For years now, I have been working on my third novel. Writers are often asked where the idea for a book originates. Sometimes, it’s a phrase that gets stuck in my head and won’t go away. Sometimes it’s an image. The germination of this current book came from two things that wouldn’t get out of my head. One, an old black and white photo of my great aunt Stella, circa 1960. I don’t know why this photo drifted into my head and stayed. I looked at it for hours.
The other thing that wouldn’t leave me alone was a deep fascination with my family history. After my mother died, I realized that I no longer have anyone to tell me those stories. And I knew that the stories my mother had told me were warped by my memory of them. So I don’t know now what is real about them and what is not. I wanted to sit with my mother again, just one more time, and ask her about the validity of those stories.
This started me on a quest to find out as much as I could about prior generations, and whether I could verify the stories my mother told me. I asked my aunt, Mother’s oldest surviving sibling, but she claimed she didn’t remember or never knew about the particulars of one story or another. I asked my older sisters if they remembered any details of the family story.
I started digging through ancestry.com, which was very helpful. At a certain point, I developed mission creep and had to wean myself from that site.
I want to know certain things that may be buried and forgotten about my family heritage. Frustrated still by all I couldn’t find, I began writing my family history as fiction, making up the missing parts.
I don’t want to disclose here those questions I couldn’t answer. I haven’t finished the book, and I don’t want to eave clues that may not make the final cut.
I enjoy peeling back layers of hushed, whispered history. It’s spooky and strange. It feels like I am doing something clandestine. I’ll just leave you with this.
A girl grows up in the rural South, on a farm at the end of a dusty dirt road. She wonders about her family, about the societal heritage lost to them because of the Civil War, about the secret heritage no one talks about, ever, and she wonders about herself, why she doesn’t seem to belong, about where she will go when she grows up, because she can’t stay there, on that muddy-in-the-spring, dusty-in-the-summer farm. She can’t forever run barefoot through the woods when the dogwoods first bloom, because she is a girl, who will become a woman who must put away such things. What if she doesn’t want to keep the family secret? What if she wants to embrace the secret part of her heritage?