by Karen Casey-Fitzjerrell
When readers ask where my story ideas come from, my first inclination is to answer with a question. Where don’t they come from? However, for this post I’ll narrow my answer to how I formed ideas for my latest novel, Forgiving Effie Beck.
Years ago, I moved to a small farming-ranching community in central Texas. Most of my new friends were in their 80s and 90s, the last generation to have ridden horses to a one room school house that also served as the town hall. As the “new kid in town,” they glommed onto me like new meat. At Ladies Aide Society meetings, church socials and potluck dinners the ladies gleefully shared their colorful life stories.
Late one summer, the weekly newspaper reported a “local citizen” had alerted the sheriff that his elderly ranching neighbor, a woman, had gone missing. The whole town was a flutter about where she could be, what could’ve happened to her. And of course, church ladies shared all kinds of information with me about the missing woman’s history, though I was never able to guess where truth crossed over to gossip-mongering.
Months later, I saw a yet another newspaper announcement about a reunion of Orphan Train Riders to be held in a nearby community. I attended hoping to get a few interviews for my freelance magazine work. I met and talked with about a dozen “Orphans.” While I felt that writing about Orphan Trains had been a little overdone, it was fascinating to talk with them one on one, to hear their personal histories. I learned how orphan records were kept and why it was so hard for adopted children to find out who their parents were or why they’d been put on the trains.
And, not long after that, I stopped for lunch at a City Cafe’ after conducting interviews with some of the locals. I watched as a very large man in faded overalls lumbered through the double cafe’ doors. He heaved his girth onto a stool at the counter and started a loud conversation with the waitress. He joked that he was the Mayor of Pole Cat Creek.
There you have three elements I used in Forgiving Effie Beck. Little seeds of facts, conversation and observation that tickled my imagination and made me wonder: What if those incidences could be fit together?
I had first hand accounts from town and ranch women about what they’d lived and what they had to say about a missing woman whose whole life existed on the outskirts of local society. In the book they became Frances, Cora Mae, and Glory.
My peek into the lives of real live-to-tell-it Orphan Train riders gave me Paddy Shaw, the grave digger.
The rotund fellow who bragged about being Mayor of Pole Cat Creek actually became two characters in Forgiving Effie Beck: Mayor Tubby Whittaker and Texas Ranger Clyde Cheevers.
When I sat down to write, the only thing I knew for sure was that I wanted to use The Great Depression Era as my historical backdrop. My ideas, for the most part, come from observing and absorbing what happens in my everyday life. Those ideas easily fit into historical settings because human nature is millennial.
For me the how, where, when and what cannot be rushed. Story takes time to develop and must have tension to hold all elements together in the same way a rubber band holds small unmatched items to a whole when it’s wound tight around them.
Karen Casey Fitzjerrell’s debut novel, The Dividing Season, won the 2013 EPIC Award for Best Historical Fiction. She is a former journalist who traveled Texas back roads for eight years in search of history mysteries and unique-to-Texas characters to include in her newspaper and magazine articles. She now lives in San Antonio, Texas.