The Writing of Fish Heads
When I was seven years old, I was asked—as are many kids who are this age—what I wanted to be when I grew up. My answer came easily and with no necessary contemplation; I wanted to be a mom and I wanted to write books. I have two remarkable kids, and three months ago, I published my fifteenth novel. Plans for one’s future don’t always tend to pan out. Perhaps had I aspired to become an astronaut or a neurosurgeon, I’d feel a sense of disappointment, but I was never meant for space exploration or the medical world, and though different, I feel as though my goals were just as valuable.
I was pretty smart for a seven-year-old. I wasn’t nearly as smart as Louis, though. In case you don’t know who Louis is, allow me to fill you in …
Last May, a little blond-haired, blue-eyed boy with a knack for getting himself into trouble pushed his way into my life. He turned out to be a character in a book I had no idea I was going to write, and he had a story to tell me I never dreamed of hearing. I’m fairly certain my son Scott brought this precocious and incredibly lovable child into my life, although I’m equally certain it wasn’t intentional.
You see, I hadn’t written much in more than a year. If you don’t know me well, you might not realize how serious a thing that is. As I mentioned before, writing has always been a very important, very foundational thing in my life. The act of putting pen to paper – or words on a screen – has carried me through some very dark places. In 2021, I endured three serious wrist and hand surgeries that left me physically unable to type. All the medication I’d been prescribed to combat the pain of the injury plus the added discomfort caused by the operations left my brain a bit like mush. I found I couldn’t form thoughts and ideas like I once had, and my memory—something others remarked on often and something I’ve always taken great pride in—had been dulled and, to a large degree, disabled. I had grown so frustrated both physically and mentally that I was afraid I may never write again. That thought terrified me and made me overwhelmingly sad.
My whole family knew I was struggling. I’m not convinced they knew how scared I was that words might not come back to me. They’ve told me many times they always knew I would write again. I think they thought I felt the same way. I didn’t. I desperately wanted to, but the truth is, I was beginning to lose hope. I was so afraid I’d never get it back again. They had a lot more faith in me than I did.
During a trip to Barnes & Noble, Scotty and I found ourselves perusing a large assortment of books full of writing prompts. It was decided between the two of us that we’d each choose a book and work on the prompts together. Scotty, an incredible writer in his own right, was trying to give me a jump start. He was trying to give me a push. He did, but it happened differently than he thought it might.
The books proved unhelpful. The one I chose had a writing prompt for every day of the year. One asked me to write a crime fiction story that begins with a blind date. Another one said to create a stand-up comedy routine on the subject of death. The ideas were imaginative and unusual and should have sparked some sort of desire to create in me. None of them did. I even searched through the book trying to find a particular prompt that might light a fire beneath my creativity. Forget about flames or the tiniest hint of a spark. I couldn’t even conjure a wisp of smoke.
Then I remembered something else I had tucked away in a box of games that sat on a shelf in my office. I pulled out three sets of Rory’s Story Cubes. I don’t remember when I got them really. I homeschooled my kids for fourteen years, and I was always collecting games and interesting things to help me teach in new and different ways. They were developed as a game for families and for teachers to use in the classroom. (I have no affiliation with them. This isn’t an advertisement, but I will include a link to their web page in case anyone is curious.) The company that makes them has many sets, including one based on Harry Potter. I own the Classic set, Voyages and Actions. During gameplay, someone throws the dice, and the first player begins a story with, “Once upon a time …” Everyone takes a turn being the narrator, and all the players come up with a story together. I’m not sure what I thought might come of pulling these three little boxes out of their bin, but each one of us picked a set and decided to play.
When I tossed my nine dice on the kitchen counter and saw the images on them, something clicked. It wasn’t more than a few seconds that passed before images began flooding my head. We didn’t play the game the way the original directions told us to. The story that took shape in my head did so quickly. It was almost as though I already knew it and the pictures on the dice reminded me of it. I picked each one of them up and began telling the tale while Scotty watched.
When I’d put the ninth die in place, I looked up and met his eyes. He shook his head, gave me a quiet laugh and said, “Damn. That sounds like a book to me.”
My creativity had been poked, and to my surprise —and happy relief—it had only been sleeping. It had been, perhaps, seriously wounded, but not mortally as I’d feared. Something about those cubes—and the persistence of my son—somehow not only lit that stubborn fire but turned those hesitant flames into a raging inferno. I hadn’t felt that compelled to tell a story in … well, honestly, I’d never felt like that before. I’ve been driven to write on countless occasions. I’d written many, many stories up until that time, and had my name on fourteen novels. There has always been a drive to write, and some books have been written much faster than others. But the act of writing Fish Heads was something so different, so unique, so extraordinary that I’m still floored by it. I hit “publish” three and a half months ago, and the experience still feels almost unreal. Unbelievable. Magical.
Some books seem to have a life of their own. I’ve experienced that a handful of times. For instance, when I wrote my second novel, Alabama Skye, I wanted to write about the special bond shared between a girl and her grandmother. The premise was based on my own relationship with my Mimi, and one of the themes in the book had to do with Alzheimer’s. I finished the book, and I was immensely pleased with it. I’d accomplished what I’d set out to do with it, and I still love that story. But then my readers told me they didn’t think the story was finished. (I didn’t really know I actually had readers back then, so this was both surprising and exciting.) They wanted to find out more about some of the other characters in that book, the ones that weren’t really the focus of the story. That’s how A Skye Full of Stars came about. I began writing more of the Gannon family story, and a second and a third book was created. (A fourth book is coming as well.) Stars is one of my favorite books, and I never had any intention of writing it. I’ve always been grateful that I listened to those who told me they wanted more because without them, I never would have created The Gannon Family Series, or what readers call “the Skye books”.
When two of my best author friends suggested writing an anthology together at the beginning of 2019, I was intrigued by their idea of creating a fictional town and writing separate stories that would be woven into the fabric of other stories written by authors we chose to join us. That gave me an opportunity to write about three fictional people who had been hanging around my brain for years, but who I hadn’t yet given voice to. Turns out, they were just waiting to settle into a little town on the coast of North Carolina with a haunted lighthouse and an old bar that hosts a fish fry on Friday nights before they decided to tell their story. That third character, who wasn’t the main emphasis of the first story I wrote, turned out to be a little more vocal than I imagined. So much so that I decided she needed to be able to tell her own story, and she wound up with her own book. She demanded it, and honestly, who was I to deny her?
And then there was that quiet, unassuming character … the one who seemed a bit wishy-washy … a second banana to other, let’s say more colorful personalities. He was always likable, and very valuable to the tale, but no one—including me—expected much out of him. That was until he surprised us all by presenting some unforeseen cliffhanger in nearly every single book in my Goddess of Tornado Alley series. I’m in the process of writing book four, and he’s right at the center of it. I’ve been asked if there will be a book five. My answer? I’m not sure. You’ll have to ask Charlie. (It just goes to show that you need to watch out for the quiet ones. They’re usually the ones who are calling all the shots.)
Yes, stories have a way of letting me know when they need to be told. And, yes, some characters are pushier or louder than others. I’m used to that. Hell, I’m grateful for that. When I’m lucky, I have those really amazing writing days where the plot takes off and all the ideas and the dialogue hit just right. But what happened with Fish Heads was much more than that.
I know my imagination created Louis. Scotty inspired him, but he isn’t Scotty. Throughout the entire book are sprinkled characters inspired by real-life people. That’s normal to not just my books but books in general. That’s how writing works oftentimes. I know this story came from the recesses of my brain. Of course I do, but it still doesn’t feel like I was the one who came up with it. Once I put together the skeleton of the plot from the images on those dice, it feels as though the tale was not so much created, but that it already existed, and that Louis and Jillian were only waiting to share it with me. As soon as I became aware that there was a story, I was held captive by it, and these two characters—people, really, because they feel as though they are not made up … that they actually exist—came to me to tell me what had happened in their lives so that I could write it all down and share it. I wasn’t driven to write Fish Heads. Instead, it feels as though Louis and Jillian showed up when it was time for me to tell their story, and I was pushed along at a fevered pace to include all of the details and to do it as quickly as I could. I was even compelled to draw a portrait of Jillian—which is something else that I’ve never done while in the middle of writing a novel. It was almost as if it was important to her that I understood exactly what she looked like. I needed to know the shape of her eyes, the exact pattern of freckles spattered across her nose and cheekbones, the form of her lips. None of that will mean a thing to any of you who haven’t already read the novel … but will probably make sense to those of you who have.
Louis and Jillian were my constant companions while I wrote. From start to finish this book took me nine weeks to complete. That’s unheard of for me. I didn’t write that quickly before I had all the surgeries on my wrist and hand, and if I’d been asked after having all of those procedures if I thought it was possible for me to write a 70,000-word novel in nine weeks, I would have laughed and said the notion was insane. Louis and Jillian were insistent, however. I thought about them and the story they were telling me constantly. I fell asleep thinking about them, dreamt about them, woke up with them in my brain. When I was away from the computer, my hands itched to be on the keys … even though my right hand throbbed and I could barely use my fingers. Writing this novel consumed me, both physically and mentally. I was overtaken by it and knew that I couldn’t stop until I’d finished.
In those nine weeks it took me to write Fish Heads, a lot of other things took place. Days after the idea presented itself, I found myself in the ER. I was dangerously sick and wound up in emergency surgery. Two weeks later, I was having surgery again. I kept writing. I designed the cover—I’ve always done all my own covers—and drew Jillian’s portrait. And I kept writing. I set up the preorder on Amazon, got in touch with my beta reading group, wrote the synopsis and put most of my marketing into place. And I kept writing. We even adopted two small kittens, went through a bout of Covid, and prepared for a weekend of camping with my parents, and through it all, I just kept writing. Louis and Jillian were relentless. They were undeterred by the current events in my real life. This book was going to be written, and I was the one who was going to write it, no matter what other things were going on. Like I mentioned before, it was extraordinary. I may not be lucky enough to have this experience again, but I’m sure as hell glad I got it at least once.
I am now writing again on a much more regular basis. I am working on a new mystery series and hope to have four of the books published by the end of 2023. Things seem a little more … normal. I use that word only because I can’t really come up with one that’s better. Normal. What does that mean, really? I think a person’s normal is always in flux. It’s fluid and always changing. I will never write exactly the way I did before the events of the last two years. I am a different person now than I was then, and my process is totally different. Having said that, though, I also need to say that this new book—the way it feels to sit and write and research and put words down—feels a bit more familiar. The characters are mine. I know I created them, and I’m getting to know them slowly and how they interact with one another. They didn’t just show up, already formed, with a story they desperately needed to tell me.
Fish Heads belongs to Scotty. Somehow, without even realizing he’d done it, I think he found Louis and Jillian for me. I’m not sure how, and I’m not sure another pair like them will ever exist for me again, but I absolutely love this book. I love all of the stories I’ve written, but this one is special. I am incredibly proud of this one. I’ve entered it into a worldwide competition called Best Indie Book Award (BIBA) in the YA (Young Adult) category. It’s made it to round three, and final results will be announced at the end of December. I’ve never entered one of my novels into a competition before. Something told me I needed to enter this one. Or maybe it was someone. Who knows? People are always saying books are wildly imaginative. And thank goodness that they are. But sometimes real life is stranger than fiction. And sometimes they collide, making it hard to tell the difference between the two. But only when we’re very, very lucky.