Leaping Into a Story By Accident

Louise stole my idea for this topic. The biggest leap I’ve made as a writer was, by far, becoming a writer in the first place. But as I think about writing itself, I recall that I did make a fairly big leap in the writing of this book: I killed my protagonist.

That’s not a spoiler. Lucy, one of the two women whose stories intertwine in THE LOST GIRLS, is dead, and it’s clear she’s dead by the middle of the second chapter. Her story, about the long-ago summer when her younger sister disappeared, is told posthumously through a journal she writes shortly before she dies. The novel’s other protagonist is her great-niece Justine, who inherits both Lucy’s house and the tragic tale she spins.

But that wasn’t how the book started out. Originally, Justine came grudgingly to the remote Minnesota lake house where the story is set to help her great-aunt, whom she knew only distantly, go through her possessions before moving to a retirement home. The dark secrets in Lucy’s past would come to light as the two women sorted through a lifetime’s detritus and slowly came to know and care for one another. I envisioned a quiet book, contemplative and rich in the nuances of female friendship and family bonds, that would pack a punch in the end when the truth about what happened to Lucy’s missing sister finally came to light.

Maybe a different writer could write the book I envisioned, but I could not manage it. I got about fifty pages in and I stalled. The scenario was too static, with only two characters doing really boring things like clean out closets and basements, and I couldn’t seem to generate enough conflict between them or think of enough things to happen to them to make things interesting. There wasn’t enough story there, and I couldn’t make any more. I started to wonder if maybe I wasn’t a writer after all, because surely a writer would be able to think of these things.

Then a friend of mine offered to have a friend of hers, who was a published author, read a part of what I’d written. I gave her the first chapter, which was mostly about Justine deciding to go to Minnesota. She read it and said, “Oh, neat. It’s a ghost story.”

“What?” I asked.

“Lucy’s dead, isn’t she? It sounds like she’s going be a ghost.”

I reread the first chapter. It didn’t say anything about Lucy being alive, which explained why my reader assumed she was dead. But I didn’t correct her, because I had just had a supernova-level, lightning-strike epiphany in which my whole story snapped into place so suddenly that the ground shook under my feet.

Of course Lucy was dead! She was dead, and Justine had inherited her house! Story pieces started falling into one another like dominos: Justine wasn’t expecting to inherit the house; in fact, she hadn’t seen or talked to Lucy since she was a little girl. But the house seemed like a miracle; it was the solution to all her problems. She would pack up and head straight there while her boyfriend was at work, and she would bring her two daughters with her, because of course she needed to have daughters. A young woman on the run from a bad relationship with her two young children arrives in the backwoods of Minnesota at the beginning of winter to live in a dilapidated house where something terrible happened decades before? That scenario had storystorystory all over it. The only question was how to tell Lucy’s tale without Lucy there to tell it, and that was easy: she’s written Justine a letter. A long letter, in a notebook that she leaves for her on the sole condition that she decides to stay in the lake house.

I don’t want to oversimplify things, because it took me six years after that to finish the novel, and I had to learn a hell of a lot about the craft of writing to do it, and there were a lot of other things that got written, changed, and even deleted along the way. But the essential framework of the story was born in that moment in my friend’s living room, when my mind took the creative leap it needed to take to make a story happen. Most importantly, it was also the moment I felt — for the first time and despite all the farting around I’d already done with the story I’d planned to write — the creative spark that made me think I might truly be a writer. And that, it’s safe to say, was the biggest leap of all.

 

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After a decade practicing law and another decade raising kids, Heather decided to finally write the novel she'd always talked about writing. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and is an alumnus of the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop and the Tin House Writers Workshop, all of which helped her stop writing like a lawyer. She lives in Mill Valley, California, with her husband and two teenaged children. When she's not writing she's biking, hiking, neglecting potted plants, and reading books by other people that she wishes she'd written.

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