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This blog was featured on 06/16/2018
Writing What You Don’t Know: How not having a dad fueled my fiction.
Written by
She Writes
June 2018
Written by
She Writes
June 2018

This guest post was provided by Pam McGaffin, author of The Leaving Year. As we roll into Father's Day weekend this article is compelling for writers, daughters and dads alike. We can feel the power a dad plays whether he is there or not and learn from all of Pam's fantastic insight into writing your first book. 

I’d already started writing my first novel -- about a teen-age girl trying to find out the truth about her missing father -- when I realized I was channeling my own experience as a daughter who grew up dad-less.

Perhaps a little voice in my head said, “Use it!” because that’s what I did with my young-adult novel, The Leaving Year, forthcoming from SparkPress Aug. 14. I used my father’s absence, my experiences growing up with a single mother, and the mystery of a marriage that lasted just long enough to produce me.

The father in my book is a commercial fisherman who’s lost at sea, leaving his daughter, Ida, and her mother to figure out how to make a life without him.

Oh, and maybe he didn’t really drown like the Coast Guard said. Maybe he’s gone, but still alive. Maybe the father Ida idolized wasn’t that man she thought he was.

The mystery surrounding my own father isn’t so dramatic, though it’s fair to say I never really knew him.  

Oh sure, I saw him, around Christmas and sometimes on my birthday, in staged and awkward visits. He and his third wife took me on one outing I remember -- a movie followed by dinner at the Black Angus.

But he was never “Dad” to me, more like an important stranger who compelled me to be on my best behavior. I certainly felt no love for him, and he didn’t really show any love for me.

At the same time, I didn’t miss having a real Dad. You can’t miss what you’ve never experienced.

What I was missing was information. Who was this guy? Why did Mom marry him? Why did they divorce?

My mother wouldn’t answer these questions until I was “old enough.” But, in due time, I would learn the messy truth.

As Ida does in The Leaving Year.

Her quest for answers drives the action of novel, which took me five years to write and edit. Suffice to say, I’m a pantser not a plotter. I learned as I went along, one scene suggesting the next, with only a vague idea of my story arc: Gee, it feels like something big should happen here.

I’m the first to admit that my process was horribly inefficient, but it worked in the end because I learned to let my characters and their relationships guide me.

Ida’s bond with her father is secondary to the mother-daughter relationship that provides most of the story’s tension, but it’s still central. The trick became how to make a relationship told mostly in flashbacks seem layered and real.

Here’s some of what I learned:

  • Writing is a bit like painting with oils. With each pass, or draft, the characters become more vivid, alive and nuanced. There’s no short-cut. Or, if there is, I haven’t discovered it yet.
  • Sometimes you have to write a lot to get a little. Knowing the backstory infuses the present with that lived-in feel. For example, I wrote a whole a series of letters by the mother, Christine, to her lost husband. The letters didn’t make the final cut, but they helped me understand both characters better.
  • Sometimes you can write a little to get a lot. Some well-chosen details and a key flashback scene can go a long way. I didn’t need to know my fictional father’s whole life story. But if Ida knows his favorite movie-theater candy (Dots, including the green ones) that implies a deep bond.
  • Memories and emotions are a rich resource just waiting to be mined. Ultimately, my whole life went into writing this novel: how I felt starting a new school; my first crush; family fights; my mother’s overprotectiveness; the anxiety and thrill of striking out on my own. It all bubbled up. I guess you end up writing what you know (or in my case, don’t know), whether consciously or not.

My father died in September. He was alone. He’d tried to call me, but I kept putting off calling him back to avoid what I knew would be an awkward religion-laced conversation.

Only afterwards, sifting through the pile of stuff he’d left on his dining-room table, did I begin to understand the extent of his feelings for me. His will, annuities, insurance documents – it was all there for me to find. He’d left everything to me. He was trying to do the right thing.

It seems fitting that his estate will help pay for this book, and hopefully, more to come.

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