Today I welcome another agency mate (Erin Murphy Literary Agency), Janet Fox. Take it away Janet!
As with everything I write, the characters come first. I start hearing the voices of my main characters in my head, and they prompt me to think about their story. Often I write many pages of draft material before I step back and create a structure for the plot. My ugly first drafts are superficial templates, but at some point after getting that first draft on paper I need to dig for deeper meaning, for something that will elevate the story to extraordinary.
This novel's deeper meaning did not emerge easily. I loved the characters and I was having fun with the plot but it skimmed the surface like a water bug. There was no depth to the story, no layers, no nuance.
The 1920s research I did wasn't much help. Gangsters, gun molls, Prohibition, speakeasies - all the usual suspects wearing all the usual tropes. I was looking for something else, an aspect of the 1920s that would tie into my plot wherein my 17-year-old protagonist Jo believed that her brother, missing since shortly after coming home from World War 1, was alive when the evidence suggested he was dead.
It was midwinter, and we were living in our Montana cabin in the mountains at the time, and our evening entertainment was listening to the radio. I was fixing dinner when a newly published book was featured: a biography of the magician Howard Thurston, popular in the 1920s and a rival and friend of Harry Houdini. Magic. Spiritualism, A belief in the afterlife (or not - Harry was a skeptic). Girls who magically vanished from coffin-like boxes. Girls who were made to float mysteriously above the magician's head. Posters of tiny dancing devils and flickery ghosts.
Ghosts. Spiritualism. I knew I had found my hook to deeper meaning. Jo believed her brother was alive, and so she saw him repeatedly; was he a ghost? Jo's friend and foil, gangster's moll Lou, lived with the threat of death hovering like a specter. The gangster, my antagonist, was possibly responsible for the deadly Wall Street bombing of 1920. The Great War and the influenza epidemic of the nineteen-teens cast long and deadly shadows over the twenties.
There are no stakes in a story greater than death. In fact, James Scott Bell (Conflict and Suspense, among others) maintains, and I believe he's right, that the stakes in all stories should be death: physical death, psychological death, and/or professional death. Even a category romance contains the psychological death of the romantic dream; a literary novel might contain the death of the main character's professional goals; mysteries and thrillers contain threats of physical death. With death stakes in SIRENS that were both physical (the mystery surrounding Jo's brother; Lou's threatening relationship) and psychological (the romance between Jo and jazz musician Charlie) I could incorporate the preoccupation with Spiritualism that pervaded the 1920s and express my theme of survival of the spirit through love.
Janet's studio - notice her treadmill desk.
Each time I approach a new story I search for something extraordinary. Sometimes the extraordinary arrives in the form of a place, as in the Yellowstone of FAITHFUL; sometimes it arrives in the form of a social conflict, as in the Chinese slaves in FORGIVEN. In the case of SIRENS it was Spiritualism, and I discovered it by listening to the radio on a snowy January night. My advice? Be open to the possibilities. Listen for the whispers of ideas that may float through voices in the air. The extraordinary is everywhere.
Janet Fox writes award-winning fiction and non-fiction for children of all ages. Her 2010 young adult debut novel, FAITHFUL, was an Amelia Bloomer List pick, and was followed in 2011 by a companion novel, FORGIVEN, a Junior Library Guild selection and WILLA Literary Award Finalist. Her newest YA novel, SIRENS launched in November 2012; the Kirkus reviewer said in part, "SIRENS is a celebration of girl power, sisterhood, and hope for the future." Janet is a 2010 graduate of the MFA/Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts and a former high school English teacher. Janet and her family live in Bozeman, Montana, where they enjoy the mountain vistas.
Janet has kindly agreed to give away a free, signed copy of SIRENS to one of my lucky commenters. Must live in the US or Canada to win - enter below.
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Oh, I know Janet! And I know she's a wonderful writer! AND I love that time period, especially the Spiritualism element brought into SIRENS. So I kinda need to win this book, okay? :-)
Aw, Cathy, you are so sweet!! Thanks!
Ooh, this sounds so good, and I lived hearing the backstory. Thanks, Janet and Elizabeth!
Thank you so much, Laurie!
I always enjoy hearing and reading about other writers' processes toward creating a story. And I like your idea that some type of death is always the price in a story that compels the reader to move forward along with the characters. I think that is where the depth of the story comes in. Thank you so much for sharing. Sirens sounds like a great premise. Can't wait to read it.
Thanks so very much, Glenda!
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