ODD BUT TRUE; when I speak with other novelists, they are oftentimes vague on precisely when they met their spouses, when they made specific career choices, and other seminal dates in their lives. But most can tell you exactly where and when they got the idea for a book.
Stephen King has written about getting specific, vivid images as his starting points for various books. For his novella, The Langoliers, for instance, that image was of "a woman pressing her hand over a crack in the wall of a commercial jetliner." And other writers report similar, specific, genesis moments for their books.
Certainly, that has been the case for me.
Take, for instance, my 2007 novel, In High Places (http://tinyurl.com/InHighPlaces). The idea for this one came to me back in the summer of 1999.
My daughter was nine years old then—nine going very quickly on ten—and she was collecting the state quarters, which is to say that, actually, I was the one collecting the quarters. When I found one she needed, I would set it aside, give it to her when I got home, and that evening we would press it into a collector’s book made of thick gray cardboard covered with faux blue leather.
I stopped at 7-Eleven one day—and I’m not certain whether the stop was for gas or junk food, although I suspect it was the latter, because I paid with cash and was sorting through my change on the short walk back to the truck. And then I found it—not any of the state quarters we were looking for, but a Bicentennial quarter, from 1976.
You know the one I’m talking about: the quarter with a Revolutionary War drummer on the back. Everybody called him the “drummer boy,” although when I look at one of the quarters now—I have one next to the keyboard as I write this—I see that that the drummer is a grown man with arms the size of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s in his prime.
They must have minted those quarters by the boatload that year, because I still see them in my change every so often.
But at the time I hadn’t seen one in quite a while, and discovering that coin was a trip back in time.
For me, 1976 was a seminal year: the year I graduated from college, and the year I had my first successes as a freelance writer.
I had no novels back then, but I was beginning to break into the magazines, writing several feature stories for local titles and the occasional shorter piece for a national publication. It was a year of victories, a year of great beginnings.
For the nation, the feeling was oddly similar. The Bicentennial celebrated the 200th birthday of America, but somehow the event made us all feel brand-new … younger. From tall-ship pageantry to the movement to restore Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, it was as if an entire society was catching its collective breath and starting over.
Businesses celebrated by making everything red-white-and-blue. And if memory serves me correctly, at least half of those re-white-and-blue things also smelled like lemons; lemon was the marketing fragrance of that year.
So: 1975 or 1977? Not much comes to mind when I think back to them. But ’76? In marketing parlance, 1976 had “brand,” and I remember it clearly, especially the summer after my college graduation. So, the more I inspected that quarter and thought about it, the more I thought about writing a novel that would be set mostly during the summer of 1976.
In 1976, I was living in Toledo, Ohio, in a big, white Italianate house in a section of town known as the Old West End. It was favored by university people—teachers, students and shoestring-budget artsy types.
I was one of the latter, and I also did not spend a lot of time at home that year. I had a new passion—rock climbing—and had been researching what would become my first book: a nonfiction travelogue of American mountaineering. I was doing it on a student’s budget, so my research involved a lot of vagabonding, bumming rides and sharing a rickety old VW Alpine microbus with friends, heading off to all the places I wanted to feature in the book.
One place I kept coming back to was Seneca Rocks.
Seneca is in West Virginia, about a nine-hour drive from where I lived back then. I could always find two or three friends who wanted to head there for a few days, and it was a good place to keep my climbing skills sharp and relax a bit before beginning graduate school in the fall.
More than that, 1976 was Seneca’s moment. The early to mid ‘Seventies were the culmination of a golden age of rock climbing, an era when climbers all over North America were pushing the envelope, and a time when the sport was—and I realize this seems like an odd word to describe an outdoor pursuit—pure. There were no climbing gyms to speak of in those days; climbers climbed on rock. And climbers then operated according to a code of ethics that virtually amounted to a religion. Rock climbing was a close-knit community, and those who deviated from its standards were shunned.
Thirty years removed from these memories, I kept that quarter, looked at it over the next few days, and thought about all of those things. The time and the texture were compelling, and I decided I was going to write a novel that would take place principally at Seneca Rocks during the summer of 1976, and would revolve around the world of rock climbing. I did not have a character, a purpose or a plot, but I had time and place and focus, and that was enough to get me started.
That’s right; I started with setting. If you’ve read In High Places, that may surprise you, because it is a love story, and a mystery, and a character study all in one. But time, place and focus (or area of activity) constitute the setting for a book, and I believe that most, if not all, novelists find the genesis for their work in a setting—at least the time and place elements.
I know I’ll get argument on this point. There are authors who insist that they begin with character, or with plot, but the fact is that characters and plot don’t play well in a vacuum; they require a stage. And while it may be subliminal, writers concoct some semblance of that stage before they begin to people it with characters and saturate it with story. Setting may not be the most important part of a novel (not usually, at least), but it is almost always the part that comes first.
So that’s where one book started.
Are you wondering what your next book will be?
Check your change.