What if … that’s the beginning of every story. What? No, I’m sorry. It’s not “Once upon a time, in a land far, far away.” It’s really “what if.” What if … a troll lived under a bridge and liked to eat goats. What if … loving parents on a dying planet shot their baby to Earth, where he had super powers and grew up to represent the American way.
Or, what if … you lost the most important thing in your life. The Bible’s Parable of the Lost Coin tells of the great lengths to which one woman goes to find one lost coin, one out of ten. Yet, what if that “thing” wasn’t an item, but a person? What would you do to find him?
Every story begins with a premise, a “what if.” From there you add the characters and, around the characters, you build a plot and give it a locale. Sometimes those characters are like your children, and head in directions you don’t necessarily want them to go. It’s true. Even though the author creates them, and places them in a world of the author’s creation, they go off on tangents, throw tantrums, or get stuck in old habits. I’m often surprised when one of my characters does or says something I never planned for her to do or say. They do take on a “life” of their own. Sometimes they wander down a path they shouldn’t be on and need an obstacle thrown in their way to “ease” them in the right direction. At other times, it might require a hard kick in the seat. Sound familiar? Is your back side as sore as mine?
So, how does this apply to my story, Indebted? Without giving away spoilers, the story is one of loss, and ultimately, hope and redemption. Young Alice Cummings lost her mother to cancer when Alice was ten, and she was raised in rural, western North Carolina by her alcoholic father. Her search for love and family leads her to get pregnant out-of-wedlock, in an era when that was not socially acceptable, the late 1960s. Upon returning home, her father makes good his earlier threat and takes the baby one night–and “sells” him. That’s where the tale begins.
But every story needs a middle and an ending, too. What does Alice do? How can she find her son when she’s a young, unemployed runaway? What problems will she encounter? While the heart of the story is her search for love and a family, it’s her encounters along the way, and the obstacles she overcomes, that add the flesh, bone, and sinew to a narrative that keeps you reading, wanting to know what comes next.
Still, I wasn’t fully settled with the idea of a single, straight-line narrative. Oh no, I had to make it hard on myself, give myself a challenge, and add a second plot line. In this one, current day, best-selling author, Myra Mitchell has a life-changing complication thrown into her path. She’s the “Diva of Disaster” who now faces a calamity like one she might throw at one of her own characters. Will she have enough time to write one final book to leave as her legacy? She finds … oh wait, I promised no spoilers. So, how will her story intertwine with that of Alice Cummings?
The idea for this yarn came to me in that quiet, half-sleep period just before waking for the day. My wife is continually amazed when I wake up and tell her I just had an idea for a book, or that I figured out how to solve a plot hole. She doesn’t, however, buy it when I tell her I have writer’s block and use that as an excuse to take an afternoon nap. Hmmm… Seriously, a few years back I wanted to enter a short story in Writer’s Digest’s annual contest and couldn’t come up with an idea. Then, voilà, I woke up with one. Yet, as I wrote the short story, I kept feeling like I could never do the idea justice in fewer than 4,000 words. I needed to add the flesh and bones. Since I still practiced Emergency Medicine at the time, it took me a year and half to finish the novel, and another six months to polish and prepare it for market.
I guess after throwing in that reference to Emergency Medicine, I should tell you a bit more about myself. Yes, I am a doctor, but no, after 30 years in the E.R. (with some brief time off in a Family Practice for good behavior), I have not seen it all. Still, my life’s experiences have been varied and in many ways profound. I grew up in the Midwest, where my seventh grade English teacher told my mother I’d grow up to be a writer. However, rebellious teen that I was, I promptly took a path in science that led to majoring in Bio-Medical Engineering at Duke University, followed by medical school at the University of Cincinnati. The U.S. Army, in its finite wisdom, gave me a scholarship for medical school, so I completed my advanced training at Madigan Army Medical Center in Tacoma, WA, and graduated to a world of major trauma, as well as head colds and the injuries of weekend warriors. After running a Level 2 trauma center, I became a research Flight Surgeon where I learned to fly a helicopter and re-designed body armor. (Yes, my engineering did come in handy once upon a time, in a lab far, far away.) As I said, my experiences have been diverse.
My ER tales range from hilarious to those provoking tears. I can still see the nurses rushing to assist me as a 200-pound woman beat me about the neck and shoulders as she insisted she was shrinking and would soon disappear. No, wait. I didn’t see those nurses because they were rolling on the floor behind the nurses’ station, laughing their heads off. Seems I recall they also disappeared from the room when a nineteen-year-old newlywed private asked why he and his bride couldn’t conceive. After all, they’d been sleeping together since the wedding six months earlier. That’s all, sleeping. No explicit, implicit, or even imaginary sex scene there. Goes back to an old ER axiom, “You can’t cure stupid.”
But on the flip side, there have been the cases that sent me home numb. I had a 45-year old man who arrived in ventricular fibrillation, back in the day before ambulances carried defibrillators. He proved the Biblical truth that we all have our appointed time. All seven defibrillators in the ER failed to work on him. Not one would deliver a shock. Yet, they all tested normally the next day. And nothing will ruin your day faster than a father running into the ER with his dead child in his arms. Why, Lord? Why this little one?
So, why do I bring up these examples? It’s all “fodder” for the word processor. These incidents all provoke that “what if” response in me. One quote from Indebted is “nothing in life is wasted on a writer.” Although none of the stories I just mentioned have yet made it into one of my books, they might. My experiences in becoming a Flight Surgeon included learning how to abandon a helicopter that just crashed into water. That became the inspiration for one scene in my book Looks that Deceive.
I should add at this point that Indebted is a bit different from my other books. A bit different? My wife rolls her eyes. I mean, after all, with all of my general science, engineering, military, and emergency medicine training and experience, would I ever envision myself becoming another Nicholas Sparks? My main genre is medical thrillers, with a Christian bent. That said, Indebted remains my wife’s favorite (so far).