The Story of My Novel

BrendaKindleCovWhen I began to write my novel, I had a theme in mind: the universal, routine violence suffered by women. The seed of this tale is a true story of the rape and murder of a mother of three on a trail near the one on which I walked every day. I had just moved from what then was the murder capital of the world, Washington, DC, and had chosen Walnut Creek for its small-town simplicity and peace. Yet, almost immediately this terrible crime happened. There were press reports of how the victim was talking on her cell phone to her husband when her assailant appeared, of how vivacious and loved she had been. The murderer eventually was found, tried and given the death penalty. A kind of closure.

But not for me. Her story stayed with me, nagged at me.

On the day I began writing my novel, I had walked to our downtown Farmer’s Market and noted the absence of the usual Sunday crowd of joggers along the trail, no ball games on surrounding grassy areas, no bikes whizzing by. And then realized: it was Super Bowl Sunday; everyone was huddled around TVs, noshing and yelling. I felt a chill as a ragged man stepped out of a glade behind a patch of tangled shrubbery, remembering the lovely young woman killed a few years earlier, and quickened my pace. 

At the Farmer’s Market, I selected my fruit and vegetables, then decided to avoid the trail for my walk home. Where a horrid tale began to pour into my computer—it had been waiting for the right moment to emerge, a moment when my business had slowed, when I had time to attempt my lifelong dream of writing a novel. I typed a title, “Brenda Corrigan Went Downtown.” I described a lively 60-year-old woman walking on a lonely trail to the downtown Farmer’s Market, intending to purchase ingredients for an “un-Super Bowl” dinner party. I imagined her valiant effort to deter a vicious attack by a man who appeared from nowhere, who raped and maimed her and left her for dead.

But she doesn’t die and what develops is the story of this spirited woman, of her brave, warm friends, of familial relationships that are loving and quarrelsome. A tale of doctors, foolish and wise, who keep her alive, of resilience and hope, of despair and reconciliation. A tale of chance, for she could have taken her car that day, could have avoided the lonely trail, had she realized it would be deserted on Super Bowl Sunday.

I suffered during years of writing and rewriting, as Brenda fought to recover, as her life unfolded. I loved my new companion. She embodied my young mother who had recovered from painful, debilitating surgery only to succumb to brain cancer three years later. She was so like dear friends who fought similar battles.

I suffered, but couldn’t give her up. With each reading, this old editor would discover a misplaced semi-colon, a dangling participle (God forbid). I did endless searches to ensure that words like ‘gray’ and ‘grey’ were always ‘gray.’ I tripped over my many characters’ names and attributes, discovering that Brenda’s son was sometimes ‘Jeff,’ sometimes ‘Jack,’ then created bios for each with subtext, a tool I used as a playwright.

And then, on Super Bowl Sunday 2013, while doing one more “final proof,” I was struck by this passage:

There’s a big adjustment ahead, thought Brenda. My children and I will have to free each other again.

I realized I had to let go. My characters had lived in my imagination for four years. Now they wanted out. The story was finished.

Having received no replies from the dozens of agents I queried, I uploaded my document to the self-publishing arm of amazon.comI was too old, did not have years enough ahead, to pursue traditional avenues. I asked a graphic designer I’d worked with in Washington to create the cover illustration, knowing that she would portray the essence of my girl. And voila! my book was alive, stacked on my office shelves, its digital counterpart on my kindle.

I hauled out my marketing skills, sent a Constant Contact letter to several lists, developed a website, posted the news on Facebook so often that old friends probably wanted to un-friend me. 

Orinda Books hosted a launch party, local papers interviewed me, a church dubbed me their ‘Author of the Year” and hosted a discussion group. Synagogues and book clubs invited me to speak and sign. 

Soon, I was punchy from the attention, from losing my way on serpentine back roads as I searched for each venue. And from managing reader response—revelations of rape, heated debates on the ethics of Brenda’s decision to live well or not at all. I wasn’t equipped to handle these discussions and longed for a therapist or minister to moderate.

Some readers were disappointed that an interlude with Charley, an old lover, did not lead Brenda to eternal bliss. They wanted a sequel, impossible given her sad end. One suggested that her daughter, Lynn, could find Mr. Right and all would be swell in sweet Walnut Creek. I gave it a try, imagining Charley and Lynn and a chance meeting in Santorini, but that didn’t go well. 

There were good moments, too. One book club felt like a safe haven—these women had shared life’s joys and sorrows for 25 years and vividly connected with Brenda and her close friends. And I liked waking to emails from readers stating they could not put the book down, or they’d just sent it to their aunt in Poughkeepsie or a sister in London.

But mostly the conversations exhausted me, the opinions, the rugalach (yes, rugalach; my character Rose bakes rugalach, so I brought apricot and chocolate to each event, baked by Sunrise Deli).

I grew tired of people calling me Brenda, of confusing fiction with autobiography, and wrote a witty post for my blog called, “I’m Not Brenda,” to no avail. Strangers bombarding me with photos of past boyfriends and tales of illicit love, sharing their regrets and sorrows, made me want to post “I’m Not Your Shrink,” but I didn’t.

“Oy. Enough already,” my weary brain whimpered as I snaked down an unfamiliar foggy road one night. I needed to get back to my own life. I had a business, a monthly deadline to meet. There was fun to be had. The next morning, I canceled future engagements and returned to LBB—life before Brenda—happily scribbling snippets and stories for the joy of it. I had no desire ever to publish again.

When I began to write my novel, I intended to portray an example of the universal, routine violence suffered by women. I did that, but a novel meanders, refuses to adhere to a planned route. My polemic became a life story, which is always more than one thing. And which holds innumerable meanings for its readers.


“The Story of My Novel” appeared in the Spring 2023 issue of Vistas & Byways.

Copyright © 2012-2024 by Donna Brookman Kaulkin. All rights reserved. Web site built by Cantus Firmus Web Solutions