For Christmas in 1911 Aunt Eliza gave a copy of a leather-bound book titled, “Longfellow” to Marguerite Day. I know this because inside the cover of my worn and tattered book of Longfellow poems, a cover splotched with white paint and water stains and frayed edges from being well read over the decades are the hand written words in beautiful cursive,
There are things we know about this book, other than it’s a wonderful book of poetry written by Henry Longfellow in the 1800’s.
Working history backwards, I know I’ve owned the book for the past fifteen years or so and it currently resides with me in St Petersburg, Florida. Going back a decade and a half further, I know the book was found in an attic floor in a house on Coolidge Avenue in Caribou, Maine. I also know a friend who thought of me as soon as her daughters found it tucked under an old pine plank in the attic gave it to me as a gift back in the 1990’s. We know Eliza gave it to Marguerite in 1911, or at least we know she inscribed it and intended to give it to her. We do not know whom they were or if the gift was actually given in Caribou, Maine.
As I flip a few pages past the inscription there is a photo of a white bearded old man wearing a suite and a bow-tie with a copy of his signature, “Henry W. Longfellow” printed onto a page that is half covered with some sort of pink stain that has bled onto every one of the 443 pages. On the bottom of the next page it says,
Thomas Crowell and Company Publishers.”
They themselves have walked a long winding-road that has brought them to become part of the current publisher, Harper & Row. One last thing I know is on the next to the last page of the book, J47499 is written in pencil in the upper left hand corner of the page.
With some research there are likely a lot of things we could find out and “know” about the book and the original owner, but this article is about coming up with ideas for a story, and not necessarily a true story. Despite what you may have been taught, there’s not a right or wrong way to come up with ideas. For me it’s simply a process of starting with one word or line or idea and letting it grow. I take a factual or fictional idea, character, place or event and try to keep them within the framework of some sort of believable reality and then I experience their life, or part of it, one page at a time. The story writes itself as much as I write it. That’s just what works best for me and I do not map out or outline my stories. I just start writing and keep writing until it’s time to stop.
So what are the possibilities of what happened in Marguerite’s life? Well, let’s make a presumption, which may or may not be correct, that she was a young woman in 1911 and perhaps lived another fifty years after she received the book. That would make her a gray haired old woman in the early 1960’s. To put it simply, the grand possibilities are endless. Just look at the events that took place in her lifetime.
The Titanic sunk the year after she received the book as a Christmas gift; just a few years before the roaring twenties came roaring in. There was World War I and World War II, the Korean War and a few other lesser wars. Imagine the lives and loves that could have been altered by those events. There was the Great Depression and all the economic booms and crashes that came between all the wars. In her lifetime she could have experienced the international exposure to Matisse and Picasso, the mainstreaming of Jazz and the Blues. But that’s just some of the Big News stuff. Perhaps, or almost certainly, there was small town or big city chatter that affected their everyday lives in the homes and neighborhoods they lived in. The real story of life happens on the streets that the characters walk on day in and day out. Forget about what happened around the world. What happened in the next room, perhaps the bedroom, or down the street or at church or between family and friends, or between enemies. There were marriages that were good and bad and, back then there were a few scandalous divorces. Children were likely born or perhaps Marguerite was childless. It’s possible that she couldn’t have children or maybe she was in a loveless relationship. Who knows, maybe she loved the girl next door. That would have been something in a small town in 1911.
If you let your imagination flow a little looser, it’s possible the story has almost nothing to do with Marguerite or Aunt Eliza. Imagine that she received the book for Christmas in 1911 while living in California. A few months later she was reading in a coffee shop when some friends interrupted her. After talking for a while she got up and left with them and forgot about her book of poems lying on the table. Before she returned to get her forgotten gift, someone else picked up the book and thus began the ninety-year journey of a book of Longfellow poems from Monterey, California to Caribou, Maine. The Day family got the ball rolling, but then became secondary characters in a thirty-five hundred mile, ninety-year saga. And who’s to say what route the book took in getting to Maine. Oh, the possibilities. A hundred and five years later the story is still being written.
So, where do stories come from? I suppose the real answer is that they come out of thin air and they cannot be forced out. Like a small feather drifting down from the sky, you as a writer have to let the feather land in your hand. If you try to reach out and grab it, the air currents will force the feather away. Imagine, make up or start with a real idea and let it take you where it will. You might be amazed where the story will take you if you let it write itself.