Our mothers told us to clean our room, put stuff we weren’t using away, and throw/give away stuff we no longer use.
The same thing holds true with authors. Everything we see, every fragment of conversation we overhear is material. Sometimes it finds its way whole into a bit of prose or a poem. Sometimes it influences a scene. Sometimes it just plain old doesn’t fit and retreats into the parking lot where it waits for the right place to reemerge.
My novel, Out of the Desert, is saturated with just such bits. A few years ago, I published a story about a woman who had named her breasts before she had a double mastectomy. It was light-hearted, if ever that topic can be light-hearted. I needed a powerful scene between two estranged sisters. How to get them back together after a twenty-year separation. Recycling the long short story into a five page scene did the trick.
I wondered how I would end the novel. It had to have a positive ending. It had to answer one of the key questions asked near the end by the main character. I searched the parking lot for ideas. What did my eye fall upon except a small character sketch I called “The Greeter.”
Several years ago, my husband and I made the trip between northern Virginia and Smith Mountain Lake about twice a month. When we drove in daylight, we were overjoyed to see a man standing in a cross-over, waving to the passing cars, and grinning widely. We nicknamed him the greeter. As time passed, the greeter grew older and was in the cross-over less often, until one day he wasn’t there any longer.
My husband and I made up stories about his life. We wondered if he was a retired veteran. That idea fit with what we wanted him to be. We wove tales around his life. We made up names, a backstory, and an ending. I jotted these down in a file called “The Greeter.” When it came time to write the last story, I gave my main character a greeter who’d waved at him when he was a teen. I gave the main character an interest in the man, a curiosity to learn about the man’s backstory. I gave the main character permission to write about this humble in glorious prose.
I gave myself permission to recycle the greeter’s story in the final passage of the novel. Due out later this year, I hope you remember the path the greeter traveled to appear in the final movement of Out of the Desert.