In 2015, my husband and I sailed through the Panama Canal. After seeing this man-made wonder up close and learning about its history, I intuitively knew the giant waterway would eventually find its way into one of my novels. Hoping for inspiration, I soaked up every word of David McCullough’s award-winning book, The Path Between The Seas, a well-written epic chronicle of the canal’s construction. The facts intrigued me, but I wasn’t sure how to turn them into an engaging fictional story.
Months later, I was sorting through some old family photos and came across the picture in this blog. The woman is my husband’s aunt, Dora Carothers. Born in 1882, Dora grew up on a farm in Cutler, Ohio, the oldest of nine children. She graduated from nursing school in her early twenties and then worked as a Red Cross nurse in Europe during the First World War. She later moved to Kentucky, riding a patient circuit to care for the rural population. Dora never married. She was a beloved, hard-working career woman who paid for her younger siblings’ college education. She died in 1969 at the age of eighty-seven, having lived a remarkable life. I wanted to tell her story but wasn’t sure how to approach the project. After all, I’m a novelist, not a biographer.
Then, inspiration hit when I realized Dora graduated from nursing school about the same time the United States began working on the Panama Canal. I began losing sleep, feeling excited about the possibilities of aligning a gripping fictional story alongside historical events. My mind swirled with ideas. What if I create a young protagonist based loosely on Dora’s life? What if she has a brother who works in Panama? What if that brother gets so sick and must return home but is unable to travel alone? What if he begs his nurse sister to come and get him? What if that sister sails to Panama to rescue him and something unexpected happens? What if the trajectory of their lives are changed forever because of this incident?
Two and a half years later, answers to those questions culminated in my fifth novel, Clara’s Way. Set in 1904, the story depicts the controversial first fourteen months of the United States’ occupation in the Canal Zone through the eyes of an altruistic, 23-year-old nurse. The book, which ultimately is about love and loss, courage, and the unexpected paths that shape our lives, has just been published on Amazon.
Now you know how I get ideas that turn into novels (and I got to promote my next story!). If I stay alert and curious, follow my intuition, talk with people, read a lot, and travel to new places, inspiration will surely follow, just as it did after visiting Panama, and finding those old family photos. I can’t wait to see where my next writing journey takes me.
What inspires you? What stirs your imagination?