By Ellen Behrens
A novelist I knew once said, “I can always tell whether I’m talking to a fiction writer or a poet just by the way they act. The poet stares at me intently, focused on my words, ready to challenge or clarify. The novelist, on the other hand, glances all over the room, reading titles of books on the shelves, admiring (or not) pictures on the walls, trying to figure out what’s on my desk….”
We fiction writers can’t help it. We’re absorbed by the details, the minutiae of someone’s life that reveal those individuals to us in ways their words usually don’t. We’re curious beyond the norm.
Driving a long, gray stretch of interstate highway, my husband and I passed a car with a little girl in the back. From our higher one-ton pickup truck I saw her bouncing around the seat, happy it seemed, singing or talking to herself. I thought how nice to see a happy child – though it didn’t appear she was in a car seat, which bothered me. An unexpected hand from the front smacked the little girl, and she crumpled into tears.
Traveling is our way of life. About eight years ago we sold our “sticks and bricks” home to travel the country full-time in our RV, and in that time we’ve glimpsed into the lives of thousands of strangers in moments like that one.
It’s an ideal and frustrating life for a writer. Ideal because ideas come at me a billion miles an hour from all directions in a nearly endless stream. If I wrote nonstop for the rest of my life without a single pause to eat or sleep, I’d never run out of characters, settings, plot ideas, clues.
The little girl in the back of the car stayed with me, and I daydreamed about what might have happened if we’d followed that car. What would we have found out? The image of us, driving that big truck and towing our huge 38-foot fifth wheel RV behind it, snaking around some city’s streets, “tailing” a car, struck me as absurd – yet inviting.
Of course, we didn’t follow that car. We’re nothing on the road if not safe, and pursuing a car out of pure curiosity isn’t our style. Fortunately, I’m a novelist. I can do on the page what I dare not do in real life.
I started thinking: what if a retired couple like my husband and I did follow that car? I played with different names, landing eventually on Walt and Betty – Walt and Betty Rollin, like rollin’ along. The idea of a mystery series was born.
But I couldn’t figure out the story of the little girl in the back of the car. The worst ideas are those that get pushed and pulled and stretched until whatever shred of truth they held is obliterated, so I let it go. New ideas demanded attention. Before long I had the makings of Pea Body, which became the first in the Rollin RV Mystery series.
Even so, the little girl in the car haunted me. I needed to write that story. Without much of an idea, I started with the little girl and – like my characters – followed the car to see where things led. I used details from the time we’ve spent in Yuma, Arizona, and the surrounding Sonoran Desert: abandoned stuffed animals, RVers and their pets, the great breakfast we always order at Brownie’s Café in Yuma….
One of my favorite compliments on Pea Body was from an Rver who said the whole thing felt entirely true and wanted to know whether a key plot point had really happened to us. It hadn’t. The story was so filled with the details of true-to-life RVing she’d readily accepted the lies I’d created along the way. That’s what I consider a success.
And it’s all thanks to those small glimpses of others’ lives I’ve been given. What about you? What small glimpses turned into big insights (or plot twists or character traits) for you?
Yuma Baby, the second in Ellen Behrens’ Rollin RV Mystery series featuring Walt and Betty Rollin, full-time RVers who solve mysteries, is now available in print and ePub format through Lulu.com and via iTunes (Kindle, Kobo, and Nook versions coming soon to those formats). Her first Rollin RV Mystery, Pea Body, is a hit with RVers and non-RVers alike, and her first novel, None But the Dead and Dying, received excellent reviews around the country, including the New York Times Book Review, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Library Journal, and others. A former fiction editor and the recipient of an Ohio Arts Council Individual Artist Fellowship, Ellen and her husband have been full-time RVers since 2009 – living and writing back and forth across North America. Learn more about her books at www.ellenbooks.com or drop her an e-mail at ellenbehr[at]aol[dot]com if you’d like. She loves mail!
For print, e-Pub and iTunes versions of my books: http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/ellenbooks
My Amazon author spotlight page: https://www.amazon.com/EllenBehrens/e/B001K7ZBEM/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_0
Yuma Baby is available for Kindle and on iTunes. Soon to come at the Kobo and B&N sites.
Pea Body can also be found via the B&N and Kobo sites.