Readers are often interested in where authors get their ideas from, so I assume this would be the case with Molly’s Song as it was with my first novel. The story behind the story, at least to me, is as interesting as the story itself. I love looking at historical photographs, particularly those from the 19th Century. To me, there’s something about black and white photography that makes it far more compelling, in my opinion, than color photography. If I may offer a full confession here, I kind of have a “thing” for late Victorian and Edwardian Era women. Don’t ask me why. I can’t explain it. But I find ladies from this era to be stunning. Having grown up in a port city on the Gulf Coast that was once famous the world over for its houses of ill fame, the history of prostitution has also been an interest of mine as a historian, though truthfully, even though I teach college history as my second career, I don’t really claim to be a historian. I just pretend to be one in bars.’
These interests converged in 2019 when, for Father’s Day, my wife purchased me a book called Working Girls by Robert Flynn Johnson. It contained never before published photos of sex workers in a house of ill fame in Reading, PA in 1892. The story behind how he came to acquire the photos and how he tracked down their origin is fascinating too, but that is his story to tell, not mine, so you’ll have to read his book. The photographer, William Goldman, had a great eye for detail. The photos are amazing. And yes, many of them are nudes, but nothing is vulgar. They are true works of art. Little did I know that when I turned to Page 73, I would be sent on an quest, if you will, that led to me having this website in the first place.
In this photo, a young woman (I’d place her in her early 20s, but it is hard to tell when trying to guess ages in old photographs) sits in chair. She is wearing a locket of some sort around her neck, and she is gazing at a photograph which she holds in her hand. I don’t know what it was about this photograph in particular that drew me in, but when I saw it, I immediately wanted to know everything there was to know about this young woman. My brain kicked into overdrive and started demanding the answers, when there were none to be had. None of the women in these photos are identified. Their names, backgrounds, hopes, and fears have all been lost to history. My mind demanded that she have a name though, and a story of her own.
As I gazed awestruck at the photograph, the lyrics to ‘Runaway Train’ by Soul Asylum came to mind, particularly the line that says, “Can you help me remember how to smile? Make somehow all seem worthwhile?” This was kind of odd because, though I remember when the song came out in the early 90s, it was not a favorite of mine at the time, but my brain was able to recall the lyrics when I needed them most. I like music videos, and so on a whim, I pulled up the video to this song on YouTube. Imagine my surprise when it featured missing children. At this point, I started to formulate some answers to the questions my brain was asking, answers that would form the basis of this novel. Later that afternoon, I had to get in the car to run some errands. When I turned on the radio, what did I hear? That’s right! The song playing when I turned the key was ‘Runaway Train.’ Is that a sign or what?
At this point, my first novel, So Others May Live, had been out for a couple of months. I had two months off in between the end of the spring semester and the start of the second summer session. I had planned on writing a second novel during this time period, but I really didn’t have an idea as to what yet. Until that photo on Page 73, that is. Now, I don’t write with a detailed outline, but nor do I completely wing it. I simply sketch out how many chapters I think I will need and then write a one sentence description of what needs to happen in that chapter, though characters often do dictate different actions.
My first novel followed four main characters. This novel was originally to follow two, with Molly being one of them. I was making steady progress, banging out 3,000 – 3,500 words a day. I was on track to finish prior to the start of the second summer session when I would go back to teaching, and thus would have no time to write. But then…WHAM! I realized when I hit the 2/3rds mark of the book that it wasn’t working in its current form. I had been writing every single day, with no breaks, for twenty-two straight days at that point. I decided to take one day off to regather myself and try to figure out how to move forward.
On my “off duty” day, I sat on the porch in the morning and had my cup of coffee. I brought Working Girls outside with me and as I drank, careful not to spill any on the book, I stared at the picture on Page 73. In my mind, I asked ‘Molly,’ my name for the young woman in the photograph, to talk to me and tell me what to do. The answer came across loud and clear. “It’s MY story,” she said, “not yours, and not anybody else’s. You have to tell it from my point of view.” And so there, I had it! I would have to go all the way back to square one and start over, this time writing it as a sole viewpoint novel.
I spent the rest of that day re-working the chapters and figuring out how I was going to formulate this new version of the story. The next day, I started work. It seemed to flow a lot better this time around, and Molly’s voice really came through. However, Summer 2 loomed on the horizon, and though I managed to write 2/3rds of this version of the story, I had to stop to go back to teaching. And, of course, since the summer session leads right into the fall with only a week in between (and we have meetings all that week), I wasn’t going to be able to finish the novel according to my own schedule.
Late that summer and into the fall, though, the wheels fell off. It was one of those perfect storm kind of things. The family suffered a sudden and unexpected death. When I traveled back home for the funeral, I drove through the old neighborhood and I stopped by to see my grandfather’s grave. He passed away on Easter Sunday, 2009, and I had not visited the grave since his funeral. Truthfully, I’ve been in denial about his death ever since. Seeing it forced me to have to come to terms with the fact that he is gone. Then, a week or so later, I had a major flare up of knee pain that led to me having to hobble back and forth to class. The summer final exam was on my birthday. During the exam, some papers started to slide off the podium and when I went to quickly try to grab them, I banged my finger on it and broke my knuckle.
With only a week off in between, it was right back into the swing of things for the fall semester. In late September, I started having some very difficult mental health struggles. Now, I’ve talked about this some on my author website, so I’ll be brief here. Basically, my public safety career left me mentally, as well as physically, injured and I suffer from chronic PTSD. Years earlier, I spent quite a bit of time in therapy and learned to manage it fairly well. I thought I had it beat until I realized that I didn’t. This time, I recognized the warning signs and started back to therapy quickly and, I’m continuing that therapy now. But it was rough going. Lots of sleepless nights. Lots of time spent alone with my ghosts. I guess with everything else that had happened, my defenses were lower than normal and the dragon saw an opening to sneak in.
My wife made the decision to travel to Florida that Thanksgiving (2019) to be with family. I knew that I would have a week alone. Well, I wouldn’t really be alone. Molly would be with me and I planned to finish her story. For once, my plan worked. Every morning, I got up and parked myself in front of the computer, writing until it was time to go to bed. I knocked out 6,000 words (two chapters) a day and finished the first draft the day after Thanksgiving. I breathed a big sigh of relief, but truthfully, my work was only beginning as I still had editing looming ahead of me!
I put the book aside and didn’t look at it for a month, then I was ready to start the editing process. I usually go through three drafts before I send it to my editor Kristen for a content edit, also called a developmental edit. I had a horrible start to my fall semester for reasons that need not detain us here, but I was able to deliver the manuscript to her on time and I got it back right before Saint Patrick’s Day, but at that point, Miss Rona had reared her head and the country was struggling to adapt to the changing environment. The plan was for me to work through the developmental edits, make changes, and return it to her for a copyedit in early June. Then, it would go out on submission in mid-July. That didn’t happen.
Though I was able to tackle some of the developmental items, we had a bad storm come through which led to a massive hole in our roof. Not only did we have to get a new roof, but also had to get the entire house re-wired. That was, obviously, very disruptive. I had also planned on starting on my third novel in May when my semester ended, but couldn’t do that either. As it turned out, I didn’t get around to finishing the copy edits until later in the summer. I sent it off for a copyedit two months behind schedule. However, I had not written a word of my next novel.
The copyedits came back in mid-October and I was able to send the book out on submission shortly thereafter. The rejections came hard and fast, as is to be expected with any book. Then, almost one year to the date since I finished the first draft, I received an email from Fireship Press that said they were interested in the book and wanted to talk. This excited me because, although a small press, they specialize in historical fiction and I am a big fan of several of their offers. After a phone call, we agreed to a contract and here we are. I do not have a release date yet, but will update everyone as soon as I do.
Molly’s Song took me on a long and torturous road, but it was worth it. I think the struggles I was going through while writing it came across in Molly’s own story and made it a better book, or, at least I hope it did. And to think, it all started because of a picture. If you’d like to see the photo yourself, you can see it here in a CNN article. It is the banner image, but if you scroll all the way to the bottom of the article, you can see the full photo.
And so, there you have it, friends. That is the story of how Molly’s Song came to be written.