What if? Where did your novel come from?

With a new blog, the idea is always to generate comments. This is my first attempt in that direction.

I’m doing a book signing for my first novel, “The Kudzu Kid,” later this month at a weekly newspaper office in Amelia County, VA.  Because part of the inspiration for that book came from research I did in Amelia, publisher Ann Salster asked me to write a short article in advance on how the story line came about.

I probably went a little overboard, as you’ll see, but I thought it might be interesting to hear where other novelists come up with the initial inspiration for what they wrote.

Here’s that article:

Very often, works of fiction spring into being based on a fleeting thought of “what if?” So it was with my first novel, “The Kudzu Kid,” which owes its very existence to Amelia County in general and the Bulletin-Monitor in particular.

As a reporter for the News & Advance in Lynchburg, I once covered an Appomattox County controversy over the need for a new landfill. A local citizen had offered a piece of land to the county free in exchange for certain considerations, one of which was that out-of-state waste firms would be able to use the facility.

A good deal, on the surface. But what if this outwardly public-spirited citizen was only a front for organized crime? Those were the rumors, anyway. And what if these were truly evil people who are willing to poison people — innocent kids, even — just to make a profit?

Nothing ever came of this proposal, as I remember, and there was never any proof that there was anything nefarious about it. But I asked myself: “What if it really had been  backed by the Mafia? And what if the plan really was to use that county as a convenient place to dump hazardous waste and foil the EPA?” That planted the seed for “The Kudzu Kid.”

In order to make this alternative reality seem real, though, I needed a real life landfill controversy. Amelia County had one, and Ann and Mike Salster of the Bulletin were more than happy to fill me in on it. When I learned that several opponents of Amelia’s landfill had been witches, I all but salivated.

Over a two-year period, I made several trips to Amelia, and before long the landfill had become just a subplot. The real story became what would happen — what if? — if you took an arrogant young investigative reporter with a broken big-city career and forced him to take a job as the editor of a small weekly newspaper in Southside Virginia. Bulletin editor Mike Salster, a native of Ohio, had lived part of that (not the arrogance, just the culture shock).

But I drew other ideas from Amelia, as well. Sheriff Jimmy Weaver gave me an insight into the humorous side of small-town law enforcement, although the sheriff in my book was based on Carl Wells from Bedford County. I pasted certain geographical and architectural features of Amelia into my fictional town of Jefferson Springs. I went to a couple of Board of Supervisors meetings and read lots of newspaper clippings.

As he emerged, Eddie Fogarty — the editor in the book — contained a little of Mike Salster, a little from my own college experience, and a few character traits borrowed from a number of reporters and editors I had worked with or known. Zoe, another main player, was inspired in large part by a former co-worker who used to take vacation time to chase the Grateful Dead.

It was also important to me to make my gangster characters real people. One of them, Denny DeBrocco, was portrayed as an overweight slacker, a family man who hated violence but  was twice forced to function as a hit man. The local don, meanwhile, threw a big 16th birthday party for his grandkids and fled to his office because he didn’t like the music the kids were playing.

My book in progress did hit a snag when “The Sopranos” became popular. Here were gangsters who acted like real people and trafficked in hazardous waste, and everybody knew about them. So I waited awhile before I finished mine — silly, I know, but we writers are not always rational. Adding gangsters also meant adding some four-letter words. I was a little ambivalent about that, but according to my research, that’s how gangsters talk. Nor are Fogarty and Zoe, a couple of semi-reformed wild children, intended to be role models. Nevertheless, the book is ultimately about redemption.

Finally, I interviewed nearly a dozen weekly newspaper editors around Southside and Central Virginia. I went with weekly reporters on stories, sat in on a murder trial, even stayed up all night watching a bunch of weeklies getting run off at a communal printing plant. I read weekly paper after weekly paper, with all their quirks and unique personalities.

One of those weeklies was a now-defunct paper in Appomattox. It was located in a three-story building, of which which only the first floor was used. A creaking freight elevator led to the upper two floors, and it gave me another idea. What if Fogarty moved into the upper floor of that building, reincarted as the headquarters of the fictional Southside Echo, to save rent money? That became something I was able to use several times as a plot device.

What if? ,

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Recently retired after 35 years with the News & Advance newspaper in Lynchburg, VA, now re-inventing myself as a novelist/nonfiction writer and writing coach in Lake George, NY.

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