Inspiration, Before the Storm

Several years ago, I was invited to participate in the Authors Movable Feast sponsored by Quarter Moon Books in Topsail Island, North Carolina. I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for the Carolina beaches, but this was my first trip to Topsail and I fell instantly in love with it. Right away, I started to imagine a story set somewhere on that long (26 miles), very narrow strip of land.

Around the same time, I was thinking about a story that would involve a teenager who becomes a hero by saving others in a fire, only to later be suspected of starting the fire him or herself. Gradually, my story and my setting began to come together. For me, that’s when the magic really begins.

At the story’s heart is fifteen-year-old Andy Lockwood, who was born with fetal alcohol syndrome. Although Andy has an IQ in the low normal range, he’s a concrete thinker. . . and a lovable character. I never set out to make him a special needs teen, but as I started writing Andy’s first chapter, his voice sounded very simple to me. I knew I had to come up with a reason for how young and naive he sounded. I had some experience with kids with fetal alcohol syndrome in my previous career as a clinical social worker, and Andy reminded me of them. Of course, after I settled on his developmental issue, I then had to think about his mother and why she drank while pregnant with him. Plotting is often a circular process! I like it when my characters surprise me the way that Andy and his mother did, because I know they’ll probably surprise my readers as well.

I made several trips to Topsail to research my story. I’m lucky to have friends who have homes on the Island and who have been more than willing to let me use those homes as my base while doing research. I’ve found the people who live on or near Topsail, from the real estate agent I stumbled across on my first trip to the fire marshal of Surf City, to be equally generous in helping me.

I needed the house from Andy’s childhood to be nearly ready to fall into the sea. Unfortunately for some residents of Topsail Island, this is not hard to imagine. Here’s one of several condemned houses at the northern end of the Island where my Lockwood family lived when Andy was small. In my imagination, the Lockwood’s house was circular, like this one I stayed in many years ago in the Outer Banks. That’s me bundled up on the deck. I like surrounding myself with photographs that inspire my story as I write, and that house wasn’t falling apart quite enough for my story, so one night I played with the image in PhotoShop and created this decrepit version of the same house. Most houses at the beach have names, and I christened the house The Sea Tender, which has a double meaning in the story. I won’t tell you what that double meaning is, in the hope that you can figure it out for yourself once you read it. The Sea Tender was the original title of Before the Storm, but my publisher didn’t like it. That’s often a problem with book titles: the author may be looking at the meaning of the title, while the publisher is looking at the market. I went back to the drawing board on the title. It was actually one of my blog readers who came up with Before the Storm, for which I’m most grateful!

Before the Storm
 has a subtle spiritual thread running through it due to Andy’s sister, Maggie, and her connection with their late father, Jamie. Jamie started his own little chapel on the Island, which he called the Free Seekers Chapel. I planted the chapel at the very northern tip of the Island, which is surrounded by water (the ocean, the inlet and the Intracoastal Waterway) on three sides. Here’s where I envisioned the chapel. That’s the ocean in the background. You’ll have to imagine the inlet and Intracoastal.

I think I’m good at writing about emotions and relationships, but when it comes to subjects I know nothing about (fighting fires, for instance), I need help. I received that help from Surf City Fire Marshal Ken Bogan. Surf City is one of the three small towns on Topsail Island. Ken and his wife Angie were amazing! Over several visits, they answered pages and pages of questions from me. Here I am with them in the Surf City fire station.

The final challenge—and one of the biggest—in writing Before the Storm was telling the story from four different first-person points of view. It’s important when writing multiple points of view to make each voice entirely distinct from the others. A reader should be able to open to any page and know within a few sentences which character she’s reading about. It was a huge task, but I enjoyed getting to know those four characters and their distinct voices very much. I hope you will, too.