Thomas Wolfe haunted me on my way to Geneva, Alabama. Wolfe wrote You Can’t Go Home Again, which was published after his death. The main character is an author, who discovers he’s not welcome in his hometown. He’d written about his town and its people, and they are angry enough to kill him.
Thinking about this, my imagination went wild. As many writers, I’ve used creative license and the backdrop of my hometown Geneva, for scenes in Sex, Love and Murder and Hurricane House.
In my latest book, A Message in the Roses, I wrote about a murder trial I covered as a reporter. That book is set in Atlanta, but many of its characters share traits and backstories of people I’ve known.
Before I arrived in town, the Geneva Reaper ran an article on me and my books. The newspaper also stated that authors, craftsmen and artists would descend on Robert Fowler Memorial Park to celebrate Total Recall, Oct. 10. Anyone who had ever attended school in Geneva had been invited back. Tents and tables would be set up, where a variety of vendors and alumni were expected to gather.
Like other southern towns, Geneva has fascinating personalities. Some of my dearest friends live there or nearby. This town (population about 4,300) is renowned for the Constitution Oak, the oldest and largest live oak tree in the United States. Possibly the largest in the world. This oak has lived at least 500 years. It is 75 feet tall. The tree’s branches spread approximately 175 feet.
Homecoming day in Geneva was hot and humid. No breeze rustled the stalwart branches of the Constitution Oak.
Breeze or no breeze, I eagerly anticipated visiting with old friends, even though one friend had asked,“Remember the lady you mentioned in your first book, the one who hated your mother’s piano playing, the one who slept with the preacher?”
I froze, unable to respond.
“I knew that woman,” she added.
In light of what happened in Thomas Wolfe’s book, I felt the need to explain myself. “I made up that story. I’m always making up stories in my head. As a child, I entertained myself by making up stories.”
As my friend quietly studied me, I expounded on my entire writing process. I wanted her to know, I didn’t intentionally defame real life people in my books.
I went on to explain how I write a back story for the main characters and give detailed descriptions. “I outline on note cards. Outlining keeps me on track,” I told her.
“When I begin the process of writing and typing the story, I’m in a zone,” I said. “I think I know my characters, but they’re always surprising me.”
“How long does it take you to write a book?” she asked.
“It depends. Once I’ve completed a rough draft, I read through the story again and fill in gaps. If I find common themes, I try to accentuate and weave those themes throughout. I’m always trying to create more conflict. And I ask my husband to read it and give suggestions. I also ask my writer friends to be brutally honest with their critiques. I’ve learned I can’t shove my baby out in the world before she’s ready. It’s helpful to let the manuscript sit for a week or two and come back to it with fresh eyes. Then I rewrite and rewrite and pray for perfection.”
After I finished explaining my writing process, my friend said, “Hurry up and finish the sequel to A Message in the Roses. I want to know what happens to Carrie Sue and Marcus.”
I hugged her and thanked her for reading my books. “It was great seeing you again,” I said. “Wonderful being back home in Geneva.”
And indeed it was.