The Story Behind The Story
When I tell people that I've written my first novel, the typical response is something along the lines of, “Wow, that's cool.”
The next question is almost always, “What's it about?”
The conversation then turns, depending on the person. Some want more information, some are moved because they know the backstory and others aren't all that interested. There are other reactions, but that's the usual takes.
If you're not familiar with the backstory, my novel “Season On The Brink” was inspired by the true events that happened in my town, of Falmouth, MA, in December of 2016. Two young athletes, James Lavin and Owen Higgins, were killed in a tragic car accident just before Christmas. They were standouts on the local high school's football team, that won the state championship just weeks before.
The close buddies were also big time contributors on the ice hockey team, which had high hopes that season. James was a great football player and would have played in college. Owen had just been named one of the captains of the hockey team, and had a chance to play college baseball. Covering sports for our town's paper, The Falmouth Enterprise, for almost two decades at the time, I had known both kids for a long time. I knew their older brothers, and younger siblings. I knew their families. I liked them both a lot, and had laughed with both recently. Higgy and Lav were the types of kids that made me love my job.
Having to cover their deaths in the newspaper was hard. I won't lie, it sucked, for so many, many reasons. As a reporter you're supposed to separate yourself from the story, you are gathering and reporting news. That's so much easier said than done. I have lived in Falmouth since I was a little kid. This is home, always has been and always will be. James and Owen were Clippers, but more importantly they were great kids with bright futures that were taken way too early.
Over the next few months there was something that reminded you of them. All of the teams in town wore commemorative ribbons on their jerseys. Every hockey team in the state honored them at least once, and the Cape Cod teams wore helmet stickers all season. Their friends and teammates had to keep playing, and had so many emotional issues to work through while still trying to win games. Some of those kids I've known well for a long time, others I've gotten to know better in the time since the accident.
That same winter I had my own personal trouble to deal with. On Valentine's Day my wife was diagnosed with Stage 3C endometrial cancer. We'd known for a while that something was not right with her, but when we found out it was way worse than we thought it might be. I'm happy to report that today she is very healthy and is winning her fight, but those months that followed the diagnosis were some of the worst I've ever had. I hate to make things about me, but my head was a mess. When you're a dad and husband, though, and have two kids and a wife that are relying on you to be the rock of the family, that's what you become.
I can't really pinpoint the time that the idea to write this story become more than an inkling of a thought, but slowly it manifested. Originally I thought it would be a good idea to just write the story of the Clippers, and what they went through. It didn't take long for me to realize that real life if far more messy than fiction in terms of story-telling. Making all of the pieces fit well into a narrative that flowed was not going to be easy. That's when I decided that it would be better to make a story that was inspired by reality, but fiction. That's what I did.
Anyone that knows the people involved will be able to draw some lines directly from a character to a real person. There are some cases where real people are definitely analogs for the characters. Even with them, though, I've changed things up. What I have tried to do is take character traits from people and use them as a framework, and in several cases I've combined several people into one.
So, I had this story swimming in my head and wrote down an outline for how I thought it would work. I was being a little wishy-washy about the whole thing and then I decided that I'd check in with my old friend T.M. Murphy, who wrote the amazing “The Running Waves” with his brother Seton. They're about to turn that into a movie, and you should definitely read it. It's great, and it deals with a similar themes and scenarios and also was inspired by real life.
I'll never forget the conversation I had with Ted that day at Starbucks. First, he listened to me and I showed him my outline and what I thought the story was and could be. I asked him if he thought I was on to something, and if it was worth diving into. Was I biting off more than I could chew, I wondered. Would anyone care?
Ted said something I'll never forget and was what got me to finally stop considering taking on this project and actually begin it.
“Rich, you've got to tell this story. This is a good story, it's something people will want to read,” he said with that Irish enthusiasm that he inspires people around him to run through walls. He really should have been a coach. “And, you're the only person that can write it. You have to do this.”
I know that I've said “thanks” to him before, but I'm not sure if Ted knows how important that was. I needed that. At that point in my life, with so much anxiety and fear with my day to day stuff, getting that nudge came at the perfect time.
I had already sketched out basically what I thought would be the first seven chapters. That outline became more like 20 chapters. My original idea was to call the book “Three Seasons” and include the baseball season. After writing for a while I realized that if I did that the book was going to be way too long.
On trips to doctor appointments I thought about the story. In waiting rooms I wrote a chapter here and there. When I was waiting for games to begin, I worked on the story. When I had a day off, I stole a few hours here and there to write. Before I knew it I had 20,000 words and the start of something.
It took way longer than I thought it would to finish the first draft, basically 15 months. There were times I'd go three weeks without touching the manuscript because of the stresses of daily life and having a full time job, and my own business. But, and this is probably what I'm most proud of, I never gave up on finishing it. I always came back to it because this was my story to tell and I had to tell it.
Next week I should finish the second draft. I've already got a cover. The blurb should be ready this week, too. We are getting closer and closer every day and I'm excited. I can't wait for this book to finally have its birthday. I can't wait for people read it. The best thing is knowing that it won't fail. I mean it might not sell as much as I hope. Who knows about that? But as long as I finish it, and release it, that's a victory.
One of the big themes in “Season On The Brink” is hope, and fighting through the hardest of times to get to the finish line. Wins and losses aren't as important as the season, and giving it everything you've got to finish. After this process I appreciate that more than ever.