Thursday, October 20, 2011

On the Choptank Shores: The Backstory





When I was a child, back in the late 1950s and 1960s, my family took wonderful trips out East to visit the relatives. One of my favorite places to visit was my Aunt Flossie and Uncle Otto’s peach orchard, set on the beautiful shores of the Choptank River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

My siblings and I would spend hours swimming in the salty water (the Choptank flows from the Chesapeake Bay, and is thus a salt-water river), trying to avoid the jelly fish; jumping in the sand pit at the edge of my uncle’s property (something we weren’t supposed to do, as my uncle feared the sand pit would collapse and swallow one of us kids whole); and raiding my aunt’s incredible garden. We gobbled down handfuls of boysenberries, grapes, and yellow pear tomatoes. To this day, I don’t see how we could eat so much from her garden and yet never seem to make a dent in what was growing.

These were my favorite aunt and uncle. I wanted to be just like Aunt Flossie, who could grow such wonderful produce on land that was nearly pure sand. I wanted to have a basement pantry lined with jars and jars of brightly colored home-canned peaches and boysenberry sauce and green beans. I wanted the simple life she lived decades before it became fashionable to pretend to live simply.

My uncle was a wonderful, loving man, who never had any problem getting down on the floor and rough-housing with us kids. This wouldn’t be unusual, except my uncle was quite old at the time: My aunt was fifteen years older than my mother; Uncle Otto was twenty years older than my aunt. He was well into his seventies when I was a little kid.

My aunt and uncle are long gone now, of course. But I was left with a precious gift from them: during their courtship, they had sent love letters to one another, and my mother gave the box of letters to me one day.

As I sat and read them, I thought to myself, I have to turn their love story into a book. So, I sat down and started writing a book with the intention of doing exactly that.

But as most fiction writers know, our characters often decide the story we want to tell is not the story they want to tell, and that’s exactly what happened to me. On the Choptank Shores took on a life of its own. Oh, my aunt and uncle’s personalities remained the same. Otto was twenty years older than Grace (as I called her, in honor of a different aunt of mine, a sister to Florence and my mom, who had died very young). Windy Hill, the peach orchard in my book, was indeed the name of their orchard. But the similarities stop there.

In On the Choptank Shores, the tragic deaths of her mother and two younger siblings have left Grace Harmon responsible for raising her sister Miriam and protecting her from their abusive father, Luther, a zealot preacher with a penchant for speaking in Biblical verse who is on a downward spiral toward insanity. Otto Singer charms Grace with his gentle courtship and devotion to his brother, Henry. But after their marriage, Otto is unable to share with Grace the terrible secret he has kept more than twenty years. Otto believes he is responsible for a tragic accident that claimed the life of a young woman and left Henry severely brain damaged.

Luther’s insane ravings and increasingly violent behavior force Grace to question and reassess the patriarchal religious beliefs of her childhood. Then tragedy strikes just when Otto’s secret is uncovered, unleashing demons that threaten to destroy the entire family.

Nothing like that ever happened in my family. But my aunt loved to read books, and often spoke or writing one herself someday. Perhaps, in On the Choptank Shores, my characters were telling me that this was the story Aunt Flossie wanted to tell. I like to think she was watching over me, proud of me, as I wrote it.

On the Choptank Shores was originally published under the title, Redeeming Grace. But people got the idea it was a Christian book, or a religious book of some sort, and it isn’t. While the book definitely closely examines how biblical text, taken out of context, has been used throughout history to justify subjugation of women, that is not the main idea behind the story. The book is a story of love, The love between a young wife (Grace) and her decidedly middle-aged husband (Otto), and the love of a big sister for her abused baby sister (Miriam). It is the story of the love for an aging, grief-stricken father (Luther) who is spiraling into a dark world of insanity, and the love of a kind and benevolent God whom Grace knows must exist, despite the crazed ravings of her father, who paints a picture of a vengeful, angry God as he spouts biblical verse to defend his abuse of both Grace and little Miriam. It is a story of the land on which they live, and the power of Mother Nature. Most of all, it is a story of love conquering all.

So, my publisher decided to change tactics: give the book a fresh, new title and cover, and market it aggressively as romantic suspense, for that is exactly the right description. As soon as we did that, the book began to sell, and sell well!

My advice to writers? Take time to learn and polish your craft. Writing is an art form, just as painting, dancing, or playing the cello are art forms. Picasso didn’t paint The Guitarist the first time he picked up a paintbrush. Martha Graham took dance lessons; Yo-yo Ma took cello lessons, before they were considered masters of their genre. People tend to forget writers need to do the same thing. Study books on the craft of writing. I have written a good one, but there are a lot of other good ones out there, too. Read everything you can get your hands on. And write, write, write! If this is something you are truly meant to do, you will succeed.


Smoky Trudeau Zeidel can be found all over the Internet, most notably at the following links:

Website and Blogs:                 www.SmokyZeidel.wordpress.com
Facebook Fan Page:                www.Facebook.com.Smoky.Zeidel.Writes
Twitter                                                @SmokyZeidel
Amazon Author Page:             http://amzn.to/mUvjpC
Goodreads Author Page:         http://bit.ly/pGXAXq
Smashwords Author Page:      http://bit.ly/qan6Nx
All Romance Author Page:      http://bit.ly/p6pR9O


Smoky’s Bio:

Smoky Trudeau Zeidel is the author of two novels, On the Choptank Shores (formerly titled Redeeming Grace) and The Cabin; a recently-released collection of stories,Short Story Collection Vol. 1; and two nonfiction books on writing which have recently been combined into one book, Smoky's Writers Workshop Combo Set. She is the author of Observations of an Earth Mage, an enchanting collection of prose, poetry, and photographs celebrating the beauty and splendor of the natural world. All her books are published by Vanilla Heart Publishing.
Smoky lives her life honoring Mother Earth through her writing, visual art, and spiritual practice. She lives in California with her husband Scott (a college music professor and classical guitarist), her daughter (a college student and actress), and a menagerie of animals, both domestic and wild, in a ramshackle cottage in the woods overlooking the San Gabriel Valley and Mountains beyond. When she isn't writing, she spends her time hiking in the mountains and deserts, splashing in tidepools, and resisting the urge to speak in haiku.
But perhaps the best way to know Smoky is through her own words:
My friends say I’m the salmon who swims downstream, not up. When the invitation says “black tie,” I’m more likely to show up in tie-dye. If there’s a tree, I’ll climb it. A rock, I’ll scramble up  it. A creek, I’ll splash in it. I love my tattoos; I paint my toenails fire engine red. When our neighborhood coyotes howl, I tend to howl back. I once called a rattlesnake we saw “precious” and named a  tomato horned worm “Spike.”  My husband calls me eccentric. I prefer the term free-spirited.  Or whimsical. Who wants to live a life exactly like everyone else? Not me!
 Thank you so much for visiting today, Smoky, I loved reading about you and your books.

Marilyn

2 comments:

Anne K. Albert said...

I just love your spirit, Smoky, free or otherwise.

While I'd have a very hard time ever calling a snake 'precious', I understand and appreciate your dedication to this earth.

You're an inspiration both on and off the page, my friend!

charmainegordon author said...

Always a kick reading about Smoky, her life and writing. About your McMansion. You call it ramshackle, you silly. I call it Frank Lloyd Wrong.. .or RIGHT ON! Living the good life or as best we can from a member of The Gimpy Authors Club