What If?: From Idea to Book

My wife, a cancer physician, recently asked me where a story for a novelist begins. As a scientist and as a very close and insightful reader of my novels, she was articulating a question that many non-writers and beginning writers have about the creative process; namely, where does a novel start? I’m not a scientist, nor am I someone who studies the brain. As a novelist I can only look at my own writing process, and look backwards from a finished novel to the origins of that novel, and then try to describe, as closely as possible, the history of that process. When I speak to book groups or to my graduate or undergraduate writing students, and they ask me where a particular book began, I try to go back to that blindingly bright moment of “creative inspiration,” that moment when the idea came, or when the muse whispered in my ear. Often my novel ideas start off with a simply question: “What if.”

Take, for example, my latest novel, RESTING PLACES. This is a novel about a middle-aged woman who loses her only son in, what is for her at least, an inexplicable and mysterious car crash in the mountain deserts of New Mexico. She goes on a physical and spiritual cross-country trip to the site of his death, in part, to put up a roadside memorial to his death. This idea came to me eight years ago when I started to notice “roadside memories.” I had passed a number along highways and roads, and always wondered who put them up and why. Then, along a lonely highway in southern New Hampshire, I saw a roadside memorial that I had passed several times, and I finally decided to stop, get out of my car, and go and inspect the cross. From the many things written on the cross and left as mementoes around it, it was obvious to me that the victim of the car accident at that spot was a man, a son, a husband, a father, a fisherman, someone whose loss very much affected those he left behind. I thought about him, his life and death, but even more, I thought about his survivors. Who were they? What was their pain like? And why did they come here at some point, dig a hole in the ground and plant a cross to his memory? What made them do this? It was, as it usually is for me, like a bolt of lightning going off in my head: What if I were this man’s mother? That was the beginning of Resting Places.