I have always had a side project going as I worked on my contracted books–it’s how I learned to write, but stretching myself and trying to grow as a writer. The most fun—and most crazy-making—of these side projects, now THE GODDESS OF FRIED OKRA, out in April, started out a few years ago when I rushed one deadline and pushed back another to carve myself three weeks in which to just play. To try to remember what it was like when I wasn’t worrying about all the details involved in the business of publishing but instead to simply write for the fun of it.
I cannot begin to tell you how everything in this book came to be—because it’s a quirky one, I do admit!—but I remember those days fondly. I ditched my computer for my Alphie and sat on my deck in the cool morning shade…and from somewhere—heaven knows where—came this woman who had lost her boyfriend, her job and her place to live all on the same day and had thrown everything she had in her car to set off to find her sister.
The only problem is…well, her sister’s dead. But Eudora “Pea” O’Brien had consulted a psychic and was on the trail of the new body her sister was in now. Sister, see, had raised her and was all the family Pea had. Plus Pea had unfinished business with her.
Not that I knew any of this when I began. I’m definitely a seat-of-the-pants writer, but though I sell on proposal, I have to at least know where I *think* I’m headed. Yes, later, I had to get analytical, but for those three weeks, I just let myself wander without worrying about narrative structure or anything, just…play. And play. And…well, you get the picture.
So as it turns out, Pea has no idea where to find Sister–she’s watching for Fate to drop hints and reading roadside historical markers as she travels. Along the way, she picks up some unlikely companions like a starving kitten, a pregnant Goth teenager, and a sexy con man trying to go straight after a disastrous meeting with the husband of his latest vic—er, lady friend. (Can you tell Pea’s a sucker for a lost cause?)
Then there’s the gun shop owner named Glory (her shop is Guns ‘N’ Glory 😉 ) who is obsessed with warrior goddesses and a big fan of Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan the Barbarian. Glory, I might add, is prone to wearing combat boots and pearls, and oh by the way, she’s also a master swordswoman. And cranky as all get-out. Not that this stops Pea from pestering Glory to teach her swordplay, too.
So you see why there’s a sword on the cover, but the fried okra? Well, Pea also meets the ultimate grandmother, a café owner named Lorena who teaches Pea what is arguably a more important skill (especially if you’re from the South) namely the art of perfect fried okra.
There’s more going on in the story–I guess you can see that I was having a whole lot of fun playing. Where all these elements came from, though—well, I am learning to wield a sword in tai chi right now, but the book is long since done. I do get, though, why Pea thinks swordplay is so great. 😉
But back to where crazy ideas come from…heaven only knows. Conan the Barbarian? See, it was like this: my husband and I were driving on back roads one day (you find a whole lot more interesting sights that way) and I happened to spot a little sign about the Conan the Barbarian Festival held in Cross Plains, Texas. Who knew?!?
Turns out that Robert E. Howard was a Texas native (I can only imagine the horrified citizenry of Cross Plains.) The festival that year was over, but who could resist following the trail of something like that, I ask you?!?! There’s a mural on the side of the library of good ol’ Conan. I hadn’t started this book then, but things like that never leave you, right?
I’d almost forgotten the festival the next year but Fate helped me out with a tiny note in our electric co-op magazine. So I’m calling my beloved, in the middle of his work day, “Darlin’, wouldn’t you like to go to the Conan the Barbarian Festival tomorrow?” “How did you know?” said Mr. Long-Suffering Research Assistant and Driver. And away we went. We watched the parade (you have no idea how disappointed I was to see no cowboys in loin cloths amidst the sheriff’s posse and floats) and we toured the tiny two-room library to check out the exhibit of one of REH’s manuscripts.
I came back home and ordered a couple of his books. One of them, The Sword Woman, has this amazing creature on the front, a redhead named Dark Agnes wearing a nose-cone breastplate and swinging a mongo sword, trying to take off this burly brute’s head. Well, Pea is a six-foot-tall redhead, so tell me my brain didn’t start clicking! Voila, enter swordplay (and Glory’s love of warrior goddesses) into the picture, plus Dark Agnes becomes one of Pea’s spirit guides (Pea has a habit of hearing voices.)
Okay, so now have I made this book sound too weird for words? The premise is indeed quirky, I confess (and okay, some of the content, too) but for those who’ve read my work, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed at the heart and emotion in this book. I swear it does have layers and depth. And Pea is anything but a buffoon–she’s wistful and valiant and somewhat of an innocent. But the book is also a whole lot of fun. The chemistry between her and Val, the con man, was wonderful fun to write.
I feel like I became the truest me as a writer in the process of working on this book. Not that there weren’t a lot of ups and downs, trying to hold onto my faith that I wasn’t wasting my time, no matter how much I loved it, because there’s no question it’s not easy to classify. I’m deeply grateful for the astonishing quotes I’ve been given on it from writers I admire enormously–Susan Wiggs, Debbie Macomber, Stella Cameron, Cathy Maxwell, Sharon Sala and Julia London–and Eloisa James is going to feature it on her Barnes & Noble Romantic Reads column. Can you imagine?!? Plus a review compared it to The Secret Life of Bees, one of my all-time favorite books! I am absolutely over the moon.
It’s been a long and twisty journey, this ramble I took off the beaten path, but even through the ups and downs, my original goal has been accomplished times about a hundred. I’ve discovered a new joy in my craft, and I’ve learned to trust my gut more plus to stick up for what is important to me. I once said that this later-in-life writing venture (I was in the slow class on figuring out what to be when I grew up 😉 ) has made me a believer that it’s never too late to follow a wild hare (hair?) Well, take that sentiment and multiply it a whole bunch of times now, ’cause baby, I sure couldn’t have imagined where rocking on my deck would lead me!
So how often do you let yourself leap into an adventure without knowing where it will go?