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Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Drawing On Memories & Family History As Inspiration by Sarah J. McNeal

Poppy’s House

We all draw from our histories and experiences to write our stories. Some of my greatest inspiration has come from my grandfather McNeal. I didn’t get to know him very long because I was only 6 when he died at age 88 shortly before his 89th birthday. He was like a skinny Sherman tank, tough, powerful, and stubbornly independent. It’s hard to conceive of the fact that he was a post-Civil War baby born in 1887. Maybe that’s why his parents named him William Grant after the Civil War general and, later on, president of the United States.

Poppy and Grandma McNeal

Poppy bought a tiny red school house when he and Matilda Howard, my grandmother, married and began their lives together. I only vaguely remember the house where my dad and his two older brothers grew up. My first recollection is a large room with long windows when columns of sunlight fell on a large room filled with wooden sailing vessels. Later, I found that Pop had made those ships and Poppy kept and treasured them. The place smelled of old wood and stale sugar cookies. Poppy bought the cookies as a treat for my sister and me. I played on the floor with my Uncle John’s tiny iron wheel-barrel, a metal rabbit, some blocks, and old batteries. All I remembered about the kitchen was the two windows over the porcelain sink.

Left to Right: Pop, Uncle Donald, and Uncle John

Later, when I began writing the almost true story of my Uncle John who died from drowning when he was only 21, I asked my oldest sister to describe the details of Poppy’s house in order to stay as close to the truth as I could while writing the time travel novel, THE VIOLIN. The little school house had just 2 bedrooms—one for the three sons, and the other for my grandmother and grandfather. My grandparents planned their three children, all boys, years apart in order to facilitate enough money for each to go to college. Though my grandparents both had teaching certificates, my grandfather earned his real living by painting houses and barns.

The oldest son, Donald, graduated with a degree in civil engineering and became an inventor for Westinghouse. He returned from World War I, married, and left home to work in Pittsburg. He died when he was 42 during some type of lung procedure.

When I wrote FOR LOVE OF BANJO, a World War I era western for Prairie Rose Publications, I could not resist including my Uncle Donald in the story. Banjo took Donald’s place in the fox hole during the war and Donald makes a trip to Wyoming to visit Banjo and give him a very special gift. So, even though THE VIOLIN and FOR LOVE OF BANJO are completely different stories, they are forever banded together because of my inspired placement of Donald and Banjo together in the war. I can’t explain why, but bringing those to stories together for that moment in mutual history just left me feeling so happy and satisfied as if to say, “I can let this rest now.”

What real life inspiration have you used in a story? Did it make you feel the same kind of satisfaction I felt, or did you experience something different? Have you used the same inspiration from real life more than once?

THE VIOLIN (Time Travel Novel)
Can the heart live inside a violin case? Can a message reach across time?

Genevieve Beaumont is haunted by dreams of a drowning man she is helpless to save. When she buys a violin and discovers news clippings and pictures of its owner who died from downing inside the case, she realizes he is the man in her dreams.
She travels to the little town where he died 90 years before to investigate who he was and how he came to drown that day. Little does she know how her own life will be tangled in the mystery…until she steps through the threshold of time to 1927.
She heard him take in a slow breath before he spoke to her in a more relaxed, quiet tone. "I beg your pardon, miss, I didn't mean to curse. What's your name?" The younger man’s voice soothed her as he knelt beside the couch where she lay. He wrung out a cloth in the bowl of water beside his knee, folded it, and applied it to Genevieve's brow.
"My name is Genevieve Beaumont. I was just standing at the window and now…I'm here." She lifted a shaky hand to her brow. "My head is pounding."
"You bumped your head when you fainted. Is that a French name?"  He lifted a quizzical brow and smiled.
She lifted her eyes and got a good, close-up look at him then. Her heart almost stopped beating in her chest. She sucked in a deep breath. What was happening to her? How could any of this be possible? The man holding the cool cloth to her head was the man in the pictures she found in the violin case!
She would not have guessed he had auburn hair, or that his eyes were such a vivid, bottle green. He wore a collarless, khaki shirt with the sleeves rolled up and suspenders instead of a belt held up his tan, canvas trousers. Oh, but he was handsome—so much more than his pictures ever allowed. She didn't have time to admire the young man's good looks because her mind swirled round and round with the unfathomable implications of her situation.

THE VIOLIN is also included in a boxed set of 5 novels by 5 authors titled LOVE COME TO ME for 99 cents. 

For Love of Banjo (2nd book in The Wildings series)

Deceit stands between Banjo Wilding’s love for Maggie O’Leary and his search for the father he never knew.
Banjo Wilding wears a borrowed name and bears the scars and reputation of a lurid past.  To earn the right to ask for Margaret O’Leary’s hand, he must find his father and make something of himself.
Margaret O’Leary has loved Banjo since she was ten years old but standing between her and Banjo is pride, Banjo’s mysterious father and the Great War.
In one graceful movement, he dismounted the pinto then stepped to the porch where Maggie stood with unrestrained tears that flowed down her cheeks.  Banjo swept her into his arms and kissed her.  The kiss wasn’t his brotherly, friendly peck on the cheek.  He kissed her with a slow burning need and ran his tongue along the groove of her lips then slipped inside. 
He tasted of coffee and mint.  Maggie reached up to weave her arms around his neck.  She stepped on her tiptoes to better reach him and taste him.  Her heart raced and heat rushed hungry waves of yearning into places in her body she never knew existed as she responded to his explorations with her own.  If only she could slip into his pocket and follow him wherever he went.  She wanted to become the marrow in his bones, to always be a part of him.
Just when she thought he would take her to her room and make love to her as she had asked, the kiss ended.  Banjo bent his head his rough cheek rasped against hers.  The fragrance of him, a combination of horse, pine and crisp snow, caressed her senses.  He slipped his hand into her hair and gently rubbed the tender skin of her neck where her blood pulsed beneath his thumb.
His mouth so close to her ear she felt the warm moisture of his breath as he spoke his last words.  She would never forget them, not as long as she lived.  Breathless from the kiss, he said, “Don’t forget me.  Write to me every day and I’ll write back.  You are the star in my sky and my compass home.  I’ll come back, if it’s the last thing I do, I will come back.  I swear it.”

AMAZON KINDLE    (also available in paperback)

Sarah J. McNeal is a multi-published author of several genres including time travel, paranormal, western and historical fiction. She is a retired ER and Critical Care nurse who lives in North Carolina with her four-legged children, Lily, the Golden Retriever and Liberty, the cat. Besides her devotion to writing, she also has a great love of music and plays several instruments including violin, bagpipes, guitar and harmonica. Her books and short stories may be found at Prairie Rose Publications and its imprints Painted Pony Books, and Fire Star Press. Some of her fantasy and paranormal books may also be found at Publishing by Rebecca Vickery and Victory Tales Press. She welcomes you to her website and social media:


  1. Sarah, isn't that the 'joy' of writing? We get to finish life's unfinished stories. I don't know that I use specific people or incidents in my writing, but I do know people I've met in life end up as composites for my characters. Growing up I spent many a hour listening to adults tell their stories, and I'm sure unconsciously I've recreated some of them as I write.

    I do love these stories, and I think your inspirations are happy to have you finish what they started. Doris

  2. I think you're right, Doris, using our own history and experiences in our writing is part of the joy we derive from our writing. Much as you have done, I also use people I met to create characters--and some of them end up as villains. (A little revenge thing, if you will, for something the actual person may have done.) Just another joy I have from writing. We can kill them off, too.
    I love happy endings. Maybe that's why I enjoy writing romance so much. So, when the opportunity rose to write a happy ending for my Uncle John, I took it. I only wish Pop had still been around to read it.
    Thank you so much for all your wonderful support, Doris.

  3. Sarah,
    One of the many real life experiences I've used in my stories is in my novel, THE COMANCHERO'S BRIDE.

    The politician-antagonist and his partner-journalist are each an amalgamation of real people: three male school superintendents and an insufferable IT director whom I loathed (from back in my special education administrative years). I took their worst qualities and their names and created their fictional personalities and identities.

    My satisfaction in ruining the antagonist's political career and then killing him off was cathartic. I made the other character 'eat crow' and practically grovel for forgiveness. It was a fabulous feeling in both cases. *insert evil cackling*

    1. Mercy, Kaye, I love what you did there. Isn't it wonderful to settle a score with a real life bully and make him good and miserable--and then kill him. I love that. Anyone with any sense would want to keep on the good side of a writer or they'll show up in a story. heh heh
      I've used names, either first or last, of people who were just awful in my real life and had the pleasure of putting them in a story to give them their just deserts. It's fun, isn't it?
      Thank you so much coming and sharing that little "evil" with me.

  4. I love posts about real people and objects to show something in the past. I would love to have seen the room in which you played with a tiny iron wheelbarrow, a metal rabbit (?) blocks, and old batteries. Old Batteries? Yikes.
    I have often used real life people and places and things in my stories. I consider those my best stories, even though others didn't particularly think so--Wish for the Moon, in particular. Also I used a real place and house in Beyond the Blue Mountains. Both these books I call
    "Books of my heart," as I think you do with yours.
    Thanks...wonderful post.

    1. Celia, back then no one thought about batteries perhaps not being the best things for kids to play with. How did we ever manage survive?
      I didn't know you used a real life house in Beyond the Blue Mountains. I love all your stories, but Beyond The Blue Mountains really spoke to me. The depth of those characters made me feel like I actually knew them.
      When an author really digs deep and gets their heart involved in their story, I believe readers can feel that. It's a palpable and living thing out there on that page. Whether we mean to or not, who we really are shows up in our stories. I guess I must really like who you are, Celia, because I sure do enjoy reading your work.