It was 1985, a time most people regard with apathy. We didn’t even have a generation name like most decades did. But a lot was going on. Vietnam Vets were much in the news, with talk about these wounded warriors, not called that at the time, committing suicide or having severe flashbacks and horrible nightmares. The term Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome was coined, now called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD.
So it was natural for me to feature a couple of those characters in a book I was writing. A book conceived one sunny June day as I lay on the beach at Lake Ouachita and watched some guys with motorcycles set up a tent in the camping area. What would happen if a woman decided to camp alone and got caught up in the antics of guys like these?
Characters always make my stories. So I created Mary Elizabeth, a school teacher married to an older man who totally ignored her most of the time, but insisted she take part in his fanatic religious beliefs. She finally has enough and over the school term begins to store camping equipment in the barn and clothes in a suitcase under her bed. She runs away the last day of school, just drives off, leaving a note on the table.
Then it was time to create the three motorcycle bums, as they were known in those days. Two would be wounded warriors, vets at war with each other. Buddies locked together by their acts of bravery, but bent on destruction. The other would be a young man who missed the war, but took part in the anti-war march on Washington. These three grew quickly into a trio of misfits, men who had no place to be when they returned from the war.
By throwing Liz and Steven, Lefty and Shadow together, the story took off like a runaway train. In the end, it was so long that I had to restructure and cut scenes that showed each of the character’s lives prior to what then became the beginning of the book. All those scenes had to be turned into brief backstory revealed as the plot thickened. I had no idea when I wrote the book that it would not get published for nearly 30 years. If that startles those of you only beginning your writing career, don’t let it. In the meantime I was published many times in both fiction and nonfiction, because I did not put all my faith in one book.
The book lay asleep, and in 2008 I entered it in a mainstream category at Oklahoma Writer’s Federation, Inc. conference and it not only won a first in its category, it took the best of the best that year, earning me a new agent who shopped it around NY for a year before giving up. Then last year The Wild Rose Press, a fast growing, award winning press, opened their categories to what they called Vintage books. Not historical and not contemporary, and I thought, hey, my characters have been asleep long enough, I’m going to check this out. They took the book within weeks of receiving it.
At last Liz and Steven, Lefty and Shadow, after so long lying dormant, have come back to life. And they carry the story wildly and enthusiastically to its touching end. Without those characters, who seem so alive to me, that book would never have existed. Each book I write has the same effect on me. I fall in love with my characters and live their lives with them, laughing when they laugh, crying when they cry. Oddly, I sometimes even wonder what they are up to now, for they never grow old nor leave the life I created for them. They live forever, happy and immortal.
Have you created characters who stick with you, who become living, breathing real people? Or do you approach your writing in a different way?
Once There Were Sad Songs
Blurb: 1985 – A school teacher escaping an unsatisfactory existence and a Vietnam vet on the path to destruction run headlong into each other and discover a love that changes their lives forever.
Excerpt: The damp root smell of earth, the sense of untamed wildness, propelled him back to his first year in the woods after he came out of ’Nam, his home a cave halfway up a north slope not far from here, well hidden by gigantic hickory and pin oaks. He’d spent that summer, fall, and winter in the company of ghosts of the Quapaw, the downstream people of the mighty northern Sioux. He walked with their bronzed women and handsome children, their lustful warriors, the wise and withered old men in this Arkansas land that was named for them. Their ghosts spoke to him, taught him to survive, to find peace. He thought later he might have been hallucinating on leftover LSD, yet when he studied the tribe, reading about them in the tattered pages of yard sale treasures scrounged as best he could, he found his visions to be quite close to the truth. The knowledge brought him at last to a certain serenity. Perhaps there was a higher power caring for his bruised soul. Leading him beside the still waters.
Amazed and awed, he had grown content to rest in the slanting golden rays of sunlight, immersed himself in the power of the flow of clear green water, and on occasion joined in mourning with the call of the mockingbird and whippoorwill. He existed in such a way for so long that he forgot the real world, except to pick up his check and cash it. He forgot that time passed. Then, one hot summer, temporarily insane, he crawled from his haven to join in the Atoka, Oklahoma madness of drugs and rock-and-roll and sex. He found it a disgusting and feeble attempt to recreate Woodstock, which he’d missed due to the distractions of a minor conflict in Asia, and couldn’t return to the woods soon enough.
He didn’t emerge from his wilderness retreat again until Lefty lured him out with his pleas of loneliness and approaching madness after his wife took off. It was then he learned to his great surprise that he had spent nearly seven years living in seclusion. Once out, he never went back. Someone had to keep Lefty from killing himself.
Today, he was aware that he lived in the summer of 1985 because Shadow insisted on keeping a calendar of events he deemed of importance. He packed and unpacked the thick and tattered records with a reverence he gave to nothing else. Perhaps he felt they were all he had to prove his existence.
Steven wanted no such ties, in case they bound him to some sort of reality. Anyway, that’s what he’d thought until he dragged the wet and half-drowned woman out of Lake Ouachita a few days earlier, and found himself hauled from the brink of his own mortality by her mere existence.
Negotiating a horseshoe bend in the track, he glanced upward to see her little blue car on a snakelike curve above. Following along. He hadn’t thought she would actually come this far. Perhaps he’d been testing her. Faced with the fact of her presence, he began to build a fantasy of the way it would be to have her with them. He was suddenly as excited as a child awaiting his birthday, forgetting what often happened after the party was over, the ice cream eaten and cake crumbs scattered all over the place. Only a mess to clean up.
FREE on Kindle – January 7-January 11, 2014
Once There Were Sad Songs: http://amzn.com/B00G8H2TEO
Bio: This busy writer has co-chaired a large critique group for the past 25 years, a group that has turned out many published authors. She lives and works in the Ozarks of Arkansas and has 18 published books in both the fiction and nonfiction field. All are available at Amazon and on Kindle. She concentrates now on fiction. From western historical romance to mysteries to women’s fiction, she runs the gamut and continues to enjoy writing, declaring that she will remain at the keyboard as long as her brain allows, turning out books in several genres. Velda lives with her husband of 60 years, has two children, three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren and enjoys her family immensely.
1 thought on “Characters Make the Story – Guest Post by Velda Brotherton, Author of Once There Were Sad Songs”
Babette, Thanks so much for hosting me here. Sorry we didn’t get any comments but I’m sure there were some hits anyway. You have a beautiful blog. Best of luck with your writing.