The Walnut Valley Festival, 2016, came to a close Sunday, September 18.
Hardy folks who stayed the course through a week of weather contrasts once again headed home after filling their souls with uplifting music and cameraderie. After downpours upriver flooded the traditional Walnut Grove and Pecan Grove campgrounds, campers re-located to various places including the city lake. Folks braved more rain Thursday and Friday, to welcome sunshine on Saturday all day long. Children exhausted themselves with outdoor play on the hillside at Stage 2. And the musicians raised roars from audiences hungry for a fix of favorite musical entertainers.
I was reminded again how this festival is a most appropriate setting for several final scenes in Sundrop Sonata. Music brings harmony to our lives in more ways than one.
As darkness descended over the festival grounds, a full moon rose over Stage 1 during the final 2016 set of John McCutcheon, Tom Chapin and a whole group of related friends making music for their fans. Their new song, written especially for this year’s festival, says it all.
Midnight tonight marks the end of August and ushers in a new September. I’m ready. This is the season of red spider lilies, of music and the Walnut Valley Festival, of adventure in a new school year, and piano conventions in Indiana.
If you seek a diversion and a suspenseful adventure story about pianos, piano tuners, and their families and friends, there is not a better time to read this book. After all, the red spider lilies (lycoris radiata) will soon be in bloom. Get yours before the lilies fade!
(This is a continuation of the previous post about the story behind Sundrop Sonata.)
How did you decide on the “sonata” structure?
The term “sundrop” has almost always been part of my working title. The “sonata” part kind of fell into place after writing friends axed earlier titles. For years, I thought of the novel as The Sundrop Conspiracy. The “conspiracy” part was a bit much, so I tried Ebony, Ivory, and Mystery. That didn’t seem quite right either. On a whim, I proposed “Sonata.” A musical term, ripe with metaphorical implications for real life, “Sonata” seemed to stick.
What drew you to the suspense genre? How did you approach the particular challenges of that genre? How did you build your plot?
I didn’t actually choose the suspense genre. I think it chose me. This story grew in my mind and I was compelled to write it. People kept calling it a mystery, or a cozy mystery. But it wasn’t exactly a mystery. I had a story and I wrote it, then I had to figure out what kind of novel it was.
The plot built itself. My imagination went to work on that road trip long ago, and by the time we were home again, the story was basically there. Given the recent terrorism against the US, I wondered what other forms of attack might be possible? What might those with a grudge against the country be able to dream up that would remain unnoticed by the population until it was too late? What kinds of things might be smuggled into the country? I knew that many pianos in today’s market are imported. I also knew there are lots of places to hide things inside a piano.
I have found interesting additions in quite a few pianos, though nothing sinister to the best of my knowledge. But what if someone with an ax to grind had access to pianos heading into the country? What if they slipped something inside those instruments? How would anybody ever know? The same would be true for automobiles, or electronic equipment, or anything that is imported from other countries.
I re-wrote the beginning of Sundrop Sonata about fifty times, learning something not to do each time. I went to writing workshops, joined writing clubs and critique groups and listened to what everyone had to say. After outlining the story structure, I went to work with daily writing sessions, and revised the original many times to come up with the published version.
Any advice for others interested in self-publishing?
The literary world has changed a lot since my attempts to write during my young adulthood. I realize I no longer have decades left to piddle around. I finished writing Sundrop Sonata as well as In the Shadow of the Wind, years after their seeds were planted. I revised and edited them many times, trimming, tightening, and clarifying each time.
I pitched each book to editors and agents at conventions and workshops and actually had several professionals express interest. Each book attracted small presses and I was offered contracts. The contracts had me doing all the footwork and editing, but the publisher would get all the rights and 85% of the royalties.
I figured if I was doing all the work, why not take the next step and independently publish? It’s fairly easy to do that these days. Many big name authors started out self-publishing and some continue to publish and represent their own work. I was fortunate to have an experienced mentor, Paul Bishop, a California author with many detective novels to his credit, (and a cousin-in-law of mine as well). Paul gave me excellent advice and guided me through the steps toward the Lionheart press.
To self-publish, you need to be clear on your motives for writing. If you are doing it for the money, don’t. If you are writing because you enjoy the process and you have a story to tell, give it your best effort and offer it to the world of readers. There are lots of readers out there, but there are also lots of books to choose from. Take the time and effort to make yours the very best it can be, offer something different, but still polished. See what happens.
You have to believe in yourself first. I have always thought Sundrop Sonata was a good story—a great story. I put my best effort into it and I enjoyed it very much. After all, I write first for myself. I hope to spend my retirement years doing something I thoroughly enjoy. If others enjoy the story, that’s a great reward in its own way. If other women, other piano lovers and music lovers, or those with adventurous hearts rave about the story, that is a bonus. I am honored when enthusiastic readers tell their friends about Sundrop Sonata.
Will there be other novels?
I certainly hope so. I have some threads of ideas percolating for about three more in a Sonata series of novels. I just hope they don’t each take a dozen years to arrive! I better get busy.
(If you are curious about what the Walnut Valley Festival, red spider lilies, music on the prairie, and open pasture gates have to do with pianos, murder and mystery, read Sundrop Sonata to find out. If you enjoy the story and you think others would also, post a review on Amazon or share this blogpost with your friends.)
I have always loved make-believe. As a child, my vivid imagination once had me living in a city where everyone’s feet were wheeled. I rolled round and round the basement of my next-door friend’s house on skates as we played out various make-believe scenes in our wheeled city.
The big elm tree in our front yard became a sinister resident of “the forest of no return” after we saw the Christmas movie Babes in Toyland. I used to pretend my very life depended on my accuracy and memorization of a recital piece—Grieg’s “Wedding Day at Troldhaugen”.
When I am alone, which is often, I rarely feel lonely. The characters in my mind create a running conversation with me and have provided inspiration for some of my fictional characters. I used to think everyone’s mind worked the way mine does, but now I’m not so sure.
The storyline of Sundrop Sonata came to me in a rush the summer of 2003. My mother had just died after a prolonged decline with congestive heart failure. This was less than two years after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and, like many others, I felt the vulnerability the attacks had exposed in our country.
That summer my family and I drove from our home in Winfield to Oregon, to visit friends. Much of the road trip in Sonata was inspired by our travels that summer, from the basic route, to the idyllic setting on the Oregon coast, to the river raft trip on the McKenzie River. Though we weren’t fleeing for our lives, my imagination had us running a game of stealth, hide-n-seek. Perhaps this was one way I set about healing the hole in my heart from my mother’s death. It was an escape from reality.
Also on that journey, we did a bit of racing through Idaho to arrive in a town with a movie theater in time for the late show. The first episode of Pirates of the Caribbean had just hit theaters and we wanted to see it. We loved the show and even saw it again at a theater in Oregon. The loveable, quixotic, easy-going character of Capt. Jack Sparrow lent a few traits to the Brett Lander character developing in my mind—mysterious, worldly, nonchalant, and (in the end) a good man.
By the time our journey was over, the entire plot of Sundrop Sonata had written itself in my mind. A few details had to be fleshed out, and the whole thing had to be converted from scenes in my imagination to a written manuscript, but the story was there. And I was excited. It was a good story. I have always felt that. My challenge was to write it so that others would enjoy it too. Perhaps other people need a break from the reality grinding away at their lives, to escape for a few hours.
Where did you get the ideas for the main characters?
Aside from the pirate movie, encounters with various pianos or piano owners (or in some cases the lack of encounters) left me with unanswered questions. I made up stories to answer them. For instance, there really was a woman isolated in the wild northern hills of our county, raising two daughters (not twins) and home-schooling them. The gate to their house really was remotely controlled from the house a mile distant. I had to call the house from a device installed at the gate to gain admittance to the pasture.
I never saw anything beyond the music room at that house until twelve years after my last service call. The house and ranch was up for auction last year and I went to the auctioneer’s open house to satisfy my curiosity. I had only glimpsed the children once in half a dozen visits. They seemed quite shy, and a little naïve about the rest of the world. The woman seemed of an age she could have been the girls’ grandmother. But she wasn’t. I never saw the man of the house, but neighbors whispered suspicions about him. It was thought he was a foreigner, Arabic most likely, a rumor likely influenced by the terrorist events of 2001.
My last service appointment to this house was canceled, last minute. I never heard from them again. At the open house, it was clear the place had been abandoned and unoccupied for a decade. Everything but the piano appeared to still be there. School papers, kitchen dishes, photos of the girls on the walls, clothes in the closets. The exterior door to the music room had been kicked open forcibly, the locked deadbolt splintering the wood of the door frame.
Who were these people? Why were they so secretive? What happened to them? I am not entirely sure. I made up a story about the family which is likely a far cry from actual true events.
At about the same time, my husband and I had purchased a quarter section of land in the wild southern part of the county. We once thought to build a retirement home there, complete with a fancy piano shop such as Izzy had. The circle of cedars which hid Izzy and Laura as they watched the break-in of the house really exists, as do the tallgrass pasture lanes and tree-lined creek bottom. The house and shop do not.
The murder/suicide really did happen to a piano client of mine, just not in Wichita. I learned about it in our local newspaper. There was conjecture about a love triangle, with a cheating husband in his mid-age crisis angering his wife of forty years to the point of violence, nothing traitorous to the country involved. But what if?
The solfege chart in a high school vocal music room was real, and was a revelation to me. My mind began to knit the threads of Ra/ra/ra together. I love codes.
Melody, Kurt and Izzy are loosely based on individuals in my own family. Unlike Izzy, I raised four children, not a single daughter.
There really was a Korean-born woman who called me to tune her Korean-built piano and fix a pedal damaged in its shipment overseas. The piano still sat on the bottom of a packing box in her home. Music books in the Thompson series, with Korean text instead of English, sat on the piano.
I heard about a piano falling out of a pickup at a street corner once, but it wasn’t this particular piano.