posted by Dana
The Femmes Fatales are pleased to welcome back long-time friend, Katherine Hall Page! This weekend, Katherine will be receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from Malice Domestic in honor of her extraordinary achievements, including twenty-three novels, many short stories, a cookbook, and multiple awards. Those of you attending Malice can raise a glass to her in person; those of us at home can curl up with her latest book, The Body in the Wardrobe. Welcome, Katherine!
N.B. Katherine looks forward to responding to your comments when she is home from Malice!
Going to the Well
“How do you get your ideas?” The query pops up in Q&As, as well as at social functions. At one time or another, no doubt as far back as Moses—“So the whole graven images deal, yours?”— every writer has been faced with the question. The ubiquitous question. No one had ever asked me it in regard to previous jobs, although, as an educator, I would have been better equipped to with straightforward answers—“Yes, invented spelling was a bad idea.”
Over the course of 27 plus years depending on how tired I am, I’ve sometimes been tempted to give snarky answers: ‘From the Idea Yellow Pages”, “A Sorting Hat”, “If I think about it, I can’t do it” or some such thing. Yet, as time has gone on I have realized it is not only a legitimate question—people sincerely want to know where an author delves for material—but also one worth pondering for the author him or herself. Where do we get our ideas?
My favorite quotation on the writing process is from Madeleine L’Engle who described it as “Taking dictation from my imagination.” My second favorite is from Mary Roberts Rinehart, the title of a lovely little book she wrote, Writing is Work. The second is self-explanatory and all writers know it is painfully true. The first is more complicated. I have never been one who believed that my characters “speak” to me or “take over”. It could be that I’m just not lucky in this regard; the heavy lifting is all mine own. However, I do know that when I am writing well and am immersed in the world my imagination is creating, I am a kind of conduit. And this is therefore, the source of my ideas. They come from me, my brain, and to some extent my experiences, although I used my own life in a book only once when I wrote about our home invasion in The Body in the Bookcase. Except for the occasional corpse, most of that book is true, including the question asked by the first patrolman on the scene as he stood in my breezeway looking at my shattered kitchen door, “Was it like this when you left the house?”
Some writers pluck ideas from the news and I have a file of clippings, but they are not from headline news stories. They are mostly things I find odd or funny. Although, when inheritance issues was a theme in the Body in the Birches, I went back over all the stories about Brooke Astor’s estate as well as a story in the Times business section I’d saved about Boomers facing choices regarding their summer homes. Leave it to the child who loves it, the child who can afford to maintain it, or forget King Solomon and sell the baby intact, thereby avoiding the whole “Dad and Mom love you best” whining. I also used a yellowed clipping from years ago in my short story, “Hiding Places” in Small Plates (2014). The article was about a bigamist who was so thorough—or OCD—that he duplicated his entire wardrobe to make sure that neither “wife” would wonder were he got the new suit. He had the same locks on both homes in order to carry only one set of keys. This became an important detail.
The Body in the Wardrobe is the book out now. I introduced the character Sophie Maxwell in The Body in the Birches and I think the idea of pairing Faith and Sophie for one more book was in the back of my mind while I was writing that one. Sophie is now a new bride and living in Savannah, Georgia. Like Faith in the very first book, The Body in the Belfry (1990), Sophie is an outsider. Faith left the Big Apple for a small town west of Boston. Similarly Sophie leaves a job in Manhattan, having grown up in Connecticut, for the South. Faith finds the still warm body of one of her husband’s parishioners in Aleford’s Old Belfry; Sophie opens an antique wardrobe and a very dead man falls out. Faith’s body stays put, while Sophie’s disappears—and no one believes that there was one. They believe she saw something; Savannah’s nickname is the “Ghost City”. Her new relatives are envious of the sighting and even husband, Will, thinks it was a figment. Each woman becomes immersed in a whole new way of life. Sophie takes to Savannah’s scrumptious food more than Faith did to New England’s boiled dinners and the like, but each woman comes to the realization that she would not want to live anywhere else. (It takes Faith a few more books than Sophie).
So, ideas. The idea of place. Of person. Of plot. Where do we get them? Maybe, after all, the best thing to do really does come down to not thinking too hard about the source — or it could stop dictating.
The Body in the Wardrobe is the 23rd in Katherine Hall Page’s Faith Fairchild series. She has also published for middle grade and YA readers as well as a collection of short stories, Small Plates (2014), and a series cookbook, Have Faith in your Kitchen (Orchises Press). She has been awarded Agathas for Best First, Best Novel, and Best SS and also was nominated for additional Agathas, an Edgar, Macavity, Mary Higgins Clark and the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance Literary Award for Crime Fiction. She is the recipient of Malice Domestic 28th’s Lifetime Achievement Award. She lives in Maine and Massachusetts.