Friday, September 5, 2014

My Next Mellingham by Susan Oleksiw

I've written a number of times on where stories come from. But today I'm describing a process that has led to a story I wasn't even looking for. I sketched out an idea for the seventh Joe Silva/Mellingham book, and filed it in my notebook. When I pulled it out, ready to start working on it, I knew it was the wrong story.

Lake Miedwie near Szczecin
A couple of years ago I came across a book about a race that circled the globe. This isn't the kind of thing I usually find in the library, but the title intrigued me. Godforsaken Sea by Derek Lundy is an amazing book. I don't know what I was expecting but it certainly wasn't a report on the 1996-1997 Vendee Globe, a race around the Antarctic. I was taken with the author's description of his own sail to Bermuda, and brought the book home. But then our dog, who had just entered the household a few weeks before, took a bite out of the book. He mangled the cover and the first few pages, but left the rest intact. I took the book back to the library and offered to pay for a replacement copy. As an afterthought I asked if I could keep the mangled copy.

I read this book in one weekend and would have taken longer if the book had been longer. I didn't want it to end. I'm not one for adventure tales, but courage on the ocean, to me, is the pinnacle of character. The author, Derek Lundy, describes encounters, challenges, moments that if contained in a novel would be considered too outlandish, too absurd, too extreme to be believed.

Mooring post in harbor
I loved this book, and I told everyone who would listen to me about it. I was a sidewalk, coffee shop (not so) ancient mariner with a story to tell. I pulled out an old boating manual my parents had purchased along with their first boat, back in the late 1940s, and I took note of the dog-eared pages and the light pencil marks. I found old photos of us aboard one of the three boats we sailed while I was growing up.

And then I found myself writing a story about sailing adventures I'd had as a teenager. These outings were not even as exciting as casting off a mooring in the Bay of Biscay but the story had legs, as some say, and after a while I tried turning it into a novel. The first effort failed, but the story will not die, and it is now re-coalescing around a man teaching his stepson to sail.

Chief of Police Joe Silva discovered in his stepson Philip a longing he didn't know he had, and Philip is eager to learn everything he can from the man he worships. So, while Joe is teaching safety and wind and wave patterns, someone else in the small town of Mellingham is looking to the ocean to satisfy an ambition of a different sort.

If someone had told me a few years ago that I would be writing this book, I would not have believed
210s with full spinnakers
them. I would have thought my experiences with Saturday afternoon racing through Salem Sound were too far in the past. Plus, I never loved racing. I liked messing about along the shore, dropping anchor in a cove and going for a swim or hike on the island. But when I began to write (or type), I remember how it felt to approach the start line and have the wind die, as it does among a dozen boats jockeying for position. I remembered scanning the waves for signs of hidden hazards, and I remember the chill that came over us when we saw fog sneaking up on us.

I was surprised at how much I remembered, but I shouldn't have been. Sailing is like a language, or a dance step. With a little nudging, the words come back, the hands know what to do, and the skipper looks up to check the wind and waves. Chief Joe Silva learned to sail as a very young man, and now Philip will too. But not everyone else will be taking to the water for pleasure, and skill with a tiller or a line will prove crucial.


Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Susan,

Sometimes nonfiction reading creates a response in those of us who write fiction and we go with it. I've often found that reading nonfiction is a great way to stir creativity and have many times written faction. Your new work sounds wonderful!

Rae Padilla Francoeur said...

Susan, what a beautiful essay on finding your new novel. It certainly was a roundabout way to do it, but I am sure it was an adventure and worth every step. I can't wait to read this book. In the meantime, this essay is a little work of art in itself!

Jan Christensen said...

Fascinating story about your story, Susan. I've never had that experience, but I can see how motivating it would be. Good luck with your newest project!

Susan Oleksiw said...

Thank you, Jacquie, Rae, and Jan. I'm pleased that this short piece resonates with other writers. I was very surprised by the experience, and must admit that I absolutely love writing about sailing. Who knew? And I wasn't any great shakes as a sailor either. I'm really looking forward to working on the revised novel. Thanks for commenting.

Kathleen Valentine said...

It always astonishes me where inspiration comes from--you just never know....

Susan Oleksiw said...

You're right, Kathleen. It's all about being open and ready for whatever comes. Thanks for commenting.

Bonnie Tharp said...

Isn't it amazing where the inspiration for a story comes from. I'm excited for you and can't wait to read the book.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Thanks, Bonnie. I've started the part of "thinking" about it, and about all the extras I can put in--how the wind creates waves, reading waves, the different between jibing and coming about. I'm guessing this one will be loads of fun. Thanks for stopping by.

Mary Fremont Schoenecker said...

This book you are thinking about is one that I definitely will look for. My wish for many years has been to sail on a big ship. Alas it hasn't happened, but I read many books about sailing and even put some of what I've read into one of my own maybe your book will keep me happy for a while longer.Please write it!

Susan Oleksiw said...

Thank you for the enthusiastic support, Mary. I used to read J.R.L. Anderson, and enjoyed his sea-faring bits. I hope you get aboard sometime.