Authors often get asked what inspired their novels, and mine, The Shores of Our Souls, is no exception. It’s an easy question for me to answer: Travel and cultural curiosity.
In Shores, Qasim, an Arab Muslim U.N. official from war-torn Lebanon, meets Dianna, from the rural Carolinas and a researcher at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They fall in love, and they try to make their love work in the midst of a world that does not believe in it.
I grew up traveling. We moved every two years when I was very young because my father worked for the FBI. Yes, he was a G-man, and I’d like to write about him at some point. I grew up in the back seat of an Oldsmobile, or actually standing beside him on the front seat, as we moved from state to state.
I also grew up with Caroline Kennedy as a role model. She was 18 months older than me. I bought paper dolls graven in her image and imagined the life she must lead. I remember her father’s funeral vividly, though I had only just begun kindergarten. So I knew I wanted to help the world in some small way very early. My dreams were of the Peace Corps, which JFK created in 1961, but I ended up using my writing more, first as a journalist, then working to spread the message of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent.
These memories came back to me this weekend as I traveled to drop my youngest at college and took pleasure wandering the grounds of FDR’s home on the Hudson River. It jarred my memory of the key role Eleanor Roosevelt played in JFK’s election and the creation of the United Nations and the Peace Corps. I had no idea she was front and center in convincing Kennedy’s pursuit of civil rights. Now I’ve learned of this and so much more.
A writer often feels guilt at doing anything that is not pounding a keyboard. Yet, had I not lived abroad, traveled in the Middle East, or performed research in Lebanon, I would never have gotten the details right in my debut novel, even though I had lived through 1981, the year my novel takes place. No matter how many newspaper archives I scanned or how many National Geographic Magazines I flipped through. No matter how many people I interviewed.
That’s because travel gives us a perspective that doesn’t exist totally on a page or in a memory. History is always reported from someone else’s perspective. Even news reports contain a certain bias, especially if it comes from a dusty newsroom and not the location the action is taking place. In the humanitarian world, we call it “the field.” I like to think of it as a field of possibility, especially for a Creative.
1. A new perspective;
2. Accurate factual details;
3. Better characterization and voice
4. Inspiration and enlightenment for the author.
In Beirut, six weeks before the Israeli invasion in 2006, I was able to see a city built up from the rubble of the 1980s, search through its museums, visit its bookstores, sit on the American University of Beirut campus, look through its library stacks, speak with its people in cafes. Ask them tons of questions. I was able to experience the first bombing runs up the coast a couple of nights before I left. I sat in the airport feeling the dread of the place. I stood by the Madonna overlooking Beirut and asked women who came to her for mercy about the tears they shed there.
Though my novel focuses on recent history, at least half of the American population does not remember 1981. Many readers were babies or yet unborn. Most of us have not lived abroad, let alone visited Beirut or Jerusalem or Damascus. I would add that I researched New York City just as vigorously, but it was much easier to get to and remain in, being married to a man from North Jersey. All I had to do to remember Manhattan in 1981 was to look in my journals.
I profess authors should take the time to travel, take in the sights, the sounds, and the energy of a place and era. Talk to the people who live there. Had I not stayed in the Hudson River Valley, I might have planted myself in front of the computer and written this blog a day earlier, and I might have missed that important fact about Mrs. Roosevelt, her meeting with Kennedy in her home called Val-Kil, where she lived after her husband’s death, which I’ll put to good use in a later book. And for now, in this blog.