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 Elle Cosimano, whose debut, Nearly Gone, was a 2015 Edgar Award finalist and winner of the International Thriller Award. She is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, Mystery Writers of America, International Thriller Writers, Horror Writers Association, and Sisters In Crime. She was selected for the 2012 Nevada SCBWI Agented & Published Authors’ Mentorship Program, where she worked under the guidance of Ellen Hopkins.
Her newest release, The Suffering Tree, is available today!
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?
Back in September of 2010, I chaperoned my youngest son’s kindergarten field trip to a local apple orchard. I had just finished drafting my very first book. This was a few months before I’d found an agent and knew I would have a career as an author, but my mind must have been hungry, already searching for that next potential story. As the school bus rattled down a winding country road, I caught a glimpse of an old, private cemetery in the middle of a grassy field. It was little more than a small ring of leaning headstones under a dying tree.
The image struck me hard and the memory of it stayed with me for days. The fields along that stretch of road were lush with soybeans and corn, almost ready for harvest. The trees surrounding those fields were dense and high and emerald green everywhere you looked. But that field . . . Under that tree was a circle of weeds and dying grass. It was as if nothing wanted to live near those headstones. The tree itself looked like it had died a long time ago. The bark had already mostly peeled away and the branches were bleached white by the sun. I started wondering what had sucked all the life from that tree and the ground around those graves. I started wondering who was buried there.
A few days later, I drove back to the field with my camera. I walked through the cemetery, trying to read the names and dates on the stones. They were old and worn thin, covered in moss. Some had heaved up and others leaned as if they’d fall over. The tree and that ring of fallow ground, felt so grossly out of place in that sunny, green field. And all those questions—who lived here before, who died here, who lived here now and did they also feel out of place somehow—became the seed for the rest of the story.
Once the original concept existed, how did you build a plot around it?
I always start with character. Going into it, I knew I was telling two stories—the story of the person who was buried under the tree, and the story of the person who lived on this farm now. So I started by creating those people (their lives, their circumstances, the struggle that brought their stories together) first. I had to figure out who each of the characters were, and how they both ended up here, in this cemetery, on this farm, in the same moment in time.
I started with Nathaniel Bishop, kidnapped as a child from the streets of England in the 1690s and sold illegally into a seven-year indenture into the Maryland tobacco colonies to the unscrupulous and violent owner of a tobacco plantation. From there, I had to figure out how he died, what his connection was to that tree, and what reason would he have for coming back from the grave.
Then came my present day story. Who would find Nathaniel when he emerged? Why was she there? What connected their backstories? What was their shared objective? What did they most yearn for and why? And that’s where Tori Burns’ story was born—a modern day high school student struggling with depression and self-harm and the death of a parent, and her ensuing move to a strange farm and the mysterious inheritance of a home and cemetery there.
Have you ever had the plot firmly in place, only to find it changing as the story moved from your mind to paper?
I think my plots are always a moving target. I know my beginning and I usually have a hazy destination in mind for the end. But the middles are often a mystery to me, and I have to write my way through them. Often more than once. Sometimes more than twice. Revision is usually where I uncover the truth in my stories. The theme and the threads all seem to make themselves known at the end of that first draft, and come together as I begin to tinker with it.
Do story ideas come to you often, or is fresh material hard to come by?
I always have at least three of four unexplored story ideas floating around my mind. A moment, a picture, a conversation, or a place will inspire an idea that becomes the seed. It grows into a scene in my mind, and eventually an idea for a story. And each one nags at me until I start hashing it out and start putting it down on paper.
How do you choose which story to write next, if you’ve got more than one percolating?
It’s usually the one that’s nagging the loudest. Once I clearly hear the character’s voice in my head, and picture at least one scene that sets the mood and the tone of the story, I’m off and running on that one, and the others have to sit quiet for a while.
2016 was not an easy year. Do you draw any inspiration from the world around you, or do you use writing as pure escapism?
This book was mostly written before 2016 began, but I do think there are some relevant themes and ideas running through it, namely the corrosive effects of hidden prejudices and latent bigotries, everyday racism and sexism that goes unnoticed or unchecked. How fear and greed can make us want to demonize others, twist the facts or bury the truth about ourselves when it doesn’t suit our own ends. And how the damage can rise up and haunt us over generations, until we’re finally forced to confront our ugliest fears and dredge up our deepest secrets.
I guess you could say I write for escapism. Because I love making up and telling tales. But my stories are alive and my characters are real to me. They breathe and they bleed, and there’s a whisper of our own world blowing through all of them.