Monday, June 13, 2011

Once Struck -- The Story Behind the Story

My agent called me in the spring of 1995 and asked if I'd like to write a novella for a summer storm anthology being put together by St. Martin's Press for publication in 1996. She'd attended a party with an SMP editor and talked up my books. I said sure, and within a few weeks I received the contract.

Once Struck was the easiest sale I've ever made. I didn't have to type a single word. My agent made this sale, which shows you the advantage of having an agent with good connections.

My agent told me to write a contemporary story of about 100 pages with a rural American background and a summer storm as the climax of the plot. I said, "Can do" and started thinking.

My initial idea was tractors, maybe a tractor race might be fun. I was playing around with that when my agent called and said oops, she'd misunderstood. The editor wanted a historical novella, not a contemporary.

"No problem," I said, though I wondered how many adult beverages were consumed at that party. Then I sighed, scratched the tractor race and headed for the Agricultural Hall of Fame in Bonner Springs, Kansas.

This is a fascinating place. Room after room of wonderful exhibits and antique farm equipment. I saw a grain cradle -- a long-handled, long-fingered scythe -- like the one Peach MaCauley used to harvest her wheat.

That's a cradle in the photo. Weird looking thing, isn't it? My thanks to Craig at Stoney Acres Farm in Linden, Michigan for permission to use this photo from his website. If you'd like to see some of the other things Peach uses in the story, check out the Stoney Acres site.

Field trip over, I headed home and started writing. My agent called and asked what kind of a storm I planned to use in the story; the editor wanted to know. I told her a tornado. She said thanks and hung up. Then she called back and told me I'd have to come up with a different storm because one of the other authors in the anthology had a tornado in her story. I sighed again, but said, "Okay, make it a hailstorm."

Then I ripped up what I had and started over for the third time . In case you missed my first post, here's the final version of Once Struck:

Nebraska, 1973

Alone in the world...

Peach MaCauley has only 40 acres of wheat standing between her and becoming a poor relation. On the eve of the harvest a storm threatens her crop -- and her independence. Only one man steps forward to help man she's not sure she should trust.

Kit Taggart is no longer the dirt-poor boy with soulful brown eyes who kissed her behind the church at the Fourth of July Social. now he's a handsome, hard-edged ex-soldier. His price for saving Peach and her crop is one night with her -- all night, from dusk to dawn.

That was the last phone call from my agent, thank God. All the starts and stops had put me way behind on my deadline. I wasn't the only one frustrated by all the "Oops" phone calls -- so were Peach and Kit. Once I sat down to write, they jumped to life and took over. I was typing as fast as I could to keep up with them, until I finished Chapter 7.

I woke up the next morning so sick I could barely stand. I was dizzy, had a horrible cough and my back was killing me. The day before I was fine, right as rain. Michael came home from work at noon and took me to the doctor. I had pneumonia, and Once Struck was due in 10 days.

My agent and the editor said don't worry, get better and then finish the book. I slept for 5 days straight, hooked up the laptop and finished Once Struck in a cough syrup-induced haze. I only missed my deadline by 2 weeks. Not bad for typing two paragraphs and coughing my head off, typing two more and coughing my head off until I finished the story.

I was a little nervous about those last 3 chapter, but I was pretty happy once I'd read them in the page proofs. So happy I wondered if maybe I should write everything under the influence of cough syrup.

Murphy's Law says if anything can go wrong it will. Here's the writer's version of Murphy's Law: If anything can wrong it will -- a week before your deadline.

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