Inspiration is a funny thing. It can come to us like a lightning bolt, through the lyrics of a song, or in the fog of a dream. Ask any writer where their stories come from and you’ll get a myriad of answers, and in that vein I created the WHAT (What the Hell Are you Thinking?) interview. Always including in the WHAT is one random question to really dig down into the interviewees mind, and probably supply some illumination into my own as well.
Today’s guest for the WHAT is Samantha Hastings, who has degrees from Brigham Young University, the University of Reading (Berkshire, England), and the University of North Texas. The Last Word is her debut novel.
Ideas for our books can come from just about anywhere, and sometimes even we can’t pinpoint exactly how or why. Did you have a specific origin point for your book?
I was living in Reading, England and attending graduate school there. I began reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters—a very thick Victorian novel. I was almost to the end of the book and I started to get concerned; instead of wrapping up plotlines, it continued to spin new ones. Then I turned the last page and there was a note from her editor saying that the author had died. The editor assured the reader that the two main characters did eventually get together, but I didn’t get to read it happening. I was so disappointed. I had no idea that the book was unfinished when I started reading it. And I wondered how Elizabeth Gaskell’s original fans felt never being able to read the last words of her book. Especially, after reading it serially for two whole years!
In The Last Word, my main character, Lucinda Leavitt, has a similar experience when her favorite author, Mrs. Smith, dies before finishing the serialized version of her book. Mrs. Smith’s editor does not tell the reader how the love triangle worked out. Lucinda sets out to find out who Mrs. Smith really was and how she would have finished her story.
Once the original concept existed, how did you build a plot around it?
The plot was the hard part! It took me fifteen years before I had a story to tell with my original idea. Mrs. Smith, the dead authoress, at the beginning of the story is an anonymous person. Lucinda Leavitt doesn’t even know her first name or anything about who she was, where she lived, her family, etc. Lucinda only has one clue to find her and that’s the last address where the publisher sent her royalties.
Have you ever had the plot firmly in place, only to find it changing as the story moved from your mind to paper?
Definitely. The more research that I do about a historical era, the more the time period itself becomes a character. The clothes, food, transportation, historical events, all seem to find a way into the story, which alters the plotline. The plot for me is always a puzzle and piecing it together is what makes writing so much fun—and really hard.
Do story ideas come to you often, or is fresh material hard to come by?
I have more ideas than I do manuscripts. I find inspiration for “fresh material” by reading nonfiction books about people or time periods. I typically like to hone in on unique people and lesser known historical events.
How do you choose which story to write next, if you’ve got more than one percolating?
This happens to me all of the time. Sometimes it feels like having to pick a favorite among your children. It’s difficult. How I ultimately decide on one, is the idea that is keeping me up at night thinking about it. That idea always becomes my next project.
I have 5 cats (seriously, check my Instagram feed) and I usually have at least one or two snuggling with me when I write. Do you have a writing buddy, or do you find it distracting?
I’m allergic to pet dander—I can’t breathe and I get all covered in spots. So, my writing buddies are Skinny Pop popcorn and Diet Dr. Pepper.