Today’s guest post is from Jessica Brockmole. Her debut novel, Letters From Skye, was published in July 2013, and is a story told within letters between two continents and two world wars. Jessica spent several years living in Scotland, where she knew too well the challenges in maintaining relationships from a distance. She plotted her novel on a long drive from the Isle of Skye to Edinburgh.
[A] remarkable story of two women, their loves, their secrets, and two world wars… [in which] the beauty of Scotland, the tragedy of war, the longings of the heart, and the struggles of a family torn apart by disloyalty are brilliantly drawn, leaving just enough blanks to be filled by the reader’s imagination. — Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Don’t Forget to Write”—Inspiration on the Back of a Postcard
When searching for inspiration for a new story, I’ve always thought that the very best place to find it is by peeking back in history. The objects and the legends left behind only need to be dusted off to reveal characters and stories, forgotten by time.
Perhaps this is why, at flea markets or antique shops or garage sales, I can be found digging through shoeboxes of old postcards and photos, looking specifically for those with messages on the back. There is a story to be found in that hopeful scrawl. Why does Sioux City remind Ethel so much of Jim and his bicycle? What’s keeping Una from Ontario this summer, when she’s clearly living it up in Detroit? Why is Florence’s nickname “That’s All Rite”?
Some are so deliciously cryptic that you can’t help but assume secrets lie within. “How was your Uno? Have they sent the stuff to Davenport? I got a letter from Flo. Apples are 40 cents dozen. They have another heir.” Surely James Bond is behind such a postcard. Or the intriguing message, written on a jaunty collegiate card: “Frank – how many chickens have you got. Wave – Two hens. Frank – One of them a rooster.” A joke? A cypher? The mind races.
It’s not just the backs of the cards that provide fascinating story fodder. Why did Violet mail a cheerful postcard of an Iowa farmer to tell Dale that their relationship was over? Why did one traveler buy a dozen postcards of Montmartre from her visit to Paris, but only one of the Eiffel Tower? Who was so bold as to actually choose and send the get well card with an outhouse on the front and the sentences, “I can’t wait forever so please come out.” Who was the unfortunate (and likely embarrassed) recipient?
Not all are enigmatic or absurd. I have in my collection some charming love notes and missives of friendship. The terse and hopeful “Oh do be careful when I’m away. H. H.” The breezy “Don’t wait for me to write for I am always busy.” The stack of photo postcards of a young woman, addressed but not sent, were they meant for a sweetheart? The story hinted at is full of yearning.
While I look to postcards for inspiration, snippets of stories long past can be found much closer. You needn’t sneeze in dusty corners of antique shops to find them. After all, we all have histories of our own.
- Delve into family stories, the kind pulled out over the Thanksgiving table each year. Your grandparents’ first date, the time Uncle Dave borrowed the town church bell, the day cousin Sam went off to war. You know the ones. They add depth to fictional characters by reminding you that real characters exist.
- Flip through photo albums and remember all of the emotions tied to each picture. Your prom photo might bring up a blush and a feeling of awkwardness. The photo of the first newborn you ever held, a sense of wonder.
- Take a cue from those nostalgic objects lining your shelves. Dad’s medical bag. Aunt Ruby’s collection of silver thimbles from her travels. Great-grandpa’s jug where he hid his Prohibition-era moonshine. All hint at people carving out a place in their own histories.
But for me it always comes back to the postcards, those I’ve collected and those much closer to home, tucked in family albums and scrapbooks and shoeboxes under the bed. The cards my parents would mail to one another while dating. The ones my grandfathers would send home in times of war. The choices they made with the cards and with the words printed on the backs. In them I find tales unfinished and characters to be heard. Our own history is full of mysteries ripe for the novelist.
So take your inspiration from the postcard-writers and story-keepers of bygone years. Seek the universal threads, the mysteries, the questions that cause one to pick up a pen. Hold tight to those family legends and the shelves of memories. Dig through those dusty shoeboxes—real or figurative—for the stories waiting to be brought to life.
Where do you seek out inspiration?