I was happy to hear Ian McEwan on the radio last week, describing his habit of saving deleted passages from his novels because they might contain “nuggets” he can use in later work. I don’t have much in common with this renowned writer, but we’re alike in one way: we both practice a literary version of recycling.
I don’t reuse only the nuggets, though. I recycle characters, subplots, whole scenes. Like one of my cloth tote bags, many elements of my books used to be something else.
When Disturbing the Dead was published, I wrote about the transformation of a character who first appeared in a manuscript titled Outside Agitators, a story about young antipoverty workers and the Appalachian people they tried to help during the War on Poverty. I worked on that novel for years and never turned it into a coherent story with a proper ending. But I’ve been carving away chunks ever since and using them in other books.
One of those chunks was a teenage mountain girl with red hair and freckles and the unlikely name of Lana Turner. She longed to leave the poverty-stricken hollow where she grew up and move on to a better life. When I wrote Disturbing the Dead, I kept Lana’s dreams but made her a little older and gave her a Melungeon – mixed race – heritage, which meant changing her coloring to olive skin, black hair, and bright blue eyes. My agent told me I would also have to change her name, because some editors disliked characters with famous people’s names. Lana became Holly Turner.
I wasn’t finished cannibalizing my old unfinished manuscript. In the original, I wrote about antipoverty workers as young idealists, well-intentioned but naive about their power to effect change in a region where gigantic energy corporations control the economy and politics. When I began working on Broken Places (released in February), I asked myself what some of these people would be like decades later, if they had stayed on after their government service ended and tried to continue their activism on behalf of the poor. Maybe they would have had some small successes over the years. Most likely, they would have experienced far more failures and been forced to swallow a bitter dose of disillusionment.
I plucked Cameron and Meredith Taylor from the pages of Outside Agitators, fast-forwarded to the present, and made these two disappointed idealists my murder victims. Meredith, I learned for the first time, had a secret ambition to be a writer, and her final – unfinished – manuscript was titled (ta da!) Outside Agitators. In its pages, Captain Tom Bridger of the Mason County (VA) Sheriff’s Department discovers clues to the motive behind the murders.
Mrs. Lily Barker, the self-educated woman from Disturbing the Dead who believes she has “the sight” (that’s what Appalachian natives call the ability to see beyond the tangible world), wasn’t lifted from any earlier work of mine, but she was inspired by a minor character in Outside Agitators who was too colorful to discard. Mrs. Barker proved popular with readers, and a woman who attended one of my library events made me promise to bring her back, so she returns in Broken Places and also shows up in the book I’m currently writing.
Mason County, my invention, is similar to the mountain community in the original Outside Agitators, but it’s in southwestern Virginia rather than West Virginia, and even the coal companies have largely deserted it by now. In my work in progress, though, Tom will pay a visit to a mountaintop mining operation. Other writers may favor idyllic small communities, but I’d rather write about places where sudden gashes of ugliness mar the natural beauty and decades of lies and rivalries and betrayals simmer just under the surface, ready to erupt and bleed all over the present.
All those years I poured into Outside Agitators, with no end in sight and little hope of ever seeing it published, have paid off richly, and I suspect I’ll use still more chunks of it before I’ve exhausted its possibilities.
When I delete a passage from a work in progress, I’m careful to stash it in a file rather than throwing it out. There must be some reason I wrote it in the first place, and if it doesn’t seem to fit now, it might be just what I need to fill a hole in a future story.