Perhaps the most frequently asked question posed to authors is this: “Where do you get your ideas?” Today, I’m going to dig into a specific example from Ferry to Cooperation Island—and then share what sparked this post.
When I was eleven years old, we raced Katrina around the Elizabeth Islands on a perfect August Saturday. After a light-air beat up Buzzards Bay, the seabreeze filled in for a glorious spinnaker run down Vineyard Sound, to a finish somewhere off the entrance to Woods Hole. But with the current foul and quite strong, the best strategy was to hug the rocky island shores as closely as we dared.
(Just a reminder: there was no GPS.)
About halfway down the run, one of the crew quietly suggested that we head up about fifteen degrees, to avoid a big rock lurking off the next point. So we eased the spinnaker guy forward, trimmed in the sheet, and altered course to starboard… until that same veteran calmly informed us that we were clear of the unseen danger and could resume our tight coast-hugging.
I don’t remember if we won the race, or anything else about that particular day; just that course alteration—all because of what we learned after the finish. Ten minutes behind us, one of our competitors (with an equally local and knowledgeable crew) had piled up on that very same rock—at full speed, under spinnaker. Though no one was hurt, the boat was damaged enough to end their season.
Putting it to work
Decades later, that tiny but distinct memory resurfaced as the catalyst for the family feud between my main character James Malloy and “bad guy” Lloyd Wainwright. Desperate to understand their shared history, James learns from Mayor Frank exactly how Lloyd’s grandfather Willie had drowned. (I’ve edited the published version slightly for clarity.)
”I’ll never forget seeing those two boats coming around the corner,” Frank said, pointing toward the lighthouse. “The other boat was out in front, and it was so windy they didn’t set a spinnaker. Willie was desperate to win, so he put up a really big sail—and then ran straight up on Brenton Rock. The boat broke up in just a few minutes—they’d built her extra light for racing, of course.”
While the fictional details are much more tragic, the original inspiration for this scene can be traced straight back to that long-ago race memory.
Why I’m writing about this now
While digging through the K. Aage Nielsen archives, I spotted an old newspaper clipping about a race victory—by the very same boat that had piled up onto that rock. “An exceedingly rapid 40-foot sloop,” the New York Herald Tribune writer called her. And, for very different reasons, also an exceedingly memorable one—at least to a certain eleven year old.
I’ve written before about the melting-pot of my imagination, but I hope this specific example helps explain how memories can morph into backstory—and then inspire a blog post. It’s a rather convoluted path, turning historical facts into fictional details—but also a very fun excuse for another journey down memory lane.
Got a childhood memory that is unexplainably strong? Share it in the comments below, or send me an email. I read every single one, with gratitude.