“Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen.”
– Willa Cather
Is Willa Cather right? As I look back on my childhood experiences, I find that most of my fictional themes were born out of my early experiences. Many questions haunted my mind and begged for answers. Why do some people stay and others go? What do you do when you learn your mother has lied to you all your life? Can dead people communicate with their living loved ones as my grandmother believed? These and many more questions have fueled my fiction.
When I was in second grade, my parents moved my grandparents and me to a farm three miles from the nearest town, and my grandparents had no car. My parents worked in Wichita and came on weekends to take us to town for groceries. For most of those years, there were no children living nearby. The school bus came to collect me last since I was the only child on that route and the drive was a quick one. I was also taken home first while other children waited on the playground, forming friendships. In a time before we had television, I filled my days with reading, Saturday afternoon movies, and my own made-up stories of people and their troubles.
I occupied many lonely hours with characters I created. When I was eight or nine, I checked out a book about Cochise, an Indian chief, so many times the librarian finally sold it to my parents, saying I had it out so much no one else had the opportunity to read it. I used what I learned from the book to create a complete Indian family and their struggles. I was first one character and then another. I was sometimes a chief’s daughter and sometimes the chief. Other scenarios were formed from the books I read and the movies I watched. I belonged to Jesse James’s gang and swung through the trees with Tarzan.
None of my characters were ever imaginary friends. I sampled their worlds by bouncing between characters, imagining I was first one persona and then another. Some of my characters were good and some were evil. By switching my point of view, I came to understand why all of them did what they did.
Sometimes the characters aged with me. Sometimes they had children and grandchildren, allowing me to move through time with the same family. At times, my people lived in the old west, at times in modern day New York City. Both are places I have never been, which is probably the reason none of these characters and their stories have ever appeared in my writing.
You may be thinking, “If not these characters, then which ones and why?”
A need to understand
My novels, like those unwritten stories that began in my childhood, are filled with characters who act on their deep beliefs. They have individual hearts and minds and pasts, and they go where those things take them.
My first attempt at writing a novel failed, probably because the subject was too close to my real life. The main character was a young wife and a mother of two small children. Her husband was in prison for theft. The story was about how she stayed married to him and the prejudices of others that she had to overcome. I never finished the story.
I did finish the next novel I started, and it only took thirty years from writing the first word to publication. Two things happened that led me to write The Night before Christmas. The first was that I met a woman close to my age with three little girls. She had separated from her abusive husband, who had threatened to set their house on fire, but she was considering going back to him because she had no way to support herself and her preschool children. The second trigger for the novel was a news report about a man who had killed his three young children on Christmas Eve. Immediately, questions whirled in my mind. Why would someone kill his children? Wouldn’t a wife see signs and get her children out of harm’s way? I thought of my desperate friend and a story was born without any thought of genre or market. I was searching for a truth, and from that search came my first completed novel.
In closing, do you believe Willa Cather is correct when she says that writers acquire their basic material before the age of fifteen? When did you acquired the ideas and themes you write about?