On Writing Take Me Home

Take Me Home is a straightforward love story of finding love late in life. It travels from Rhode Island to Florida then across the country to Idaho and back east to the North Fork of Long Island – all in chronological order. It is a knee jerk reaction to some of the reviews of The Reverse Commute. I didn’t want to confuse the linear readers.

Josie Wolcott has lived a different life than I have. She was an unwed mother, a single mom, a divorcée. However, Josie and I do share a common profession and a restless need to wander. We also both possess a not always rational belief that life might be better somewhere else. Josie puts it this way:

“Oh, I’m very familiar with that struggle. When things go wrong, I tend to run, as if life will be better in a new place. The problem is, the place may be new, but I brought myself along on the journey. I still have to deal with her, the restless eternal wanderer.”

After I wrote Take Me Home I didn’t spend a lot of time promoting it. Two months later, Life Is All This came knocking on the door. Florida had a fertile sense of place. The sights, the sounds, the lifestyle.

Recently reading this book and re-editing a bit, I have once again fallen in love with the story I wrote. Josie is an extremely thoughtful character. She has a lot of insights I still find to be true.

After Rich and I sold the house in New Hampshire, I left for Florida and he stayed behind for two months to finish a job he was working on. He was offered a housesitting opportunity at a large old farmhouse with an apartment above the barn. It was directly across the Squamscott River from our old house. A very good friend of mine from Rhode Island joined me on my road trip to the Sunshine State.

When I arrived in Florida, I stayed with another friend for almost a month. She had offered me lodging until Rich arrived but it didn’t work out as expected. There were numerous complications I won’t get into. By the first of March, I found myself alone in an apartment that was not quite what I had imagined my Florida life to be like.

I had started a new novel shortly after I arrived in Florida but I was constantly being offered advice on writing a sequel to The Reverse Commute. I wasn’t sure how that story would lend itself to a sequel. It made no sense to me. I was just beginning to live my real life sequel to the story. I had no idea how the Florida experiment would work out. Should I write about Ray and Sophie running a B&B? Rich and Sheila would run a B&B but that was two years off in the future.

So I started a story about the young girl and the Best Boy living in Los Angeles. It was a mess. My sister basically told me to trash it. “You’re not in the right environment. This story makes no sense,” she told me.

Alone in my apartment, some random stand alone scenes came to me.

The apartment was dark and stuffy. She stroked her hand along the kitchen wall until she felt the light switch. The room looked empty and forlorn. Who lives in a place like this, she asked herself, looking at the two folding chairs and the bare walls with no pictures.

sports chairs

Who was this woman? What was she doing in Florida? I had no idea, but I kept writing. I was experiencing single life for the first time in years. I was far from home, alone, thinking about what it would be like to be divorced or widowed.

I wrote down the story of the scary mammogram I had back in New Hampshire.

There was an insomniac living above me, opening and closing the deck door all night long. I wrote that down, too. At the time it was just She. Josie hadn’t fully formed yet. Her son, Luke, did not exist.

  Despite being exhausted, Josie had a hard time falling asleep. The apartment didn’t feel like home. Luke’s presence didn’t change the feeling of dislocation she often felt. She closed her eyes, listening to the peepers.

  The sound of the sliding door opening to the deck above jolted her out of an uneasy sleep. Rolling along the track, the sound rumbled through the apartment as the door slid shut with a thud. Every few minutes it happened again, and again, and again. She mumbled, “Goddamn it.” The door slid shut, punctuating her thought. They must be crack addicts, cokeheads, neurotic chain smokers. Some nights it went on until three, starting up again at five in the morning. She turned on the light, stacked her pillows, and picked up a book by the side of her bed.

I took more notes on observations I made and people I met. The exchange between Josie and the Middle Eastern woman, regarding Josie’s parking skills, did happen to me one morning when I was leaving for work.

When Rich arrived, we did enjoy the Florida bar scene at first, but it quickly became old and expensive. We started to take day trips, sightseeing and walking the beach or the Great Florida Birding Trails. Wakadatchatchie became a favorite bird watching excursion several nights a week. I spent a year blogging about my Florida walks. The pleasure of walking made its way into the book. So did the bar scene with its two-for-one happy hours.

Josie’s boss in Florida was based on a man I worked for in Exeter, NH when I was temping during a fourteen month lay-off. I have had so many temp jobs and worked with so many clients when I ran my own bookkeeping business I have been able to accumulate an entire library of characters.

The idea to make Andy Radcliffe an optometrist came to me when I talked to an old friend at a funeral we attended back in New England. His optical shop was struggling due to competition from Walmart and Lenscrafters. When his son thought he might like to take over the business, our friend advised against it. It was a side of the changing economy I had often thought about. A friend of mine’s first husband owned a local hardware store and he too had to sell his business because of the competition from Home Depot and Lowe’s. I’m always aware of the zeitgeist and these observations make their way into my stories. I’m writing about the times I live in and how ordinary lives are effected by circumstances beyond our control. It relates to a topic I’ve been posting about on Facebook; a topic you never hear politicians talk about. One of the many reasons why so many Americans don’t have sufficient retirement savings.

While I was still alone in Florida, I watched the Delray Beach St. Patrick’s Day parade from a bar stool on Atlantic Avenue. Bar stools are fertile ground for collecting stories. A man from Chicago who once played the saxophone for a living and belonged to the musician’s union told me his story and it ended up in the chapter when Josie goes boating on the Intracoastal.

“So what do you do, Josie?”
  “I’m an office manager for a builder. How about you?”
  “I manage a golf course, but in my heart I am still a saxophonist. I used to work in a band, playing nightclubs, weddings, bar mitzvahs, all over Chicago. We marched in parades, too. I did that until I was in my early thirties, back when the musicians’ union had a lock on the jobs. You couldn’t march in the St. Paddy’s Day Parade unless you were a union band. But that all ended, they busted the unions, so I moved on to golf course management. I got a job as a superintendent at a country club outside Chicago then the recession came along and hit the golf industry hard. I lost that job, too. So, Florida’s the place to be if you work on a golf course, right? I moved down here five years ago and I love it.”

Jacob may be entirely fictional but his dialogue comes from stories Rich shared with me after his long days working construction in the hot Florida sun. My husband is the one who taught me about cracking foundations and rebar. He also told me a second-hand story of a plumber who pissed in the kitchen sink of a mansion on the beach.

From a drywall contractor in Pompano Beach to another temp job during my year of unemployment during the Great Recession, I myself have done bookkeeping for many guys in the building industry. In Hampton, NH there was a wonderful guy who kept beers in his fridge for his crew to drink at the end of the day.  Jacob is a compilation of many men I have known.

  “Hey.” He pointed to a guy at a table to the left of them. “Doesn’t that guy look like Alec Baldwin?”
  “No way. Alec Baldwin is much better looking. That guy’s nose is hideous.” Josie laughed.
  The bartender walked by. Jacob swirled his hand over their drinks, indicating they wanted another round.
  “You really think he looks like Alec Baldwin? He’s not even wearing a toupée, he’s wearing a wig. He’s gross.”
  The guy in question, the supposed Alec Baldwin look alike, had a bulbous red, bumpy nose.
  “Maybe one of his younger brothers?” Jacob asked.
  “No, not at all,” she said.
  “Okay.” Jacob pushed the second margarita toward her. “But after a couple of these, Hollywood will come to you, too.”

I write simply what I hear, what I see. I keep these stories in journals. They are stories I feel need to be shared, like the demise of unions and the changing economy of big box stores putting the sole proprietor out of business. These are things that happen to the very real people I meet along my journey through life. Like this line from the man from Chicago I met at the St. Patrick’s Day parade. I wrote it down on a cocktail napkin after he left the bar to join the St. Paddy’s day revelers out on the street.

“There used to be a time when a guy could support a family playing the saxophone. I still see myself as a musician. It’s a part of my self-image, even when I’m researching fertilizer options and arguing at town meetings over run-off.”

In Take Me Home the reader is left to make of this what they will.

Josie’s stories of traveling through Europe are one of the few things that are actually my stories. When I was alone in Florida I read my travel journals. Mrs. Erna Sommers at the B&B in Rothenberg and Mrs. Penock and the train ride to Amsterdam are both true stories.

“Among the invisible tools of creative individuals is their ability to hold on to the specific texture of their past. Their skill is akin to that of a rural family who lives through the winter on food stored in their root cellar.” ~ Vera John-Steiner

I have been to Edinburgh but Josie’s story of her time there is pure fiction.

Other than the backpacking tales, the story of  Josie’s Aunt Maddie is the only other literal truth plucked from my own life. I had a great aunt who lived with my paternal grandparents in Providence. She never married but she did have an engagement ring in a shoebox in her bedroom closet. Aunt Maddie’s story is my Great Aunt Josie’s story (and that is how Josie, my character, got her name).

James Salter once said: “There comes a time in life, when you realize that everything is a dream; only those things which are written down have any possibility of being real.”

What would happen to my Great Aunt Josie’s story if I didn’t share it?

So I got to a point where I had these random chapters and no idea where they were going. Then we took a vacation out west to drive our daughter from her college campus in Denver to Yellowstone National Park where she was working that summer. We stayed at a fishing lodge along the Snake River in Idaho.

Upper Mesa Falls Ashton, ID

“Good evening,” he said. “Beautiful country, isn’t it?”
She looked up, smiling. “Yes, it’s lovely.”
“I think I’m going to have to try my hand at that.”
He pointed to the river where a fisherman was casting his fly. It was a lovely sight with the late day sun scintillating across the water’s surface.
“Are you visiting from Australia?” she asked.
He scoffed. “No, no. I’m a Kiwi. Home’s Dunedin, New Zealand.”
“Sorry, I thought your accent was Australian,” she said.
There it was again, her chronic apologies.
“Well, I’ll let you get back to whatever you’re doing. Time to shower up. Did you enjoy the falls?” he asked.
“Yes, I did.”
She turned the laptop toward him to show him a shot of the trailhead to the falls. It was taken from an old inn, the photo framed by the posts on the front porch.
“Nice eye,” he said, abruptly turning to go back in his room.

I had seen this man earlier in the day when we hiked to Mesa Falls. He did shout out to me to use the men’s room. Coincidentally, he ended up in the room next to us. He and I had this conversation while Rich and Michelle napped in our room. The rest is pure fiction.

Josie was becoming a living, breathing character. She was constantly on my mind; she was traveling with me on this western road trip.  So naturally I thought, “What if  Josie ran into this man? What if she was moving to Idaho to manage a fishing lodge?”

At the time, I thought the Kiwi would be a major character until I got to the end of the chapter and the story took a different turn. I was on the road, traveling through the West and my imagination ran wild.

To quote James Salter once again: “There is no situation like the open road, and seeing things completely afresh. I’m used to traveling. It’s not a question of meeting or seeing new faces particularly, or hearing new stories, but of looking at life in a different way. It’s the curtain coming up on another act. I’m not the first person who feels that it’s the writer’s true occupation to travel. In a certain sense, a writer is an exile, an outsider, always reporting on things, and it is part of his life to keep on the move.”

The story took off.  Jacob, the good ole Florida guy, evolved. The character of Andy Radcliffe developed. He and Josie had quirky families. Josie’s son Luke was easy. Sense of place has always been effortless for me.

Then along came Andy’s dog, Fergus, who I constantly had to worry about. I only had dogs when I was growing up. I never owned them in my adult life. I had to figure out what to do about Fergus when Andy was traveling around. While writing this book I realized this is why I had cats. Dogs are a pain in the ass.

Luke had an evening class so he left a key under the doormat. A lack of feminine upkeep was apparent upon entering the apartment. Dirty dishes were in the sink, the fridge empty except for a carton of ice cream and a twelve pack of Avalanche beer. Crushed beer cans and glasses were strewn around the living room. All signs pointing to the absence of Melanie.
  “Oh no, I think Luke broke up with his girlfriend. Do you want a beer?” she asked.
  “Sure,” Andy said. “Except for living in a college dorm, I never did get much of this bachelor pad experience at a young age,” he said, wistfully glancing around the room.
  “From the looks of it, you weren’t missing much,” she said.
  The spare bedroom appeared to be occupied. She lifted the cushions on the sofa, it wasn’t a pull out.
  “I think we may have to find a hotel room. I can’t believe Luke didn’t tell me what was going on.”
  “He’s a twenty-two-year-old guy, how much does he tell his mother? It’s okay,” he said, searching through his phone for hotels and finding a room right in town that allowed dogs.

  It’s hard looking back and trying to remember how the story took shape. How did I write these sentences? How did I create these people?

The landscape of the west spoke to her spirit, which she had neglected for so long. The grandeur of the mountains and the waterfalls, contrasting with the intimacy of a delicate columbine growing at the base of an aspen tree. Small tableaus set amidst the large dramatic scenery, waiting to be found on her daily walks. The big meaning of life explained within the story of a daily ritual. A hike in the woods to a waterfall with a man who was changing her outlook on life.

Columbine

And of course there was always music.

  “Is this your song?” Josie asked. “Because I was expecting some disco.”
  “No, my song should be next. Listen, I have to tell you something. I think you may be shocked by this.”
  “What?” she asked, concerned.
  “I know how to dance,” he said. “I realize this may come as a surprise to you, but I’ve been told I’m actually quite good.”
  “Did I say you couldn’t dance?”
  “I’m pretty sure you were assuming that, as you haven’t asked me to dance all night.”
  She smiled, guilty as charged. The Stones were wrapping up their song. Mick was crooning, “You make a dead man cry.” Andy took her hand and led her to the dance floor.
  “This song’s for us. Now remember, the guy leads.”
  “I know that,” she said.
  “Yeah, well I’m thinking sometimes you might forget.”
  His laugh was sweet, his eyes crinkled with a smile.
  The opening notes from a steel guitar set the beat. He tapped his foot to the music, reached around her waist and took her right hand in his left as she reached for his shoulder. Lyle Lovett started singing Private Conversation as they moved across the dance floor. He wasn’t kidding, he really could dance. And he meant it when he said he would lead. With his right hand firmly on her back, he got her to spin around, facing the opposite direction while somehow turning himself so he was facing her, the two of them changing positions without a hitch.

 

***Take Me Home is available on Amazon in Kindle and book editions. If you’ve already read the book, reviews are always kindly appreciated***

http://bit.ly/buytakemehome

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7 thoughts on “On Writing Take Me Home

  1. Oh, Sheila, you know already how much I love your writing the the folks who populate your stories, but it is SUCH a treat to read the origins, the little pieces that come together into one cohesive tale, the thread that connects everything.
    Thank you so much for sharing this. I am in the middle of “Take Me Home,” the last of your four novels for me to read. I am enchanted. I’ve already delineated to you the specific reasons why and how.

    By the way, last week guess what popped up on my i-pod. You got it: “Private Conversations,” Lyle Lovett.
    Isn’t it strange how connected we are?

    I am eternally grateful that I picked up “Life Is All This” after meeting you in ARIA. It led to a wonderful friendship.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I am forever grateful to you, Connie, for the things you taught me regarding editing, your kind and wonderful support and encouragement, and your friendship. And regarding this musical symbiosis we have been having? It is further proof our friendship was written in the stars.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Sheila, you truly are an inspiration to me to keep on writing–writing that book I’ve been hacking at for two years, writing that chronicle of my life as a caregiver for my poor husband stricken with Alzheimer’s, and writing those poems that have been playing in my head for far too long. Bless you. Peace. –Connie Tucker

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you to my other Connie. My advice is just keep writing it down. It’s always a struggle. I have a vague idea for another novel but I can’t really get into it. The I remind myself what Ernest Hemingway once said: “All first drafts are a piece of shit.” And it’s true. Just write it down and keep writing without editing yourself. And soon you will have something to work with and that is the sweet spot for me.

      Liked by 1 person

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