PATCH OF DIRT: THE GENESIS OF A NOVEL
Part 2: Inspiration—Where My Ideas Come From
I’m a pack rat when it comes to writing. I save the prior drafts of stories that didn’t work out, individual pages and notes I’d taken. I usually end up with two to three piles attached with binder clips, which never seem to get any smaller.
Depending on the length of what I’m writing I might use a complete short story, part of a story, scenes from various stories and maybe even some notes to the draft I’m working on. I call this the compilation approach to writing. I put the pieces together, print them out and see how they look. There usually is lots of editing at this stage. The early rough draft for “Patch of Dirt” combined two short stories and several long sections from a very bad first novel. It was about forty pages and came into being from different sources. I'd always been a fan of westerns and "Patch of Dirt" gave me the opportunity to tell a story on a large such canvas.
In March of 1992 I had a first person, past tense western story called “Dirty Work” appear in Crazy Quilt. Little did I know that story would become the original plot template for “Patch of Dirt” where it was used almost word for word in several scenes.
“Dirty Work” followed a stage in the life of anti-hero Jack Ellis (who became Joe Oliver), a drifter who moved from job to job and girl to girl. Hitching a lift to nowhere Jack ran into Frank Tarklin (In “Patch of Dirt” he is named Frank Hill), an injured war veteran who promptly offered him a job on the farm and a place to stay. Jack was duped into falling in love with the wife of Frank, a girl called ‘Rita’, in order to sire the progeny his impotent employer was powerless to secure.
Even though the plot intrigued me I did nothing with the story for years, after all it had been published, and I had closed the book on it. Or so I thought.
A second, twenty-five page western short story called “The Filmmaker,” written much later, introduced the character of a prostitute, who became Anna, now a dancer who worked at paper box factory. One of the comments I received on that story was that it should be longer—maybe a film or a novel. In the story, the main character is studying film at the university and falls in love with the prostitute whom he wants to film. She falls for him, but he doesn’t reciprocate her feelings. Most of this story ended up in scenes between Joe and Anna.
The third section of the draft came from a very bad first novel that has since been archived. I took several long scenes from it: one about Frank and his brother sledding. Another about Frank and his ex-wife.
I don’t always have a clear idea of where I’m going with my first draft. After I received the comments about “Filmmaker,” I thought I’d try to write my second screenplay. It was a format I liked and I’d had some success with my first one.
I’d written my first screenplay in 2001 about a women doctor, Clancy Stuart, on the frontier. The town hires her thinking she was a man. The script won first prize in the Rhode Film festival. Even though the new screenplay, which was titled “Dirty Work” turned out to be a disaster. After a harsh review from a competion judge all I had was a solid ninety page template to do something with. All the plot points were there, but to be a novel I’d have to add a lot more.
It took me years to transition from short stories to a novelette and then to novellas. But now transitioning from a screenplay into a novel? I knew that a novel could be very complex, covering long periods of time with many scene shifts and many characters. I had my doubts, but knew now I had a story to tell that wouldn’t work in any other format. The longest manuscript I’d ever written was about 45,000 words. The adult commercial and literary range is, 80,000 to 100,000, but could be shorter. Westerns ranged from 50,000 to 60,000 words.
How was I ever going to get close to either of those lengths?