Wednesday, January 28, 2015
HAYBALE HORSES & WOODEN CROSSES--A WRITER'S INSPIRATIONS by Shayna Matthews
Someone asked me recently, "How on earth do you get your ideas for these stories of yours?" The truth is, I don't know where they all come from, nor am I always conscious of when an idea strikes. What I do know is this: stories come to me. Not all at once, of course; that would be too easy. But they do come in visual flashes; sometimes quick as a lightning strike, other times more like a slow, steady burn, like glowing coals from a perfect smores campfire. I fly by the seat of my pants when I write, and I begin each session wondering what my characters will reveal to me this time. Often, if the session goes well, I become lost within their world and lose all sense of time and place. Just last night my main character finally decided to reveal her story to a group of eager Texas cowboys, and before I knew it,I had written straight through the night and shut my light off at 5:00 a.m. Sure, I know where I went last night-1880's Texas- but I don't know how I got there. Where did these brand new ideas come from? My MC revealed details of her life I certainly knew nothing about, and I created her. Or, so I as the writer, would like to think. Sometimes I wonder, but that's for another post entirely.
It's a funny thing, one's subconscious. We writers conjure up all manners of past experiences, conversations, people, places and faces. And yet, details show up we have no recollection of having experienced ourselves, in any sense of the word. So when someone asks me where my ideas stem from, I just smile and murmur an answer about knowing how to look for, and listen for, a good story. You see, my training in listening for stories began when I was three, and has sculpted me throughout my life to become what I am now, a historical fiction writer.
My training? I was essentially born into the world of living history. I suppose not many of us can boast experiencing life's day-to-day adventures of the 18th Century, but my fondest memories still bring me back to my youth...when kids still plugged into their own imaginations.
My favorite smells in the world are woodsmoke, leather and horse sweat. Combine the three and I'm a little girl again, running through meadows in moccasins and a little deerskin dress, dodging teepees while catching grasshoppers in tin lanterns and picking ox-eye daisies to decorate my braids. By 1986, (I was seven) I knew how to row a canoe, drive a team of mules, and con absolutely any man with a horse to give me a boost, saddle not necessary. When no horses were available, a bale of hay holding someone's saddle sufficed, and I imagined I was on my trusty steed, gallivanting off into the sunset. Ladder-back chairs made for the perfect train, and when enough of us kids got together around the woodpile, teams were chosen and a very serious game of "Patriots and Lobsterbacks" always followed. We were always the Patriots, and being that I was often the only girl, I was always the one tied up, time and again, waiting for my Patriots to break through enemy lines. Sometimes, the boys fighting over me got a little bit too real. Wielding fire-pokers, they dueled, and I wound up with the tip of a hand-forged fire-poker embedded in my shoulder. I still bear the scar, and it brings me nothing but bittersweet joy for the memories I've gained. I miss those times, terribly. Years have a way of changing things, and I do not often adjust well to change. Lifelong friends have been made and lost over the years. We still reenact, and I still sit around campfires at night, passing the jug, and quietly listen to my friends reminisce over the good old days.
In the old days, my solitude during the campfires was two-fold. If I was quiet enough, maybe my parents would forget I was there and I wouldn't have to retreat to the tent for the night. I wanted to stay up, because I wanted to hear the adults tell their stories. One can pick up on grand stories, if one knows how to listen. Over the years I learned to listen intently. To this day I am often labeled as quiet and shy, but usually I'm just listening for a juicy tidbit...a damn good story.
Sometimes, those damn good stories turn into scenes which, no matter how much you love them, you wonder if they are meant for the story. A decision must be reached...do I scrap the scene, or keep it?
One day I came up with the idea for a small, insignificant scene involving a small wooden cross. I could see the cross clearly in my mind. It was handcarved out of a wood with tiny mottled holes, and handwrapped with black sinew. I began jotting down the framework for the idea revolving around this cross to be gifted to my main character, a young woman from Philadelphia. (You’ll hear more of her later). The original scene didn’t seem to blend too well with what was going on in the story at the time, so I had decided, pretty much, to scrap it. Two days later, my uncle had an appointment in town and so he came for a short visit and a crash on our couch. The appointment also took him out of our place long before my husband and I rolled out of bed the next morning. I was going through my morning routine when I heard my husband ask “What’s that on the floor?” and I saw him bend down to pick something up. He carried the unknown object over to me and I held out my hand. He dropped the item in the palm of my hand; I looked down at it and the breath hitched in my throat. I started to quiver and I can only imagine the look on my face. There it was, the very same little wooden cross wrapped in black sinew… the very same mental cross I had written, and thought of scrapping, only days before.
You see, when my uncle found out about his illness, his brother carved that little cross for him, and he has worn it under his shirt ever since. This is why I have never seen it before. I gave the cross back to my uncle, shivering as I told him the story. And in case you are wondering? No, I did not scrap the scene. It will be there, bold as print, in my novel. I took a picture of my uncle's cross, the cross I envisioned my character wearing days before it fell into my reality...just to remind myself that the stories we write belong to our characters, it's their story as much as ours. Sometimes it pays just to stop, listen, and let them tell it.
Tell me, where do you gather your greatest inspiration for your own stories? Comment on this post, and I will select a random commenter to win an e-copy of Prairie Rose Publication's anthology, "Cowboys, Creatures and Calico, Vol. 1" - containing my debut short story, "The Legend of Venture Canyon"! Thank you for reading.
If you just can't wait to see if you won, here's the Amazon link.