I’m often asked if real life seeps into my novels. As we head into the anniversary of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill on April 20, I’ve thought about how much of my life seeped into the writing of Trails in the Sand.
During April 2010, two significant manmade disasters occurred in the United States. Both of the tragedies became a part of my life for the remainder of the year and led me to question how we live our lives. It took me some months to make the connection between the two events, but when I did, they both found a home in Trails in the Sand, the novel I began writing in late 2010.
The first tragedy occurred on April 5, when a coal mine exploded in West Virginia, several hours away from my new home in western Pennsylvania. Twenty-nine miners, trapped inside the mine, died that day. The local Pittsburgh news carried very little else as hope ebbed and flowed on the first days after the explosion. But finally, on April 9, the governor of West Virginia made a tragic announcement. All twenty-nine miners were dead and had not made it to the safety room as hoped. My husband works with the mining industry in his job as an engineer with a water solutions company. He knows the coal mining industry very well so we kept our eyes and ears tuned to the news, first hopeful as everyone else, and then, more than curious about how and why the explosion occurred in the first place. The answers became clear in the months following the deaths. The company, Massey Energy, had cut corners in safety procedures. The resulting reports are gruesome and indictments are still coming down for the highest echelon in a company that for a long time flagrantly disregarded the safety standards for coal mining.
Two weeks later, all eyes turned to the southeast of West Virginia when another explosion caused an oil rig to catch on fire and fall to the ground, exposing a deep well in the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana. On April 20, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill explosion killed eleven workers. For months, oil gushed out of the well unabated. Petroleum headed for the Gulf beaches. Within a few weeks, wildlife began appearing on the barrier islands covered and smothered in oil. The photos of birds immersed in a wet suit of petroleum played continuously on the news and horrified the world.
Even though I’d moved in Pittsburgh in April 2010, I was still working for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission as a public/media relations director until they found my replacement. The oil spill and the threat to Florida’s wildlife put my departure on hold for months. As I watched the news unfold about what caused the mine explosion from my home in Pittsburgh, I was fielding media calls, writing news releases, and pulling together facts sheets on oiled wildlife. By June, I was appointed to handle all the media during the sea turtle nest relocation project where 250 nests were dug up on the Panhandle beaches of Florida and eggs were transported to the Atlantic side of Florida for hatching and release. The project was unprecedented and received the attention of national and international media.
It didn’t take long for a culprit in the oil spill to have a name: BP. Once again, a large corporation sacrificed human and environmental safety in the pursuit of profit. My mind was churning and mulling over the connection between the two events.
In my spare time, I began writing a love story called In the Garden about two people reunited after a long separation. The subject began to have a life of its own. I wanted to write about my mother who died in 1998. Through various tidbits I’d gleaned over the years, I suspected that my mother gave birth when she was a teenager back in 1933 or ’34. I researched as best I could. I interviewed her only living sibling in 2011 and went through writings left by my mother and her father, my grandfather. My grandfather had been a miner in Cornwall until he came to the United States in 1900. When he arrived, he went to work in the copper mines in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan before giving his life to God and entering the ministry of the Methodist Church. Yes, my mother most likely became pregnant in a small Michigan town at the age of fifteen or sixteen, and she was the daughter of the Methodist minister. It scarred my mother for life, and in turn, it left its mark on her five children. I’ve spent my life recovering as I attempted to piece together my mother’s story.
With all of these events and life histories swirling in my head, I changed the course of my novel and renamed it Trails in the Sand. I wanted to write a book about how we destroy things and then attempt to recover and restore, if possible. It begins with a teenager on a beach watching a sea turtle lay a nest on St. George Island, Florida.
The chapters on the BP oil spill and the Upper Big Branch coal mine disaster are from actual news clips and press releases. I used a description from my grandfather’s journal to describe the early years of the patriarch in the story. My mother’s story is weaved into the story as well. The main character, Caroline Carlisle is an environmental writer who sets out to write about the sea turtle project.
That’s how my novel came to life. I wrote Trails in the Sand to show it’s never too late to restore and recover from tragedy, and it’s never too late to find love.
How about you? Does real life seep into your fiction?