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Snow pelted us as my husband and I set out into the Canadian wilderness. Nothing more stimulating than paddling a canoe through snow drifts. Okay, slight exaggeration. But it was cold enough to snow more than just that first night of the trip my husband hoped would convince me to love the wilderness as much as he did.
His ploy might have worked that week if the temperatures had risen above 40 (it was late May), if it had been frostbite-safe to remove my ski cap at least while sleeping, if I hadn’t twitched at every sound in the night—including my husband’s—and had found a way to appreciate what life was like before plumbing entered the world and changed everything.
Day Four of Creation (I think it was): And God said, “Let there be flush toilets and bathrooms with doors on them. And He saw that it was very good.”
I toughed it out (if you don’t count the tears) through the indignities and the mayfly hatch, through the damp and cold, the unforgiving rocks, indescribables floating in the water, and the lack of anything remotely resembling comfort. I tried to fix my gaze on whatever my husband pointed toward out there across the water or deeper into the woods. I prayed my way through one miserable shiver after another.
As I stumbled out of the wilderness on the last day of our trip, back into the warm, seductive embrace of civilization, my writer-brain vowed, “I have to get a book out of this someday.”
A few years later, my husband almost didn’t make it home from a canoe trip he took with one of our sons. The rescue plane arrived with only minutes to spare to snatch him from the edge of eternity. When the trauma receded, our relationship readjusted, and we could tell the story without shuddering, I knew I’d have to get a book out of that someday.
I’ve stored a good supply of practice novellas and partially-written full-length novels on my computer. But when the what-ifs began for the novel They Almost Always Come Home, something akin to an electrical current pulsed through me. I knew it was a story that would cost me emotionally to write, which made me sense it could very well be an assignment rather than merely an idea.
I what-iffed a plot about a woman whose husband fails to return home from his canoe trip, foiling her plans to leave him. She can’t leave him if she can’t find him. I what-iffed a wall of sorrow between them and invented a desperation I know my readers will recognize.
Plunging into the tangled layers of the story like main character Libby plunged headlong into the undergrowth of an unfamiliar wilderness, I ached with her, scraped my knees when she did, felt the lump in my throat that kept her from swallowing, breathing.
And when she saw the humor in a ridiculously grievous moment, so did I.
Libby’s story landed in my lap(top) after years of writing short fiction for radio drama, years of classes and conferences and critique groups and books on the craft of writing. I guess I had to grow up enough to really listen to what she had to say and tell the truth about her story, even when some of the words overlap with mine.
A scene from the Bible that gets me right here (she said as she tapped her fist into her chest) is when David is handed all the materials he needs to offer a sacrifice to the Lord. He refuses the freebies and insists he can’t offer the Lord “that which cost (him) nothing” (II Samuel 24:24).
I believe that’s one of the secrets of creating a novel that wiggles its way out of the file in which it’s hiding and into print. As an author, I can’t offer Him—or my readers—something that cost me nothing.
Pressing on to the next what-if,
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