Several years ago, I was diagnosed with cancer. I took a week off from work and flew to St Martin in the Caribbean to consider my options. One option, my doctor explained, was to do nothing––skip the operations and endless treatments and accept an early death.
I stayed at a French resort on one end of Orient Beach. That first morning, I woke early to walk the mile-long beach and think.
I walked by a solitary man raking sea grass into a pile at the waterline with his feet. Judging from his leathery skin and ropy sun-bleached hair, he lived at the colony down the beach. After kicking the grass into a throne, he sat down and contentedly watched the sun rise out of the ocean. This scene is the Prologue to the novel.
In my imagination, this man had faced a dilemma like my own and had chosen to spend his last good years here. His backstory, family, and private thoughts began to emerge. On this pristine beach, he could have been from any time period. Orient Beach is my imagining him and his family on this beach in the years 1580, 2002, and 2023.
The first draft of Orient Beach was written by an engineer. Every day, I concocted plots and scenes. Every night, however, a voice nagged, “Everything you wrote today is crap. Your plot is just a frame with characters dangling from it. The plot won’t become a story until you get inside their heads.” This awakening of my feeble, underused right-side brain made me feel possessed. In my writing journal, I began to refer to this emerging aspect of myself as Muse. This banter between my Muse and my engineer raged daily.
After two years of struggle, Orient Beach began to fizzle. But this idea of a hack writer being haunted and badgered by a Muse took over my imagination. I turned “pantser” and wrote the Muse of Wallace Rose over the next four months. After, when I went back to Orient Beach, I kept my Muse in the driver’s seat and rewrote that novel into its current form over the next six months.
My original approach to writing was overly structured. Outlines. Character studies. I had to know the end before I started. I discovered answering all the “what if’s” up front makes writing boring, both to write and to read. I also discovered when my characters came alive as I wrote, they wouldn't follow the script I gave them in the outline. The “what if" choices I made up front got overruled. As a writer, I like my characters to surprise me. Fiction readers like this, too.
The start (first page of a short story or fifty pages of a novel) is gruelingly hard. Some days my Muse does not show up for work. This is when many new writers lose faith and quit, I think. I have to continually reassure myself my theme and concept are strong and worth the struggle. I’ve learned if I continue to blunder ahead and be patient, my characters will turn from cardboard cutouts into real people. After this point, the characters take over and the story begins to flow.
If I look back over my novels and short stories, my pattern is to choose my characters first. The story starts with them. Most of my characters are patterned on someone unique I’ve observed but don’t actually know. My imagination creates their current situation and backstory. I present them with tough problems and record how they solve them. Out of this a story emerges.
I have been asked how I conceived such “bizarre” characters. I get this question a lot––not from my fans, but from me. I would like to say that the inspiration for “Orient Beach” overtook me one morning and it just rolled off my fingertips as fast as I could type. The plot for the most part did; however the characters and themes only became fully formed after exhausting rewrites and polishing.
In Orient Beach, digging into the psyche of my characters, discovering their motivations, their unique insights, was like panning for gold nuggets buried beneath the gravel. It was only after the first draft that Legion and Lily Anna came alive for me. This is when I began to laugh out loud at their jokes and become too bleary to type during their calamities. I became vicariously them.
In both my novels and in my short stories, I explore tough issues (religion, love, greed, prejudice, death, war, etc). With writing I can create characters who are braver than I am, or wiser, or more moral. I throw these dilemmas at them and see what they learn. As Flannery O Connor put it, “I don’t know what I think until I write.”
The principal character in Orient Beach is this beach itself. The beach is the only character that spans the four and a half centuries covered in the novel. And like any protagonist, it faces hardships and changes over time. My other characters could not have existed anywhere other than this unique location. I'm so enthralled by the Caribbean, the only difficulty in writing scenes was going back and deleting all the superlatives that crept in.
“Orient Beach” has left me in a different place from where I started––perhaps more self-aware. It’s this anticipation of the next discovery in that vast unknown between my ears that makes me eager to write the next novel.
What happened to the cancer? I chose to have the operation. What was the primary factor for that choice? At age 15, I read Hemingway’s, For Whom the Bell Tolls. I fell in love with language, the possibilities of it. I promised myself someday, before I died, I would write a novel. I’m relatively healthy now.
Bill Woods, author of Orient Beach and The Muse of Wallace Rose, lives and writes beside the Duck River in Columbia, Tennessee.
His debut novel Orient Beach was a finalist for the Faulkner Society Award in 2018.
The 13th annual Killer Nashville awarded the Silver Falchion Award for Best Short Story Collection or Anthology of 2020 to Bill Woods for THE MUSE OF WALLACE ROSE.