Often, when I'm giving a talk about my novels I'm asked, where did you come up with the idea to write the story? I get my inspiration from past. I've written about what led me to write the Durant family saga - I stayed in a cabin hidden in the wilderness that was supposedly built by William West Durant for trysts with his mistress. What I thought would be a one book love story/romance that would net me a lot of money, turned into a four year research journey. This folklore about William and his mistress started me down a path of clues that shed light on the lives of the Durant family and had me visiting the New York Public Library, the Library of Congress, Winterthur Museum, the Adirondack Museum, and England. My one book idea turned into a trilogy.
While I was working on the Durant family saga, I told a friend I needed to find another story. We happened to be boating on the St. Lawrence River in a region called the 1,000 Islands. She suggested I write about the long history of smuggling along this wide swath of water that separates Canada and the U.S.
I took up the challenge thinking I'd be writing about the bootlegging years of the Great Depression. But as happens with research, my original concept changed as I found a more intriguing tale set in the 1990s. After reading Smuggler Nation, by Peter Andreas, and internet browsing, I found news articles about major Canadian cigarette manufacturers orchestrating smuggling across the U.S./Canadian border and profiting considerably from the operation.
And then a book titled Smoke Signals, by Jim Poling sent me on my way down the rabbit hole of research. Before I knew it I was using the Freedom of Information Act to gain access to public hearings about environmental contamination on the river, and reading dissertations and books on the politics of smuggling contraband and humans, including Patrick Radden Keefe's book titled The Snakehead.
The result is a large bibliography and draft novel. While waiting for what may take months or years to get this traditionally published I embarked on another research journey. This time to the Great Smoky Mountains in the southeastern U.S., where one of the country's most popular National Parks was brought about by the displacement of first the native Cherokee, and then the mountaineers that eked out a living in the forest (southern highlanders as the folklore likes to call them).
While the research is a slow and steady task, never really ending, a lot of it can be done via use of digital archival material. However, the writing takes dedication. I'm lucky enough to be in an academic profession that allows me chunks of time to write. In the summer months I spend the mornings in a library or coffee house writing until I reach 3k words (usually about two-three hours). I do this until I have a rough draft of a novel - about 80k words. This can take up to three months of work. Editing takes at least another year.
Once in a while I panic, thinking, will I ever run out of ideas on what to write about? What if this novel is my last? Can I keep up with the research and the creative process involved in putting out a novel set in the past about real people and events?
Recently, while walking in the famous Fort Hill Cemetery where Harriet Tubman, and William Seward are buried, I thought about how many stories there are to tell and thought, "I'll ever run out of material."
Sheila Myers is an Associate Professor at a small college in Upstate NY. She enjoys writing, swimming in lakes, and walking in nature. Not always in that order.