Two Authors | Two Journeys
[ When I’m invited to speak at libraries and book-signings, the question I am asked most often is, “Where do you get your ideas?” I shared in part my personal answer to that question in my last post, Reading for the Soul. Today I’m happy to share two stories of writing and inspiration–the story behind the story–from my friends and fellow authors Carol Bluestein and Bob Katz.]
Every Pit Stop Tells A Story by Bob Katz
To perk up a recent online authors forum, I was asked to offer up a trivia question drawn from my novel, Third and Long. The question I came up with was not especially clever (we’ll get to it later) but the exercise led me to reflect on how I came to set the story in a fictional Ohio River town when it just as easily could have been located nearly anywhere in the U.S. (and in fact was loosely based on a true event that occurred in coastal Massachusetts.)
In the early 2000s, I was engaged by the nation’s largest teachers union, the National Education Association, to research a book about the challenges confronting families with children in public schools. (Titled The New Public School Parent, the book was published in 2002.) Part of my assignment involved scouting for stories to illustrate various chapters. When I read a brief Associated Press account of a dramatic incident in a middle school in a southern Ohio town, I clipped it out.
A sixth-grade boy in Lisbon, OH had entered his classroom one morning armed with a loaded 9mm semiautomatic handgun. He ordered his teacher and 25 classmates to lie on the floor. A veteran teacher passing in the hallway noticed what was happening and entered the classroom. She calmly approached the boy. The boy warned her to come no closer. The teacher kept coming. She held out her arms. The boy broke down crying and handed her his gun.
To flesh out the details for the purpose of the book, I visited the area. I’ve traveled extensively throughout the country (49 out of 50 so far, and counting) and I was familiar with southern Ohio, having attended Miami University in Oxford. But the tall bluffs along the river, the lush farmlands, the gritty remnants of the region’s industrial heyday were a surprise to me and left a vivid impression. As did the teacher’s unflinching heroism and her vital role in a close-knit community. I later wrote an entire book that revolved around these very elements, a heroic teacher’s role in knitting together a distressed community. Elaine’s Circle is the title. It will be re-published later this year.
Driving to Lisbon to interview the teacher, I passed through the Ohio River town of East Liverpool. I was already beginning to contemplate the story that would eventually become Third and Long, although I was years away from knuckling down to the task of actually writing it. I knew I wanted to portray a former manufacturing town on the skids. I wanted the story to involve the complicated role of high school football in a sports-mad community. And based on a fragmentary detail from the true incident that inspired my story, I wanted the mythical aura of Notre Dame football to loom as a background factor in the plot.
Whenever I travel to small towns or remote regions, I enjoy learning if any notable people have ever been raised there or lived there. In my experience, that kind of information – call it trivia if you like, but I think it goes deeper – can tell you as much about the character and culture of a locale as a vast slew of demographic data. At a minimum, you come away with an amusing conversation piece to trot out if the opportunity arises. Stopping for a coffee in East Liverpool, I discovered that legendary Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz had been raised there. Bingo! Holtz himself eventually would make a walk-on appearance in Third and Long. When the fictional owners of my fictional clothing factory undertake a desperate campaign to motivate the workforce to increase productivity, they do so by emulating Holtz’s fiery halftime pep talk style.
Oh yes, about that trivia question. East Liverpool and Lou Holtz are the answers: Any guess what the question might have been?
A Writer’s Dilemma by Carol Bluestein
There is nothing new under the sun. I and every other writer know this to be true. Sitting in front of a blank screen is not because there is a lack of input, it’s about what bits and pieces to pull out of the ether and mold into a story worth telling.
For me, while my short pieces cover many genres, my novels are political thrillers. I can’t tell you why, it just happened.
One weekend in the summer of 2009, while dog-sitting in the middle of nowhere, I read a book filled with stories of contemporary women writers. One honored her grandmother who had borne the yoke of slavery. In addition to the prose, she adorned her grandmother’s picture with lace, ribbons, and pearls, honoring the woman for her true status, not the one forced upon her. The realization and the impact of this act of love, truth, and defiance took my breath away.
Later the same day, I penned a poem about never forgetting. Untold numbers of families, including mine, have suffered genocide and slavery from the dawn of time. It happens over and over because we forget the tragedy and human toll. Each time, the leaders say, “This time it will be different.” It’s not.
Before I went to bed, I asked myself, “If it could be different, how would it look?”
The next morning, I answered, “Death without sorrow. What happens if a traumatized character wanted to make sure killers did not go unpunished and their family did not suffer for it.”
My note-taking began. I would get an idea and write it down. Months later, I had back surgery. My recovery would take four months. Perfect. I could write a novel in four months. No problem. In reality, I wrote my first draft. It took five years and nine revisions to finish and publish.
The 2009-2010 news carried stories about campus rape and college officials sweeping it “under the carpet;” relief food and materials for the people of Haiti, ravaged by a fierce hurricane, sitting on the docks because the “stamps,” which I interpreted as graft, needed to move each shipment changed daily; and the ongoing conflict and war-refugees, upheaval and deprivation, between Ethiopia and its neighbors. These real-life crisis situations formed the basic themes of Seduction. Other headlines have found their place in the entire series.
I write every book like it’s my last. Whatever ticks me off during development often influences the book. The anger fuels my passion and I pass that onto my characters whose behavior, reactive and proactive, drives the story.
Seduction. Why that name?
The initial reporting on the first US-Iraq War mentioned ordnances – a lot. Being normal, I had no idea what they were talking about. One day, a reporter used the word “bombs” and “ordnance” equivalently. I had been listening to bombing reports. The armed forces, in conjunction with the government, with intent, used an unfamiliar term to disguise brutal assaults and “collateral damage” to minimize civilian deaths.
Seduction initially referred to murder, invoking the method the vigilante used. However, as I kept writing, it expanded to “gaslighting”, consenting and non-consensual sexual behavior, and persuasion, where the arguments dilute, manipulate, or omit the truth. I condensed this broad definition down to the tag line: Love. Loss. Leverage. Murder.
Read for FREE some of Charles Levin’s short stories: