How to build a novel in ten years or less

When I was a kid, I spent my summers in Upper Rexton, NB, where my parents had built a cottage on the Richibucto River. They purchased an acre of land from a relative who lived next door. It was isolated and quiet, and everyone in our little rustic community was related.

I had no idea what a fabulous childhood I had been gifted.

There were lots of family-reunion weekends, including lobster boils, followed by hot blueberry dumpling. My cousin Lisa and I spent the summer in our bathing suits. We swam for hours, dug clams, gathered driftwood from along the shoreline by canoe, and made sculptures – mostly ashtrays – out of beach clay. As the day wore on, we burned the wood we gathered on the beach, and listened to music.

Sorry…why do old pictures all seem blurry? They were perfectly fine at the time.

But Lisa, one year older, also liked to scare me with almost-nearly-true ghost stories. One late afternoon we were sitting in the tall grass, exchanging paranormal anecdotes about local ghostly women who were heard wailing as they wandered the back roads upon which they were accidentally killed. The stories grew more and more macabre, until we realized how dark it was, and felt the chill in the air. Both of us sprang to our feet and darted home across the field.

My mother and father were not there when I returned. I had to get ready for bed alone, in an empty cottage. My footsteps echoed –they sounded like two people. Was there someone behind me?

Anyway, I brushed my teeth, dove under the covers, and wriggled back against the wall, eyes round as saucers, waiting for my parents to get back from playing cards with Lisa’s parents. When she finally got home, I called out to her in a tremulous little voice. “Mom?”

She came in and frowned at the sight of my little huddled form in the top bunk. “Why aren’t you asleep? It’s midnight.”

I hated to admit that I was scared, because my mom was a strict, no-nonsense kind of parent, but my paranoia got the better of me. After I recounted the Lisa-enhanced family ghost stories I’d heard just a few hours before, she gave me a long look.

“Well,” she began, “there aren’t any ghosts here—so go to sleep.”

It was a curt answer, but oddly comforting, and I did go to sleep, safe in the knowledge that Mom knew what she was talking about. She would not lie about ghosts, considering her affinity for them.

My mom likes ghost stories. She’s convinced she’s seen them in a couple of homes she’s lived in over the years, places she was glad to leave. She comes from a superstitious family, folk that hear three knocks on the door before someone dies, and who see birds hitting the window as an omen of death. People who insist that the house they grew up in was haunted by the ghost of their own grandmother, with the sound of her rocking chair emanating from the kitchen at night, etc.

I have no such experiences, but as I got older it was always enjoyable listening to my mom’s tales at twilight. When I was in high school, I would bring home lots of books from the school library every week, and that’s when my mother realized that she liked to read. She read all the books I brought home, whether I read them or not, from Anna Karenina to East of Eden to The Edible Woman.

So in 2014, I was looking for a new novel project, and I decided to write a ghost story for my mother. She had been made the executor of her own mother’s will a few years before, and it was a difficult and complicated situation. It made me think that ghosts and wills go pretty well together.

Where was I going to put my ghost? I’m quite partial to Victorian inns, given that my husband and I used to own an 1840s-age manor here in New Brunswick with a group of people (never mind, it’s complicated) back in the nineties, and I always loved the walk-up attic. Our manor was beautiful, but it needed a lot of work, far more than our resources would allow.

And since my favourite place in the whole world is the Bay of Fundy, I figured this ghostly inn should be overlooking those famous crashing high tides. (The New Brunswick side of the Fundy, mind you. We don’t get enough attention over here.)

With such a bold setting, you need a character with a sad set of circumstances, so I decided that my smart-but-grieving main character should inherit an inn from her grandmother — a big shocking surprise! And then I filled it full of conflict, plus a love triangle.

I didn’t realize I’d written a gothic novel until I pitched the story to publishers in 2019, and that’s what someone on the panel called it – Atlantic Gothic. I didn’t know how to classify my story. I only knew the kinds of things I liked to read. But after doing a bit of sleuthing, I realize that this story indeed has many elements of a gothic novel: suspense and fear, foreshadowing, dreams, an atmospheric setting, the supernatural, romance, a villain, emotional distress, and nightmares.

I began the story in 2014, and finally, after ten years, it’s being published. Ten years seems like a long time, but I wasn’t working on it steadily. Life gets in the way. Nevertheless, it went through several iterations, and I gave up on it more than once. In the early days, I even envisioned it as a movie screenplay.

Launching April 4, I am grateful that this debut novel, The Widow & The Will is being published by Merlin Star Press. Based in Cocagne, Merlin Star is Southeast New Brunswick’s newest publisher. I am gratified that my book is their debut project, as well. I hope it’s the first of many successful books in their catalogue.

In the meantime, I’m starting a new project, and this time, I hope it won’t take me ten years to complete.

1 Comment

  • Allan Hudson on January 27, 2024

    Well done, Rhonda. So happy for you.

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