Sometimes the muse leads us where we need to go. In early 2002, I was working on a novel set on the Suwanee River. I was also a reporter for a 5,000 circulation weekly newspaper in north Florida. I covered one of the more contentious city commissions as WalMart began doing what WalMart does best – disrupt small town America.
One Tuesday morning in February, I made my rounds of the local city police departments to pick up the police reports for the past week before heading to the newspaper’s office. When I turned the corner, police tape encircled the building, and I saw my coworkers wandering around outside.
“Don’t worry – no one was hurt,” the publisher said as he rushed toward me when I got out of my car. “They were able to detonate the bomb before anything happened.”
He thought I already knew someone dropped a bomb off in the paper’s drop box. When it was discovered, the local police called the county bomb squad. The bomb, filled with little bits of glass and nails, shot seventy yards outside the building when set off by the experts.
We were barely six months past 9/11, and the world reeled around us. The national media started calling, but the FBI said it would be months before a full-scale investigation could begin. Around the same time, mailboxes were being blown up in the Midwest, and our little bomb scare, with no deaths, amounted to nothing after the first twenty-four hours. It amounted to nothing for everyone, except those of us closest to the action such as me. I went away to the Keys a few days later for a planned vacation. After the bomb, I really needed to get away.
Several days later, as the breezes blew through the curtains of the beach house on Big Pine Key, I woke with a sentence in my head.
“The bomb sat on Kelly Sands desk for an hour before she noticed it.” I went
I immediately rose and went to my laptop and typed the line into my computer. Then I spent the next year writing a new book while I covered the same small town politics. Every time I left a contentious meeting and started my car, I thought it might be the last time I did anything. If a bomb had been left at the paper, why couldn’t one be attached to my car just as easily?
It was a crazy time, but the writing of the novel helped to heal me. I wrote a wild story about politics in rural Florida. The story nearly wrote itself. I was simply the conduit through which the characters and plot unfolded.
When I eventually published Tortoise Stew the line that woke me that morning in the Keys opened the novel. And Kelly Sands became the heroine of a novel that used a bit of fact to create a fictional world not so far apart from reality.
And the best part? The writing of Tortoise Stew helped heal the fear that had taken up residence in my head. Of course, it helped when I stopped covering small town politics in Florida where crazy and wacky are the standard bearers for the norm.