By Catherine Hedge
One of the most wonderful things about starting a novel is that eventually you get to the place where you are finishing it! I am just pages away from finishing my third manuscript, Crossing Deep River. It is the story of a young teenager, a misplaced Yankee, struggling to find her footing in a small northern Louisiana town. It’s in 1965 at the height of the Civil Rights struggle. She is shunned and lonely until she is befriended by an ancient white midwife, Momma Liddy. As the girl’s story plays out, we also learn the eighty-year parallel history of the old woman and her secret friend, the daughter of a slave.
Donna Gillespie wrote a great blog about deciding whether or not one should write an outline for a novel. Some love it, but I know that for me, it would be a catastrophe. I used to try using patterns for sewing but never followed one to completion. Some other neckline, gather, or ruffle magically appeared. Same thing with cooking. My dear friend Celia teases me that whenever she asks for a recipe, I’ll give her a copy of the one I used. Then, I proceed to tell her all the ways I “adjusted” the recipe until the original one is unrecognizable. I won’t share what happened the first time I tried to cut my son’s hair, speaking of unrecognizable. (I’m so sorry, Joey!) I adjust my writing, too.
For example, my original conception of my story was that it would tell the relationship of the girl and woman. The theme would be that wisdom can be found outside the university and metropolis and resides in the backwoods as well. The action would be primarily a young teen struggling against biases in her school and the comfort she receives from an elderly friend.
Well, that part was real. The result of spending my freshman year in Many, Louisiana and meeting my neighbor, Momma Liddy. She was an incredible woman. She really was the local midwife, doctor, psychiatrist, and unofficial pastor. She could quote any part of the Bible in such a beautiful honey-warm drawl that you didn’t mind you were getting a sermon. She was lean and tall, at least a head higher than me. Her cabin was hand-made. You could see on the walls how far the carpenters could reach with the plane. The wood curled in rough loops near the ceiling. Yes…she was a woman worth writing about. I loved her.
I had no intention of writing an autobiography, so I immediately set about thinking of ways to “adjust” this story. I realized early on that the school setting was boring. Nothing much was happening that couldn’t happen in any other high school even today. When I started describing Momma Liddy, it was clear I didn’t need several chapters of discovery. She was a woman I met nearly fifty years ago, but I can still describe her today. I liked her immediately and thought my main character should seem sharp enough to recognize how wonderful she was. I had to have something happen .
If I had written an outline, I probably would have had Momma Liddy comfort the main character after a disastrous high school dance or unfortunate romance. Maybe the girl would have taken Momma Liddy on an educational trip…completely destroying my theme. Perhaps some big drama…a tornado or flaming cross in the front yard…would have found them clinging to each other for survival. But I wanted a story that wouldn’t make the front pages. I needed one that could shape the heart of a young woman.
Exploring the infinite possibilities is my favorite part about writing. That’s another reason I couldn’t do an outline. I don’t think linearly. More like a web with lots of flies and crickets caught on the strands.
Leonard Bishop used to lecture us against ever saying, “My characters became so real they just took over.” He’d tell us that every piece of writing comes from us, that the author is in complete control. Sometimes, I wished that he was wrong. That I could set Momma Liddy free and let her do the talking.
But that never happened. Instead, I invented a secret sisterhood lasting generations, a romance with a vagabond blacksmith, and a small town caught in the tug of change. Lots of things I never imagined when I began this novel.
It feels so good to be at this place….I think I’ll start another one.