Some people have been asking about how I ended up writing Cassandra’s Daughter, and so I started this set of posts. If you are just finding this, you can go back to Part One to start from the beginning. In the previous installment, I discussed some of the “big picture” decisions I was making during the early drafts of the book while living in the Outer Banks.
At this point, I was mostly spending my time imagining, finding connections, solving puzzles, doing research, and telling stories.
As I would read through each latest draft, I would constantly find myself asking questions:
- What kind of woman was Cora’s mom?
- What had happened that made Cora so disconnected to her daughter Leah?
- What would it look like to walk through Manhattan during the Great Depression?
- What happened to Jimmy K. after Cora left Portland?
But the one thing that stands out the most to me is the day that I asked myself, “Who are these women who work at the maternity hospital?”
I honestly don’t remember why I even asked that question because looking back, I cannot imagine it would matter. But I think I must have been feeling like I needed to round out some of the periphery characters. It’s likely that I read a book in my book club that did a great job of making minor characters come to life. And I didn’t feel like mine were doing that. Or it may have come from a point in my writing where I wasn’t sure what to do next, and working on some character sketches meant I was actually still writing.
I know that one of the first characters I worked on was the police officer that Cora asks for directions from when she arrives in New York City. I just fleshed him out a bit so that a reader could actually picture the man. It didn’t take a lot – just a couple of sentences. Hopefully I succeeded at that.
But the one that is crystal clear in my mind is when I decided to pick one of the characters at St. Anne’s Maternity Hospital and figure out why she worked there.
And that is exactly it. I had to “figure it out.” I certainly didn’t know. I picked Louisa, a.k.a. Florence, as the one I was going to use to find out. And by the way, at this point, Florence didn’t exist. I knew her as Louisa and knew as much about her as the women she worked with.
I chose to work from home that day, something I rarely did until COVID lockdowns forced me to write at home. I prefer being out and about with people and typically wrote at local coffee shops. But this day, I sat at the little desk in the living room that looked out over the sand dunes at the Atlantic Ocean. That may have been the only time I used that desk. And I told the story of Florence.
The reason I remember that day so vividly is that it was the first time that I had ever completely let go of everything I knew or expected or wanted from a character, and I just wrote. The more I wrote, the more curious I was about just what exactly her story was. And as the story revealed itself, I was horrified and heartbroken. I actually cried while I was writing and discovering what had happened to her and brought her to St. Anne’s. And every now and then I had to stop, completely dumbfounded as to where this was all coming from. I also worried about myself. Where from inside me could this ugliness possibly be coming from?? Those who have read the book will understand what I mean.
It was a powerful day.
And here’s the thing. At this point in my writing, Florence had about as much importance to the story as the cop in NYC. But my day with her changed all that. In the end, she is probably one of the most important characters in the book. A number of people have told me that she is their favorite, and I can see why. Her experience growing up permeates the novel, and she provides a necessary foil for the main characters. The book wouldn’t have been the same without her.
I also spent a lot of time on what I would call “big question” research. Some of the details I didn’t bother looking into until nearly the last draft, such as when I spent an entire day looking up World War I veteran’s hats so that half a sentence would be accurate. Big picture research involved things like understanding Munjoy Hill, the neighborhood where Cora lives as a child. And researching common birth practices during the years when characters were born. Unfortunately (or fortunately), I absolutely love doing research. Perhaps one could argue that a lot of time was wasted on research because I went down more rabbit holes than I can even begin to count. But it definitely never felt like wasted time.
At some point in this process, I also moved to Chicago. I had spent two years renting furnished beach houses on the Outer Banks, and it was time to find something more permanent. I found that permanence in an apartment one block off Michigan Avenue and a block off Lake Shore Drive – a dream spot.
Oh, I should probably also point out that my experience was punctuated by days of utter despair at the fact that I was writing absolute shit whether I was in the Outer Banks or in Chicago. And the longer I spent writing, the deeper the despair of those moments.
“I just wasted an entire year on shit.”
“I just waited two full years on shit.”
“I just spent four years writing shit.”
Not to worry, however. These bouts usually lasted 24 hours at most. Ask any writer if they go through the same doubts and days of hopelessness, and you will find that this is normal. The best part is that every single time I felt like this, the next day I would pull up what I had been working on to read it over, and I always came to the conclusion that what I had was great. And I simply could not wait to get back at it! Seriously,
In fact, at one of my low points when I had a pretty decent full story draft, I called my son, a talented writer himself, and asked if I could send him a copy to read. I wasn’t looking for specific feedback – it was too rough of a draft to be ready for that. I had only one question I needed answering.
“I need you to tell me only one of two things,” I said.”Let me know if this is really shit, and I should therefore cut my losses and abandon it. Or let me know that, hey, you might actually have something that could work here – keep going.” That’s all I wanted from him.
Based on our other conversations about writing and other creative endeavors over the years, I was confident that he would be honest with me.
He got on with the task and upon finishing, he told me not only that I should unquestioningly keep writing but that what I had so far was really great. That was all I needed to hear.
After telling my daughter what her brother said about the novel, she asked if she could also read it. I was thrilled she asked! I couldn’t get it to her fast enough. And I was surprised at how quickly she got through it. We met for a drink at happy hour so I could hear her thoughts. Most importantly, she loved it. That meant so much because I know that she would not have hesitated to tell me how she really felt. But even better, she had suggestions for improvement and pointed out sections that were confusing. That feedback was so impactful.
So guess what? I powered on.
I implemented the feedback I got from my children and made all of the changes I felt it needed. But I knew I was nowhere near done.
I think it was around this time that I mentioned to a friend that I had spent the day rereading the book, and she said,”You must be so bored having read it so many times.”
I was caught off guard. Of course that would make sense. Of course it would be tiring to read the same thing over and over again, right? Wrong. Never once was I bored reading that book. Not a single time. In fact, usually, each time I read it I would get re-energized.
However, each time I read through it, I found little inconsistencies, missing details, contradictions, inaccuracies. Or repetition of vocabulary. Plus there were also some major structural decisions that I was still wrestling with.
More on that in Part 5…
Cassandra’s Daughter by Vickie Oddino
Available on Amazon