I believe our best stories haunt us. Like ghosts, they linger at the edges of our subconscious, hover beside us in our waking hours, and whisper to us at our keyboards until, finally, we acknowledge their presence and listen. The more I’m at this craft of turning ideas into stories and books, the more I believe in listening to the story that wants to be told.
With the publication of my thirty-fifth book, Ice-Out, I have plenty of examples of when I was haunted throughout this writing journey. When I first heard other authors talk about writing what haunts you, I thought it meant I had to have come from a dreadful, abused childhood. I worried that my early years with good-natured parents and a camp-like upbringing with nine siblings on a lake outside of St. Paul had doomed me as a writer. There simply hadn’t been enough pain and anguish.
Hauntings, of course, come from within; in our subconscious, ghosts arrive in any manner of shapes and degrees. If I see one overarching theme in my books (from picture books, American Girl titles, middle-grade adventure novels to historical fiction for YA and adults), it’s giving voice to the voiceless. And not surprisingly. Fourth in a huge patriarchal family, with seven brothers, I rarely felt heard. No wonder Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl moved me so deeply. More than the larger issue of poverty, I identified with the price this girl pays for not being heard. In high school, I discovered a love of writing, and writing became my voice. It saved me.
Frozen, the earlier companion novel to Ice-Out, haunted me incessantly before I committed to writing it. I tried not to write it. Why? It didn’t fit into my burgeoning career as a children’s author. After ten years of talking in my writers’ group about the story, one member said, “Mary, just write the damn thing.” And so I did.
That first YA-crossover novel stemmed from a sliver of history. Nearly three decades ago, I stumbled upon an event in my county that took place in the early 1900s: One morning, a young prostitute was found frozen in the snow. As a joke, someone stood her frozen corpse up in the corner before the start of a town hall meeting and “it caused quite a stir.” Anyone with an ounce of compassion would be haunted by this fact. For me, however, I felt that this young woman haunted me from beyond the grave, demanding that someone make sense of her death and life. It took me ten years to accept that here was a story I was going to have to tell—somehow. And it started with “what if.” What if this young woman had a five-year-old child who followed her out into the snowstorm that fated night? What if this child is found alive and doesn’t speak for eleven years. What if, at sixteen, Sadie Rose stumbles upon old photographs of her mother? What if the more she finds the courage to speak out, the more those in power wish to silence her? Marketed as YA, Frozen has been read by countless adult book clubs as well. I’ve been surprised by “Frozen book tours”—book clubs organizing their own tour of the book’s historical settings here on the Minnesota-Canadian border.
Before long, I felt that familiar nudging. Another haunting voice, hoping to be heard, acknowledged, and put into story. Owen, the seventeen-year-old from Frozen, had a story of his own to tell. At the outset, all I knew was that he was a young man trying to make something of himself during Prohibition. When I began to develop Owen, now nineteen in my novel, I soon realized I was exploring questions about my own father’s early years. Though the father I knew was kind, good-hearted, and successful, he’d hailed from a hardscrabble childhood during the Depression. For grocery money, my father trailed his own father from barstool to barstool scooping up loose change the older man left behind. He stopped his father from strangling his mother. Yet my father charted a path vastly different from his father’s. Similarly, Owen is ambitious, but when his alcoholic father suddenly dies and leaves him responsible for the creamery and keeping his mother and five brothers alive, his desire to make something of himself is complicated. During Prohibition, no one holds the moral high ground. “Everything,” Owen learns, “comes at a price.”
Ice-Out is not only a way to explore my family’s history but also my local history of the early 1920s. I was haunted by what I learned: a leading bootlegger (with Chicago connections, who had the unwavering support and loyalty of locals) was pitted against a law-bending sheriff and deputy who were murdered. When Prohibition sprang up on the border like a cottage industry, the import and smuggling of moonshine became an irresistible opportunity for countless locals. For setting, Rainy Lake is a haunting entity, stretching for nearly 100 miles and forming the border between the US and Canada; it takes a few lives every year, especially when ice conditions are not what they seem.
When we write what haunts us, we are apt to touch a similar nerve in our readers—a deep, universal need to understand.
This article originally appeared in The Strand online magazine.