Wednesday greetings, Whispers in Purple readers. Today, I’d like to welcome Janet Chester Bly as she shares an article on "Finishing Dad's Novel: A Family Affair" on the writing of Stuart Brannon's Final Shot, Stephen Bly's last book. Pay attention! There’s a giveaway here, too.
Finishing Dad's Novel: A 10 Step Family Affair, Janet Chester Bly
My late husband, Stephen Bly, hated half-done jobs. He couldn’t stand to let a ‘to do’ list lie around more than a day or two.
In early January 2011 he determined to tackle three big undertakings and finish them by summer: 1) get our pine trees pruned, 2) re-roof the house, and 3) complete his contracted 106th novel, Stuart Brannon's Final Shot.
A few weeks later he played 18 holes of golf. The next day, he could hardly stand without breathing hard. His almost 5-year battle with prostate cancer began to take its final toll. The next four months he spent more days in the hospital than out. He passed away on June 9th, 2011, five days before our 48th anniversary.
Steve and his golf cart
Determined to finish the projects for him, I hired a tree trimmer. I found a roofer. Meanwhile, my sons said to me, “Let’s get that book done.”
As the idea grew of their involvement, I assessed that they had their dad’s creativity and wit. Together they’d impart their father’s personality. I also discovered the value of their feedback and encouragement. I couldn’t do it without them.
I emailed the editor and asked for permission for us to finish writing the novel and for a deadline extension. She gave us four months. We had until November 1st. The third project on the list became a family affair.
Janet and sons
Can a committee write a novel? We didn’t know. But we had the passion to find out. Steve left us 7,000 words, a one-page synopsis, some penciled general notes and a list of character names. We began July 1st .
We read over the chapters Steve had completed, some of which he dictated to me in a quarantined hospital room with acrylic gloved fingers attacking the keyboard.
“It reads more like a mystery than a western,” we four surmised.
Yet we realized this book must resonate like a Stephen Bly novel and resemble the early Stuart Brannon Series, beginning with Hard Winter at Broken Arrow Crossing. This story started out different. Former lawman Stuart Brannon is a much older man in 1905. He struggles to fit the 20th Century. He’s a cowboy off his Arizona ranch who travels to the Oregon coast to find his missing U.S. Marshal friend. He also grapples to learn the game of golf on behalf of a celebrity charity tournament.
We got reacquainted with Stuart Brannon. We listened to the six audio books of the original series, to be immersed in this character, to know what he would do or say in any situation. We scanned other Stephen Bly novels in which Brannon was mentioned or had a cameo appearance.
We considered whether the long-time widower . . . would he have another romantic interest? If not, who would be part of a romance? Our women readers would want to know. We also were guided by and limited to the obituary printed at the end of Son of an Arizona Legend.
I scanned through Steve’s western resources to immerse myself in the western world he knew so well. I also scoured our fiction writing books for refresher tips and printed out excerpts for the sons. One that really helped me was How To Write Fast While Writing Well by David Fryxell which emphasized the importance of organization and discipline.
A friend suggested I attend the American Christian Fiction Writers conference at St. Louis where I took a class based on the book The Moral Premise by Stanley Williams. This helped us focus our main theme: pursuing justice, truth and mercy brings success; injustice, deceit and lack of mercy produce failure.
We met each Sunday afternoon for brainstorming and critique. We started with a cluster diagram of all the characters and information we’d garnered. We learned each other’s best communication style. Emails, texts and phone calls shot back and forth. Spirited discussions stirred debate as well as consensus.
We assigned each other research topics for the people, places and products of 1905 we needed to investigate. For instance, Russell studied Panama and the canal project that plays a key part in the plot. We also prepared character sketches then made composites. We found pictures on the internet we thought they resembled.
We began by developing random scenes. Mike suggested a thorough outline. Later, Aaron prepared plot points. That gave me direction for which scenes to draft next.
We wrestled with key questions. What happened to Brannon’s missing friend? Who are the good guys? The bad guys? What other Stephen Bly novel characters would be featured?
We tried to include as much of Steve’s writings as we could. Two Indian characters we added came from his short story, “Catcher-Of-The-Sun Runs High.” We inserted portions of his poetry.
A “Stuart Brannon Writes Again” article started out as our prologue. Later we concluded it didn’t fit. We interspersed some of the material in the text and debated whether to even have a prologue or not. Then one of the background stories we prepared on two of the orphans got considered as prologue material. It stayed.
The last scene Steve dictated to me didn’t quite flow with the rest of the story. We converted this one and others as dream sequences for Brannon. The young Indian, Keaton Tanglewood, comments, “The old chiefs dream many dreams.” Brannon ponders, Am I like an old chief? Are we getting so close to the next world that this one and the other start to blur together? We felt that tied it together.
To keep the constant additions and corrections separated, I used a different color type each week that turned into a helpful, rainbow manuscript.
The chronology of the story’s timeline got tangled in a mess and caused consternation. Finally, we figured it out.
It dawned on me the necessity to go on location, to retrace Steve’s research trips, to discover and experience what he knew. I reserved a motel in Gearhart, Oregon, two weeks before deadline.
The pressure’s on to write fast and prolific. As the weeks marched on and the word count edged higher, we aimed to reach Steve’s goal of 75,000 words. However, Steve could pound out a minimum of 5,000 words daily with ease. I struggled to eek out 2,000 words per day. When Aaron devised an adventure scene and Mike produced the golf tourney and poker game settings, we reached 67,000 words. By October 1st, I knew we’d hit the target count.
I headed to the Oregon coast. This on site research added much needed color and revealed mistakes. For instance, we had centered a main event on a deserted island. There are no islands off the Oregon coast, only rock outcroppings. We changed the action to Tillamook Head.
After we exceeded our word goal, we began to delete scenes and even characters that didn’t move the plot.
So many tweaks, so little time.
The last days and hours were frantic with attempts to concentrate, to view the pages with clarity past the blur of chapters we’d read so many times that they all ran together.
At 10:36 a.m. on November 1st, 2011, son Mike emailed me, “Well? Ready to push ‘send’?
At 11:46 a.m. I did, confident we’d done all we could.
Our incredible challenge proved to also be a great privilege that provided healing and working through our grief together. I asked Jesus, "Please let Steve know we finished his last undone earthly task."
**What family project for you has been the most meaningful and why? Tell about it here and leave your email address. Janet Chester Bly will choose an entry within 5 days to receive a free Bly Book of your choice from http://www.blybooks.com/bookstore/
Janet Chester Bly has authored 31 nonfiction and fiction books, 19 she co-authored with Christy Award winning author, Stephen Bly, including Stuart Brannon's Final Shot. Titles include The Hidden West Series, The Carson City Chronicles, Hope Lives Here, and The Heart of a Runaway. Her 3 married sons, Russell, Michael and Aaron, live down the mountain with their families at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers in Lewiston, Idaho. For more info about the Blys check: http://www.blybooks.com/or http://www.blybooks.blogspot.com/