The Magpie Writer Steals Again, by Holly Robinson
Writers are like magpies: we steal shiny objects wherever we go.
“Ooh!” we say as we catch a snippet of colorful dialogue in a restaurant. “I’m keeping that!”
The same is true for the silky threads of plot from a family story, or those gold buttons we find on family vacations that we can transform into fresh settings. I love looking back at my novels and seeing how I’ve woven the various bits and bobs I’ve been collecting into stories.
Sydney, one of the main characters in my newest novel, Haven Lake, is a child psychologist who grew up on a hippie commune started by her father, a Vietnam vet suffering from PTSD. She no longer has a close relationship with her mother, Hannah, who stayed on the farm after two tragic deaths shattered the lives of everyone at the commune. Hannah now raises Icelandic sheep on the farm, and when she takes in Sydney’s soon-to-be stepson, dark family secrets come tumbling out of every closet as mother and daughter are forced to confront each other and find out what really happened to cause those deaths.
So, what inspired me to create these particular characters and this story? Like most novelists, I created each character in Haven Lake from pieces collected during my magpie raids. Sydney’s work as a child psychologist, for instance, is based on my good friend Phoebe’s job. Yes, I took Phoebe out to dinner more than once and plied her with wine to tell me what her days look like, just so I could crib some of her psychologist’s lingo.
Hannah’s life as a shepherdess was also something I had to steal. For that, I spent time in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with a wonderful shepherdess and artist named Wendy Ketchum and talked to her about raising Icelandic sheep on her Schoolhouse Farm. (This I did with pleasure, I might add, since I’m a knitter and have always wanted to raise sheep.)
I made Hannah’s husband a Vietnam vet because my own father was a Navy officer who helped train and transport young soldiers to Vietnam, many of whom never came home. Or, if those men did return, they often suffered from emotional trauma, as did the older Vietnam vet boyfriend I had while I was in high school.
The main narrative propelling the characters forward in Haven Lake is the mysterious drowning of a child. This plot line actually originated with a story my mother told me about a child who drowned in a pond while he was in the care of her parents, who ran a summer camp for inner city kids. Mom told me the story when my own children were small, and I never stopped wondering about the horrible impact that event must have had on the child’s parents and on everyone associated with the camp.
Even the smallest details in a novel can come from real life. When Hannah discovers strange heart-shaped stones left around her property and suspects she has a stalker, well, those stones appeared in my pages because a good friend of mine was being courted by a man who brought her heart-shaped stones.
The next time you read a novel, consider how fiction really is art that imitates life at its most emotionally complex. The truths we find in fiction are as true as anything we know in real life, because real life is the source of every story.
About Haven Lake
Sydney Bishop hasn’t returned to her idyllic childhood home, Haven Lake, since she was sixteen—when a pair of tragic deaths shattered her family. Now a child psychologist engaged to a successful surgeon, Sydney has worked hard to build a relationship with Dylan, her fiancée’s teenage son, so she feels the loss and fear when he runs away—until she discovers that his hitchhiking journey has led him to Haven Lake, and her mother Hannah’s sheep farm.
Sydney returns to Haven Lake, for the first time in twenty years, to coax the boy home. Against her daughter’s wishes, Hannah offers to take Dylan in until he’s ready to reveal his own troubling secrets. Now, for Dylan’s sake as well as their own, Sydney and Hannah must confront the devastating events that tore them apart and answer the questions that still haunt their family about what really caused two people to die on their farm all those years ago.