Exclusive Essay
Later, when I hoped, like my friend, that I might be able to write something, if only I could think of something to write about, I realized that the idea of this woman and the atmosphere I'd attached to her had stuck with me. For years, the opening scene of my novel, which I was then calling The Recluse, was an old woman watching from her window and reaching for her bb gun, as a little boy crept toward her house on a dare. But as I delved into her past-or rather made up things about her past--Amanda and Ruth emerged, and in their vividness, they pushed that woman aside. There's really no one like her in Drowning Ruth. She was a pinch of starter dough, but was so subsumed by the new loaf that I could start an entirely different novel with her today.

Once I had the characters-Imogene came along very early, as did Carl, although he was quite different at first, and Clement and Theresa Owens weren't far behind--they seemed so rich and interesting that I knew there had to be a story associated with them. Other scraps of my childhood helped me envision scenes from their lives-the creak of the ice expanding, the sting of raw wind, the smell of manure all around the schoolyard, the slipperiness of my little sister as she clung to me when she was learning to swim, my fear of my first grade teacher, my brother's black tooth, the tedious slowness of our old four horsepower motor-as did snippets I'd heard from my great aunts and grandparents and parents about card clubs, business college, and nursing school, the time my great grandfather put geese in the car, the parade in which my other great grandfather had been marching when he met my great grandmother, the dances at the lakeside pavilion and the bands you could hear all around the lake.

Finally, I had a whole world, like a great, gorgeous bolt of fabric, but still I didn't have a story, not one focused sequence of events that engaged these characters from the beginning of the book to the end. And although these imagined people and their surroundings and accoutrements alone were satisfying to me as a habitual daydreamer, I recognized that this was no way to run a novel. I had to think what they might do, and how that might involve the others, and how what they'd done in the beginning would make them behave at the end. So I had to cut up that fabric, rearrange the pieces and sew them back together. And then when one arm turned out too long or the bodice was on backwards, I had to do it again. I had to do that over and over, before I found a pattern that seemed true to those characters and to me. I don't recommend it, but that's how I got the idea.


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