About Writing

Inspired by Family

IMG_0551Throughout my life, I have listened avidly to stories of my family. It was no different when I married my husband and heard stories of his family. I turned my own stories into a novel, UNDER THE ALMOND TREES and I’m currently working on ALOHA SPIRIT a story of my husband’s grandmother. The picture at left is his grandmother, mother, and aunts in Honolulu just before World War II. When writing these stories, I can’t be completely accurate since I don’t know all the details of the person’s life. It can’t be a biography. Dialogue has to be invented, as well as what I call the filling in between known events. For this reason, I’ve stopped saying these novels are about my family and begun saying they are inspired by family.

Family stories may be the inspiration, but they cannot carry a novel on their own. Even so, the first source of deeper information is the family. I took the older members of my family aside and urged them to tell me the details–where they went to school, what their mother made for dinner, which was their favorite relative, and who fought with who. My sons were working on a genealogy merit badge in Boy Scouts when they interviewed their great-grandfather. He was born in Honolulu in 1918 and was a civilian ship fitter at Pearl Harbor when it was bombed in 1941. His first-person view of the event was incredible, but his personal reactions were priceless. He told how he wanted to hide during the attack, but his boss made him go out with a crew to remove scaffolding from a ship. He hid behind turrets on the ship as the Japanese planes flew over. I wish I’d had my novelist’s eye that day and asked him about how he got to work, how long a day he worked, what he’d had for breakfast, and what the family said when he got home. Those are the details that make a novel.

Grandpa’s experience is a tiny part of my novel ALOHA SPIRIT. I had to research a lot about territorial Hawaii–the years between the fall of the monarchy and statehood. I didn’t care so much about the politics of the sugar plantation owners. I wanted to know about daily life. When did they get televisions, cars, radios? When were the hotels built on Waikiki? I read historical fiction set in Hawaii to get a feel for the era, and nonfiction for accuracy. There are many details I couldn’t find or that I had to change to fit my story. I can do that, since it’s a novel and not a biography.

The hardest part is showing the finished work to living members of the family. I think they understand that I intend it to be a tribute to our ancestors, but I’m sure they have a different view of the characters and events than I do. When I exaggerate a negative trait, I’m trying for greater conflict to improve the novel’s pacing, not to ruin a person’s reputation. So when you read my novels, keep in mind that they are novels. A lot of it is made up! Enjoy them as fiction. If you absolutely must know if something really happened, send me an email. My hope is that readers will be as inspired by the characters in my novels as I was by the women who inspired them.

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On Inspiration

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Waimea, 2015

 

Inspiration is a very personal thing. For me, it means whatever fuels my desire to click away from Facebook games and open my current Work in Progress. No one procrastinates better than a writer. Even though I love to write, my brain is tired from Real Life and it takes a great effort of willpower, or Inspiration, to begin writing for the day. Once I start, I get in the zone and can write uninterrupted for hours.

For my last two books, inspiration has come from the heart. UNDER THE ALMOND TREES follows three women in my family that I have always admired. Their stories rattled around in my head for years before I began the novel. My current piece is titled ALOHA SPIRIT. It is about the life of my husband’s grandmother. I love stories of real women contributed to the events of their times in very real albeit small and unknown ways. Setting  family stories down amid the historical fact makes me feel like I have a personal connection to well-known events.

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Carmen James in front of a plantation cottage, Honolulu, 1920’s

Recently, my husband and I stayed at Waimea Plantation Cottages on Kauai. His grandmother was born on Kauai, scant miles from where we were. Nothing is left of the sugar plantation where her father worked as a dairy man but grassy fields. The plantation cottage we stayed in was built in 1905. It retains the rustic feel of its plantation days. Sitting in the kitchen, I could easily imagine a young girl’s life.

Carmen James lived with her parents and brother on Kauai until her mother passed away in childbirth. Shortly after that, the family moved to Oahu, where Carmen’s father left her in the care of a Hawaiian family. He took his son and went to the mainland to find work. Carmen lived on a sugar plantation near Diamond Head. She spent her entire childhood in a plantation cottage similar to the one where I wrote three chapters of her story.

Even though I am back in California, I can still feel the ambiance of that cottage set between the ocean and the mountains. I am nearly halfway done with the first draft of ALOHA SPIRIT. May the memories continue to inspire me!