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 Emily Ross, author of HALF IN LOVE WITH DEATH, for which she received a 2014 Massachusetts Cultural Council finalist award in fiction. Her fiction and nonfiction have been published in Boston Magazine, Menda City Review, and The Smoking Poet. She is an editor and contributor at Dead Darlings, a website dedicated to discussing the craft of novel writing. She attended Sarah Lawrence College and the University of Massachusetts Boston, and is a 2012 graduate of Grub Street’s Novel Incubator program.
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?
Yes I do. I was having trouble plotting my novel when my sister suggested I turn to a true crime for inspiration and not just any crime. She confided in me that when she was 12 she’d been obsessed with the case of Charles Schmid, ‘the Pied Piper of Tucson.’ Schmid was a charismatic young man who murdered three teenage girls, and buried them in the Arizona desert. Two of his victims were sisters. I was surprised to be hearing about this crime that took place in the sixties, for the first time now from my own sister. I had to look deeper into this case.
I learned that Schmid had been very popular with Tucson teens and had lots of girlfriends. Some of the material about him read more like an episode of Gossip Girl, than the thoughts of a serial killer. Photos from an old Life Magazine article from 1966 showed him to be a handsome guy who didn’t look like a murderer. In fact he didn’t look all that different from kids I’d hung out with in high school. One of the many aspects of this case that disturbed me was that some of Schmid’s friends had known about the murders and didn’t tell anyone. I began thinking about how little I understood about my own friends as a teen, and how blindly I’d counted on love to solve everything. Slowly a story emerged about secrets, lies, and a girl who falls for someone who may not be what he seems.
Once the original concept existed, how did you build a plot around it?
Researching this crime gave me a broad arc for my story and a sense of events that could happen. It also helped me to develop my main characters. I decided to tell the story from the point of view of a girl whose older sister goes missing, and based my protagonist loosely on Wendy Fritz, Schmid’s youngest victim. I was drawn to a photo I found of her. She looked so innocent and uncertain, and reminded me of myself at that age. Other than this photo though there was almost no information on her. Ultimately this turned out to be a good thing because it freed me to tell a story that was quite different from the case. But I didn’t leave my original concept entirely behind. I wove many details from the crime into my book, sometimes without even realizing it.
Have you ever had the plot firmly in place, only to find it changing as the story moved from your mind to paper?
I usually don’t start with the plot firmly in place. I wish I did. Rather I have a vague idea of the major plot points and the ending, but things change a lot as I write a draft. I’m okay with that as long as I keep heading in the right general direction. But revising my novel was a painful process with lots of wrong turns. For my next novel I’d like to have the plot firmly in place before I start. We’ll see…
Do story ideas come to you often, or is fresh material hard to come by?
A lot of vague story ideas float through my mind but they’re more like bits of a story, a line, an image, a voice. Sometimes when I write it feels like I'm making a collage out of all these little pieces of things. I have to figure out what connects them and how they fit together, but I usually don't start to see the connections until I’m well into a draft. Even then I stumble around in the dark hoping that a story will emerge from all the bits and pieces. The strange thing is that it often does.
How do you choose which story to write next, if you’ve got more than one percolating?
I’m pretty indecisive so choosing what to write next is hard for me. Right now I have two novel ideas bouncing around in my head. One is about a teenage girl who aspires to be a video game designer. It will require a lot of research, since I don’t even play video games. The other is about dance teams, something I’m a little more familiar with. To help myself decide I often just start writing to see if the idea holds my interest. If I find myself writing lots of pages, that’s usually the story I choose to write next. If that doesn’t work I have also been known to arbitrarily choose one of my ideas and force myself to stick with it for a while to see if I can make it work.
Sometimes the perfect word eludes me. If I can’t come up with it in the moment I usually write something in ALL CAPS like A GREAT WORD HERE and move on to catch it later in revision. Do you roll with the flow, or go find that word right away?
I’m a bit obsessive so I try to find the word right away. I look it up in an online thesaurus or Google things like word for [fill in vague phrase]. But I rarely find the perfect word that way so then I do my best to roll with flow (difficult as that is), and add a comment in my draft that says, COME BACK. Usually the word will come to me later when I’m in the shower or at the grocery store or in some other awkward situation that makes it difficult to write it down.