Creating the Lotus (or the evolution of a novel)

Writing a novel was never on my bucket list. In fact, it was something I didn’t want to consider. There were too many talented authors, too many wonderful stories, too much competition in the book universe– why bother?

Then a man named Skip suggested I give it a try. “You have your own voice,” he said. “Why not use it and tell your story.”

Ideas, like seeds, take root in fertile soil and I found myself thinking about themes. Musing about characters. Observing my surroundings more closely. Perhaps I’d give it a shot. Or at least consider it.

Then an idea struck. I was in an airport and started watching people. I noticed an elderly couple struggling at the customs desk in Phnom Penh, unable to speak English, and loaded down with heavy bags.  The man was struggling with a suitcase, dressed in a jacket two sizes too big, looking for someone to direct him.  I wondered how someone of his age and frailty could manage this journey alone. Who was he visiting? Why Cambodia?

Thus my first character was born. His name was Rashid. He’d meet someone on the plane; someone on a similar journey. What if that person was a young woman? What if she was scared and needed encouragement? What if this encounter led to her discovering secrets about her life?

The more I thought about it, the more I became drawn into a world of my own imagining, set in a country I’d grown to love. I added characters: a Buddhist monk, a Khmer Rouge survivor, a zany British artist, a kind-hearted tuk-tuk driver. I painted word pictures of the Russian Market, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the riverside town of Kampot, Raffles hotel, injecting them with aromas of garlic noodles, frangipani flowers, stinky sewers, and fragrant incense.

Our tuk-tuk driver and friend, SomOn, became a central figure, as did Roxy, Charlotte’s scatterbrained best mate, based on an artist I met in Phnom Penh. And the more I wrote, the more I fell in love—with Charlotte and Roxy and Samnang and Hasan. And the process of writing a book.

The journey from the first word to the last edit was also long, arduous at times, and often soul eroding. There were long gaps between writing, frustrated moments searching for descriptions and story arcs, months of agonizing edits where I chopped, re-wrote, and despaired it would never come together. Then, after a week in the French countryside immersing myself with other writers at the L’Atelier Writer’s Retreat, it started to feel real.

 

With a view like this, who wouldn’t be inspired?

I changed the name from The Messenger to Finding Charlotte before finally settling on Whisper of the Lotus (after dozens of hours considering titles and brainstorming them with Skip). I sat in balconies in Belize, cafes in France, patios in India, and motel rooms in Ecuador, clicking away on a laptop, making notes on my phone, wracking my brain for the best way for Charlotte to find her feet in Phnom Penh and how to get her out of tricky situations. I downloaded photos of Cambodia to immerse myself in the scenery when I was no longer there, exchanged emails with a monk in Siem Reap to learn about Buddhism, and watched video clips so I could best describe locations that weren’t familiar to me.

I participated in online forums, traded critiques with other authors, studied editing techniques, and enlisted feedback from writer friends who shared valuable ideas and suggestions. As a mason forms a wall one stone at a time, so my book took shape.

A laptop, a dog, and a hammock. Writing in Belize.

And on August 23, 2020, after competing six revisions, hundreds of hours of editing, dozens of story alterations, and relentless polishing of almost every one of the 98,000 words, I wrote the hardest two words of all. Two words I’d delayed, procrastinated about, and been reluctant to write: ‘THE END’.

 

 

 

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