How was it getting the research? Well, it was a lot of things, including enlightening, overwhelming, intimidating and creatively constipating.
Aside from social dancing, my dance experience consists of a couple years of tap lessons, way back before fifth grade. I basically went into this story having to learn everything—or so I thought. I read nonfiction books on dancers in transition and a handful of memoirs. I watched endless YouTube videos and Googled until my fingers were nearly numb.
For awhile, I creatively constipated myself with the dichotomy of too much knowledge that was also never enough. I convinced myself that the one true thing I knew for sure was that even though Sasha showed up in my head; a professional dancer should be the one to tell her story.
But I had a contract and a deadline. So now what?
After weeks of doing nothing other than more research and fretting, one day a powerfully quickened image of Sasha came to me. She was sitting in a rocking chair with a beautiful shawl wrapped around her shoulders. She was already injured, which is not how I thought the story would begin. I said to myself, you’re mostly Irish, you’re a storyteller. Just start there. Trust what you’ve taken in already. Watch her closely, listen, pay attention …
As soon as I set my hands on the keyboard to describe the vision of her in that chair, I could feel her pain and regret. Yet when she slipped into a memory of a specific moment on stage, I was there with her too.
Once I began to write, the story unfolded in amazing ways. I had to remember that my job wasn’t to teach everyone about the professional life of a dancer. It was to tell a good story about Sasha’s life, then, of course, Evelyn too.
Afterward, I had the book vetted by a couple dancers, to make sure I didn’t dishonor the profession with inaccuracies.
I feel extremely close to both Sasha and Evelyn. I wish I could run next door to visit them, drink iced tea, learn what’s new in their lives. It was difficult to leave them at The End.
While chasing their story—and writing as fast as I could to keep up with their unfolding lives--I cried with them, laughed with them, felt their frustrations, rode the waves of their highs and lows. I sometimes even YELLED at them when I could see their stubborn mistakes taking a toll, or leading them down a wrong path. Luckily, they were both headstrong and had a right to their own mistakes.
The emotions of their most gut-wrenching torments were so relatable. (Why is it, I wondered, we so often hurt the ones who love us the most?) Then, their bright moments arrived with such sparkle and shine, the redemption was palpable. Isn’t God good to keep extending us grace?!
Specific Sasha closeness:
Although I’ve not suffered her same type of injury), I have twice broken my leg. It’s incredible how quickly your life can change. One minute you’re running down the stairs, and the next … Pain. Anger. Reliance on another for the simplest things. It’s a terrible struggle to regain both your physical and emotional strength, especially in your darkest hours.
Also, I must confess that my own stubborn pride sometimes keeps me from what’s best, not only for myself, but for those around me. L Pride is so blinding and misleading. Pride is a very bad guide.
Specific Evelyn closeness:
I’ve been her age. I was attracted to a couple Bad Boys. I remember the lure of lust.
I was blessed by a special closeness with my father. I loved fishing with him. Writing the scenes about Evelyn and her dad and fishing made me feel close to my dad, who’s been gone since 1998.
Like Evelyn, I usually look for the Bright Side of things, unless I’m tired, and then I’m just cranky. Evelyn is a great study in optimism.
Don’t misunderstand: It’s not that I’ve lived their scenarios, or that these are MY stories. Goodness not! But I could relate, especially to the emotions. Their duo definitely highlights the gift and goodness of friends who stick with us. Great lessons from those two, whom I’d like to publicly thank for showing up in my head!
I can do you one better! I can let you watch and hear about it, straight from my lips...
I never decide to add anything, unless it’s a specific detail an editor wants after a first read. The characters decide. Show me. Lead me.
I refer to myself as a story chaser. In other words, I don’t outline. I write by the seat of my pants. I write about the events as they unfold in my head. I start with a character and a dilemma.
When Sasha showed up, I wondered, What comes next for someone in this position? Does she even know who she is after she lost her career? After all, one thing I’d learned to be true: the life of dance is all consuming!
Perhaps, in part, these questions were spurred on by Divine Appointments, the book I wrote just before this. One of those themes was how we deal with unemployment, how we handle losing our work identities. To add a physical distress to that? Unimaginable—or was it?
Sasha came to me and demanded I tell her story. Pretty much the only things I intuitively knew about her were that she’d been a world renowned dancer, that she’d suffered a career-ending injury, and that she was isolated. To be honest, I wasn’t sure she had a love interest, let alone the likes of Donald Major, a man who adored her, and who suffered his own torment after the accident. The man who’d held her in a lift when the accident took place.
As for Evelyn and Jordan, when I sat down and began writing, I didn’t even know Evelyn was IN the story! Both she and her love interest were a surprise to me. However, I learned about her fiancé in the first chapter when she kept flashing her engagement ring around. J
Evelyn’s “love story” was an interesting one to follow. I remember telling friends at the end of a writing day, “Wow. I STILL have no idea about the integrity of this shady kind of guy!”
I loved getting to know Burt Burt while writing Stray Affections. Readers adored Burt too. (YAY!) He’s a quirky butcher with a fun sense of humor and a giant heart. (Evelyn’s positivity is so much like her grandpa’s.) His love story in Stray Affections was so … tender and dear. It was so honestly good to “see” him again, to get to hang with him, watch him at work, wielding a clever, slicing meat and serving samples of his special Burt’s Durves. And loving. Burt loves so very well.
Before starting this series, I wrote the Dearest Dorothy series. In some ways, Burt Burt reminds me of Arthur Landers, although Arthur was much more of a trouble maker, someone who liked to stir up the pot. But they both have such wonderful big hearts and great humor. I’ve always loved working with male characters.
First of all, since I am by no means a “preachy” storyteller, thank you for noticing the evidence of Grace. It is my heart’s desire to entertain, yes, but also to send hope and love into the world via the power of story. And to extend grace. YAY!
Madeleine L’Engle once wrote that her stories were smarter than she was. I know exactly what she meant. Stories better illustrate grace than any amount of preaching I could deliver, so I let them lead.
Having said that, I cannot write about what I do not know. As a Christian, I know grace. Grace is everything. Grace can’t be earned. In other words, it isn’t my striving that “makes grace happen.” It isn’t because I’m a “good girl” that God showers me with grace and covers my every mucky mess with love. Rather it’s because I’m such a mess, and because God loves me so, that God saw fit to save me from myself.
Every day, the more aware I become of how inadequate I am in so very many ways, how short I fall from getting things right, it grows more remarkable to me that God loves me. When I watch the news, I think, And God is present in that too, mourning, holding, hearing, guiding …
I wouldn’t be who I am without the presence of God’s grace. Like Eleanor said the first time she prayed over dinner, “Grace. Amen.” When Sasha questioned if that was the entire prayer, Eleanor responded, “What else do we need or need to remember?”