My novel, Kate and the Horses, was inspired by a childhood vow. There came a point in my young life when I felt that no one really listened to me. So I decided that I would stop talking. That would get their attention, and then when they asked me about it, I could tell them what was on my mind. Unfortunately, my plan backfired. No one seemed to notice that I was silent. Or perhaps they were grateful for the quiet. Our elderly Siamese cats were the only ones who offered me any solace at all. I would sit alone in a room with them and unburden my soul. They were good listeners.
When I grew a little older, we moved, and I had a piano and a piano teacher, and there was also a stable in our neighborhood where I could ride horses. Life was good. Eventually we moved again, and I had to leave all that behind, but I always remembered those horses, their names and personalities, and how they felt like friends.
Years later, after I finished writing Joy Returns!, I had a dream one night. It was actually more like a novel with chapters and everything. I woke up in the middle of the night and thought, “I should write this all down,” but then I thought, “This book is engraved in my soul,” and I fell back asleep.
When I woke up in the morning, I remembered that I had a dream about my second book, and it was a complicated mystery with adult escapades, and it took place in the equestrian world. And that was all I could recall. The rest was gone. My immediate instinct was to be very critical of myself. But, as a writer, I have promised myself to fully accept my creative process, even when it seems flat-out wrong. So I let go of the mystery dream, and then I heard my childhood horses in the back of my head. They were talking to me. I started to write down what they said.
That led me back to Charlotte's Web. Even though the horses were talking in my head and I was writing it down, I didn't really want to admit to myself and certainly not to anyone else that I was writing a talking animals story. But then I remembered one of my favorite books from childhood, Charlotte's Web, where animals talked and I laughed and I cried. Would it still be as powerful today? I had to find out.
As an adult, I have to say that Charlotte's Web had me at hello. Any writer who wants to learn how to start a novel in a kick-ass way, pick up this book. The story opens with the following line, “Where's Papa going with that ax?” Is that a hook or what? In the first chapter, Fern persuades her father from slaughtering Wilbur, the weakling of the litter. We immediately understand that, if Wilbur is going to live a long, happy life, he will continue to be in need of these interventions in the future. Boom! We are engaged in this story.
I kept reading. It was an easy thing to do. The language is lovely. I didn't care that E. B. White wrote about talking animals. I cared about these characters. As I read, I remembered how, as a child, I loved Templeton. He got to be grouchy and complain. Despite his outsider status, he became a hero. And, yes, at the end, I cried, and my heart felt larger. I opened the book up again and reread it. So Charlotte's Web more than holds up. It really moved me.
So what did I learn? Listen to your muse. Don't trust your memory. Write things down. Have notebooks and pens or your phone within grabbing distance. For example, if I think of something while I'm walking, I'll record my idea using Voice Memo on my phone. I probably look like a dork, but it makes me feel bad ass. And I trust my process. I listen to what calls me, and I learn things going down that path, which I will continue to write here. I hope this is helpful to you.