Sunday, April 11, 2010

Planting Seeds

We had summer-like weather last week. I was stuck at home with a cold. I took advantage of both situations by carrying my potting supplies outside so I could soak up some warm sun while I planted basil and tomato seeds.

Once I plant the seeds and place the containers on an upstairs windowsill, I keep the soil moist and watch for sprouts. I'm far from an expert at growing tomatoes this way. My results are always inconsistent and occasionally nonexistent. I never know how many plants I'll get, if any, and if they'll be hearty. Basil's different. Usually I get more plants than I can use and I push off the extras on friends. Still, until I see tiny bits of green pushing up through the soil, I never really believe seeds will grow. Always seems too much of a miracle until it happens.

Writing is like this. I get an idea--a seed. I feed it by playing "what-if." Seed: an unusual tattoo. What if the person who gets the tattoo isn't someone who would normally would? A grandmotherly Miss Marple sort. What if no one knows she has it until she dies? What if the tattoo is found to Egyptian hieroglyph? A letter of the Russian alphapet? An Oriental rug symbol? What if the death didn't seem suspicious until the tattoo was found?

When one "what-if" begins to lead to another, I have a sprout, but I'm still not ready to write. I need a few more leaves before transplanting to the page. Who is the victim? Who's going to decide the tattoo warrants further investigation of the death? And for me in particular, where am I going to plant this story? What's the setting? Where is this seedling going to grow best?

With my basil and tomato plants, come Memorial Day, they go outside in the veggie bed. I protect them from insects and birds and squirrels. I check them each day, watering and weeding. After a while, God willin', I have adult plants established enough that if I go away for a day, it's no big deal. But, of course, I still can't neglect them for long.

Stories in progress are the same. At first I have to keep at them constantly. I'm never comfortable in a book until I reach the sixth chapter or so. If I set it aside too long before that point, I feel like my seedling might die. Even after the characters and plot are more or less established, if I have to go away for a week, I have a dickens of a time getting back into the story and bringing it back to life again.

I've heard would-be writers talk about wonderful story ideas, but really, all they have are packets of seeds. Sometimes the hardest part is believing your seeds will grow. Once they do, you have to commit to the whole nurturing process if you want a good harvest.


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