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 is Sandra Waugh, author of LARK RISING. Sandra grew up in an old house full of crowded bookshelves, in walking distance of an old library that allowed her to drag home a sack of six books at a time. It goes without saying, then, that she fell in love with the old house in Litchfield County, CT, because of its many bookshelves, and she lives there now with her husband, two sons, and a dog who snores. Loudly.
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?
A hawk alighted on my porch railing, prompting the first pages. I’d been toying for a while with an idea sparked by a walk through a marsh near our home—a girl’s journey—but the who and why were intangible threads. When the hawk visited, a friend called it auspicious and somewhere soon after that I sat down and started writing. I had no idea where it would go but Lark was suddenly there, shy and timid and burdened with her gift. (The marsh, on the other hand, waited for Book 2.)
Once the original concept existed how did you build a plot around it?
The rest of the story evolved while mowing the lawn. We have a large field bordered by woods, which I mow with a small, walk-behind mower. This is insanely effort-ful, as the guys at the True Value hardware store enjoy reminding me when I bring the mower for repairs. But I like it—I watch all the life going on around the property and listen to the stories in my head. So: I would say that plant and creature showed me the way into this fantasy—my own backyard inspiring Lark’s gardens, her fence, Dark Wood, ghisane, hawk, fox and hare. LARK RISING is a lot about Nature—both its fragility and its tenacity.
Have you ever had the plot firmly in place only to find it changing as the story moved from your mind to paper?
Since I am a ‘seat of the pants’ or ‘free’ writer I can’t say I’ve ever had a plot firmly in place, more like a beginning, end and a few points, or beats I want to hit. How I get there is fairly fluid and of course the challenge. Characters change, though. Some who I determined as hugely important recede and some who I assumed extraneous suddenly become integral to the plot. I find that amazing. I’d heard authors talk of characters wresting control of the work, and it’s true—they really do take on a life of their own.
Do story ideas come to you often, or is fresh material hard to come by?
Material exists everywhere. A gum wrapper spied in a gutter can be the beginning of an incredible story. There is a beautiful scene in Out of Africa where (Meryl Streep as) Isak Dinesen is challenged to weave a story from nothing—she can, of course, and enraptures her dinner companions. Moments or images or phrases pop into my head, leading to a thread of a story. And then I sort of wait… let more threads filter in… and start to weave.
How do you choose which story to write next, if you’ve got more than one percolating?
The one that keeps coming back to haunt me is the one I have to take on. It’s not always the one that I ‘should’ be working on.
If you spill candle wax on something, should you try to clean it, or is this a cut your losses type of situation?
This is a trick question, right?
I had a photographer boyfriend once who assisted at a shoot where some priceless antique table was being used for the set—one of those ‘on pain of death do you let anything happen to it’ events. And then, gasp, candle wax accidentally dripped on the table. Panic set in, a myriad of helpers went to work with all kinds of cleaners and solutions to remove it, which only succeeded in marring the poor table. Honestly, if they’d just waited a few moments for the wax to harden, they could have pried it off with a fingernail. So, my answer is: I wouldn’t cut my losses with something akin to candle wax. Patience is huge. Sometimes you are writing something that turns hideous. Put it away, let it simmer, or forget about it for a while. When you return you may realize there’s just a tiny bit of scraping to do to reveal its original beauty.