstory, emotions.

Which are simply more types of going home. I needed to reconnect with other friends and relatives, too -- one in Brazil who helped me with Christo's Brazilian father and grandmother, and one in Pennsylvania, a lawyer cousin who on a daily basis kept Christo from getting disbarred.

I borrowed the name of one of Robyn Donald's granddaughters. I borrowed someone else's cat. (No, not you, Sid!) I moved a house from Hawthorne to Torrance. I played fast and loose with few things from my own emotional baggage. I threw in a sand castle and some body surfing, a rainstorm I remembered all too well, a wedding with fairy lights, and, especially, a beloved grandmother.

I went home again, physically and emotionally -- and I went to a few other peoples' houses, too. And I wrote a book.

It's the same process every time I write one. And I never quite know until I'm actually working which memories, which facts, which emotions, which bits and pieces are going to be the ones I'll need.

It's the joy of writing -- getting up every morning and discovering where I'll go and what I'll use today.

How about you? Do you go home again? Have you written about it? Where do you go in your head?


Linda Henderson said...

I am fortunate to live within 10 minutes of the little town I grew up in. My parents, one brother and my only sister still live there. So in a way I go home all the time. Now in my mind I go to all the fascinating places that books take me. Right now my body is in Missouri but my mind is in Texas

Mary said...

I haven't been back to the town where I grew up since I left when I was a teenager. Not all good memories so I'd rather not revisit anyway.

I'd much rather read a book and escape into another place.

Anne McAllister said...

Linda, that's fortunate indeed. But it's nice to be able to go other places in books! I like that, too. But then I keep adding those places to the places I want to go 'in person.'

Mary, Sorry about the not so good memories. You're probably very wise to stay away and not dredge them up again -- especially where there are plenty of lovely places to go in books -- or in person.

penney said...

Wonderful blog today thanks. I live about 90 miles away from the old house I grew up in, sadly the people who live there now pulled all the trees and bushes up it's so bare even the grass is all brown, our friends that live across the street from there told me once a month they get out and water everything then it sits for another month.
I sure miss that old place I had lots of fun there with my Mom brothers and sister I loved when my Aunt and her kids would come over. I still think of the old times a lot.
I'm looking forward to your new book Anne.

Anne McAllister said...

Thanks, Penney! I'm sorry you have to go home occasionally and see the mess that was such a happy home for you.

Last time I went home I was outside taking pictures of the house and the lady who lives there came out -- obviously wondering what I was up to -- and I explained who I was. She invited me in and showed me all over the place, which was very nice and had an extra story on it now from when I grew up there. It was a tiny house then. It's great big now. Still, though, I found parts I remembered that were exactly the same. It was a nice trip down memory lane.

Emmanuelle said...

I live in my home town, 5 minutes from y parent's home. It makes my life very easy I admit (especially with my kids).
Sometimes I wish I had a home town in the country though. A place I could go to when things are a bit shaky and I need to "breathe".

Anne McAllister said...

Breathing space is good, Emmanuelle. But having parents nearby who can take the kids occasionally is a different kind of breathing space. Perhaps we aren't allowed both???!!