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The Heart of Things: The Story Behind the Story

My youngest daughter and I have an exceptional relationship. She is five years younger than the next of her siblings, meaning she was raised to some degree as an only child. With only 39 months between my first three babies, she has had more one on one time with me than my other children, simply because I've had it to give. One of the things Sheena and I like to do is take the car and drive to random locations. She gets to DJ, and I get to hear about her life.

When Sheena was 12, we were on one of our drives, and it took us to Kaloya park in Oyama. There, we saw a large, loose dog, and Sheena and I started to play the What If game -- what if he had rabies, what if he attacked us, what if he had killed his owners and had just buried their bones in the park? Things deteriorated from there. Creating murder mysteries from things we saw on our drives soon became one of our quirky mother/daughter games, and at some point I thought, huh, these people would make good characters in a book! What if instead of making up murder mysteries, this mother/daughter combo stumbled into murder mysteries?

I was excited by the idea. I mean, write what you know, right? And what mother wouldn't want to read about a mom and her teenage daughter who solved crimes together? The premise for The Heart of Things was born.

My novel writing process appears to be, get an idea, sit down at a keyboard and type until you don't know what to type next, re-read what you've got, then start to map out the rest. Map as far as you can, get stuck, re-think, write, get stuck, map...and repeat. This time, though, it wasn't quite that simple.

When I started writing The Heart of Things, I hadn't written fiction since university. I'd written a couple of non-fiction memoirs, plenty of magazine articles, and even a couple of scripts, but no fiction. And, I wanted this. I'd come to a place in my life where I finally knew what I wanted to be when I grew up -- a novelist! On the day I first sat down at my computer intent on creating the beginnings of this novel, I was surprised to find myself completely stuck. I mean, I knew exactly what I wanted to write. I had a start and an ending in mind. I knew the middle would find its way to the page. And yet, I sat at my kitchen table staring at the blank computer screen for what felt like hours without writing a single word. This was NOT my process. Desire was messing with my head.

I had so psyched myself up to write this book, that I had completely psyched myself out. Finally, out of desperation, I started to type the same words over and over:

I don't know what to write, I don't know what to write, I don't know...

From that place, Chapter One began to flow. The process of physically engaging my fingers on the keyboard disengaged (numbed, maybe?) my mind to the place that I was able to get over myself, and begin to feel the story.

As the chapters began to form, I was surprised to see the characters take over. To be honest, Colleen and Abbie do resemble myself and Sheena somewhat at the beginning of the book. Colleen is a dog groomer; I have been a dog groomer. Colleen is a single mom; I am a single mom. Abbie has curly blond hair, plays soccer, and uses particular idioms when she speaks; check, check and check for Sheena. And yet, from that starting place of similarity, Colleen and Abbie diverge greatly from their ancestral beginnings. I recognized, when I was writing, the moment this transformation happened, and found it thrilling. I also noticed that from that point of divergence, Colleen and Abbie took over and hijacked the plot of "my" book.

The fact that the characters had become their own people meant that I had to re-think the direction the book was taking. What if, I remember thinking, Colleen did this, instead of that? How would that change things? I'd intended for Colleen to go door to door in the victim's neighbourhood to see who might have information about the day of the murders. But, I thought to myself, would she really do that? And, wouldn't the police need to do that? I didn't want to show Colleen and Drew doing the same thing. I allowed Colleen to work through this crime in an alternative fashion, and her actions led to a suspect in the case, to her life-threatening car accident, to her inability to save Stewie from poisoning, and to Drew's decision to move in temporarily -- which showed Colleen all she was missing by not having a man around. All of this came from one simple plot re-direct.

Plotting a book through the eyes of a character, I realized, is a very deliberate and dispassionate thing. Instead of just random, impassioned writing, I had to step back and actually think about what my character might do, think about what would happen if instead of following my first instinct she took a different path, re-think which choice would lead to the next and best scenario for the story, think about what effect her actions would have on the choices of the other characters. Thinking about the scenario through the eyes of my character meant taking myself further and further out of the equation -- even though I was actually the one penning the words and thus calling the shots. This dichotomy quite fascinated me, and I realized I was watching the active process of sublimating ego. Once again, to make the middle of this story happen, I had to get out of my own way.

And then, after some months, the rough draft was done. I celebrated. I loudly and proudly posted my accomplishment all over my social media sites. When I finished the first edit, I did the same. I boisterously backed myself into a corner that said if I did not go through with this, or if I failed with this, there was no way to get out of my choices without my pride very publicly taking a hit. People said things to me like, I am so proud of your willingness to go for it -- I couldn't expose myself like that! I left myself no route from which to back quietly away. If I bombed, I bombed before all. But, proclaiming my intent before all meant I couldn't give up without showing my cowardice to the entire internet, either. I was committed.

During that first edit, I made some startling discoveries -- namely, I'd given two characters the same name, and had inadvertently changed the name of a different character halfway through the story. Oops! I fessed up at writers group. "Apparently," I told everyone, "I really like the name, Tara!" It was funny, not stressful, because I'd caught the mistake. Still, while others were reading their works out loud, I chose not to read aloud. The book wasn't finished until the edits were done. It wasn't "perfect" yet. Five edits later, I had to admit it never would be. All I could do was the best I could do. At some point, I was going to have to live with the reality that that had to be enough.

I had a decision to make. Was I going to take the advised route and send this off to beta readers, then process their thoughts before the next round of edits? Was I going to call in an outside editor to do a final proofread?

I did have a couple people who had told me they would willingly read the book. Now, though, it was September, and since they were all involved with college, the timing seemed off. I didn't have the money for an external edit, so that possibility was off the table. It appeared my options were hold onto the finished manuscript indefinitely, or trust my own judgement and abilities. What a choice! Was I really going to let the destiny of nine months of work rest on my own ability to be clinically impartial about the calibre of my book?

I was.

And the stress of that decision was monumental. Then, fate stepped in.

I'd worked for nine months at a bookstore which was doing a million+ dollar renovation. The first thing management did during this process was remove all the magazines from the store. On a daily basis, we heard complaints about the lack of magazines. When I quit the store, I promised to come in after the renovation was complete to purchase magazines. Because I like to think I am funny, on their grand re-opening weekend, I did exactly that. Two of the magazines I purchased had articles about finding an agent. I circled names that seemed to fit my novel, and this began the process of seeking representation for the story. To my very great surprise, this was the hardest, most terrifying, self-doubt laden part of writing the whole book.

How do you write a decent query letter? How do you boil 70,000 words down into two paragraphs and make it appealing? (In my case, apparently, you don't. I splurged with a third paragraph) What goes into creating a synopsis, anyway? I'd written almost three hundred pages to create my book, but for me, the five pages of marketing I was now sitting down to do had my stomach in knots from morning to night. It didn't matter if my book was good or not -- if I didn't get this right, no one was even going to want to take a look. The Heart of Things could die before it even got off the table, simply because this task took a completely different skill set. No longer was I letting my imagination frolic across pages of text. This had to be done right. Sitting on my couch with my dog at my side as I typed, I ate jujubes until I wanted to throw up.

In order to find the nerve to proceed, I had to trick myself. It didn't matter, I decided, if none of the six agents I approached liked the book. It would be disappointing, sure, but it didn't mean the dream was dead. There were still publishing houses I could approach without an agent, if necessary. Failing that, I could self-publish. Or, I could break down the chapters and publish them sequentially on my website to build my readership base, maybe have better luck with the next novel. I mean, hey, if it was good enough for Dickens...

Armed with these disclaimers, I double and triple checked all the elements of my email queries, and my finger clicked send. Still, no matter how bravely I framed this, I knew this was a monumental moment for me. My stomach danced with all varieties of butterflies. When I picked Sheena up at volleyball practice and told her what I had done, her acknowledgment was lukewarm. "That's totally going into the next book," I thought.

I woke to two rejections, and the adrenaline from the previous night dimmed. I ripped out a blog post about breakfast and friendship, sent three different articles out for potential magazine publication, plotted out a cowboy romance novel for NaNoWriMo month, but mostly, I watched a substantial chunk of Season Three of White Collar. Hard to be too creative when you wake to rejection. At least it was quick, I thought. I didn't want to wait around for two months only to get rejected then if I didn't have to.

I went for a walk on the beach with my camera, and when it was time to leave and pick up my daughter, I happened to notice there was an email waiting. And in that email, an agent was asking to see the rest of the book! I celebrated on the phone with my mom, then walked inside the high school to find Sheena. Waiting there was the father of one of her friends. "Can I tell you something?" I asked, and blurted out my news, literally hopping in the air as I did so. Because I am cool. Calm. A total professional.

I went home, read through one final time, and, with a very happy heart lodged fully in the back of my throat, sent my entire manuscript off to Ontario. And just like that, with a click of a button, this part of the story is out of my hands. Today, when I woke up, though, it was to an acknowledgement of receipt. She thanked me for sending my book her way. She thanked me. Now, that is a trippy way to start a morning.

And on that note, I got out of bed, pulled on a sweater, and drove my child to school.

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