Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Called Together, Forced Apart by Janet Chester Bly

I started the writing craze. Then I got my husband involved. We combined as a team. Then his fiction got so prolific that it consumed us both, to keep up with the process before and promotion afterward.

Now that I’ve lost Steve, I’m so used to the team brand, I’ve lost my own. That’s not a complaint. It’s just a statement of where I’m at after losing my mate of 48 years, my partner in almost everything.

In early January 2011 Steve resolved to do three jobs by summer: prune the pines in our yard; re-roof the house; complete his contracted 106th novel, Stuart Brannon: The Final Shot.

A few weeks later he played eighteen holes of golf. The next day, he could hardly stand for more than a few minutes, breathing hard. His almost five-year battle with prostate cancer finally took its toll. The next four months he spent more days in the hospital than out. He passed away June 9th.

Determined to finish his list of projects, I hired a tree trimmer. I found a roofer.

Meanwhile, my sons each said to me, “Let’s get that book done.”

Steve left us 7,000 words, a synopsis and some character names. I had never written adult fiction alone, although I had authored children’s books and  co-authored adult cozy mysteries with Steve. I tore into our writing books for some quick tips and printed out excerpts for the sons.

I sensed the wisdom and God’s own purpose for including Russ, Mike and Aaron. For one thing, to incorporate Steve’s input throughout. Some of that I knew by coming alongside him all those years. But our sons possessed a part of his creative genes. They also knew about golf swings and poker hands. All three were movie buffs. They had a passion for analyzing characters and storylines. They had to be involved.

So I joined another partnership.

The Guidelines
Any suggestion could be made, but I had the power of last edit and control of the ‘send’ button.

The Challenges
I had to find my rhythm in Steve’s story. And how to write from a man’s point of view. Westerns were Steve’s genre. He knew the geography, history, facts about guns and horses, the language and the lifestyle. We had to play catch up on all fronts. This story had to read like a Stuart Brannon character and a Stephen Bly novel.

My goal had been to pour out at least 5,000 words per day, like Steve did with ease. I couldn’t do it. I had to downsize to about 2,000. That frustrated me and caused panic that we’d never get it done in time. Then I realized I self-edited as I wrote, which took more effort. When several of the boys crafted scenes of their own, the total count jumped and I knew we’d make our goal.

Our women readers would wonder if Brannon, a long-time widower, would find romance. This plagued us for some weeks until the true lovers emerged.

The last scenes Steve dictated to me in a quarantined hospital room. I wore a sweaty yellow gown and acrylic gloves, while typing as fast as I could.

When read aloud, the sons commented, “Doesn’t flow with the rest of the story.”

In order to include these vignettes, we devised dream sequences for Brannon. 

Keaton Tanglewood, a young Indian says, “The old chiefs dream many dreams.”

Brannon ponders, “Am I like an old chief? Are we getting so close to the next world that this one and the other start to blur together?”

That tied it in.

The Frustrations
With the time crunch, there wasn’t space to give the manuscript a rest, to put it aside so we could come back to it fresh one last time. Instead, we turned it in after frantic days of rewrites.

The Surprises
I didn’t get overwhelmed by the impossibility of the task or the inevitable comparisons on the quality by my peer group. I stayed steady because I knew without a doubt this must get done. Looking back, I’m astounded that we accomplished this daunting task. To God be the glory.

The Satisfaction
The most enjoyable aspect was working with my sons. We labored on behalf of someone we dearly loved and missed. In the midst of the occasional stab of tears, we grieved together. The fiction crafting process itself proved therapeutic.

The intimate look into Steve’s favorite character, this journey along the frontier of this man’s soul was like peering into Steve’s.

This stanza is adapted from one of my husband’s poems.

            The preacher was wrong years ago when he said,
            ‘It’ll last ‘til death do you part.’
            It’s an Idaho sunrise, my latté’s all gone,
            and I still got that guy in my heart.

In a research trip to the Oregon coast, two weeks before deadline, I retraced the spots where Steve and I had gone together many times. This round I paid attention to more than the fish dinners, driving on the beach and sunsets over the ocean. After a closer perusal of the old Gearhart golf course where Steve had played, I studied the geography and history and discovered some mistakes we’d made. For instance, an island scene couldn’t happen. No islands near Oregon, only rock outcroppings. I wondered what Steve would have done. He’d never have made the error in the first place. He had a photographic mind for sensory details and facts. But I discovered Tillamook Head. Hiked it. Learned the background. Made the change. I think Steve would have been pleased. . .that we got it right.

Janet Chester Bly


Janet Chester Bly has authored 30 nonfiction and fiction books, 18 she co-authored with Christy Award winning author, Stephen Bly. Titles include The Hidden West Series, The Carson City Chronicles, Hope Lives Here, and The Heart of a Runaway. She resides at 4200 ft. elev. on the Idaho Nez Perce Indian Reservation. Her 3 married sons, Russell, Michael and Aaron, live down the mountain with their families. 

Stuart Brannon: The Final Shot releases March, 2012 in large print, hardback and ebook. Paperback version will be available August, 2012.

Follow Janet on her website, blog, Facebook page and Twitter.