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The Story Behind The Story | Lynne Hugo

The Story Behind The Story

In case you’re one of the few people who’ve managed to miss my news, THE TESTAMENT OF HAROLD’S WIFE is coming out September 25 from Kensington Books.

I thought you might enjoy the real-life stories that gave life to this novel.

There were two completely different experiences that planted the seeds. The first had to do with what I interpreted as an expression of overwhelming, unbearable grief and anger, something I saw deep on a slushy, dreary December twilight on my way to the grocery store. At a traffic light, I caught up to a black monster SUV on oversize wheels. The windows were tinted dark, and the SUV loomed huge, my little silver Honda’s windshield seeming like the target of its exhaust pipe. There was just enough time to skim the white lettering that stretched across the SUV back window: a date, two sets of curvy lines (angel wings?) with the name Nicholas in between them, and then another date. Underneath was written A Grandfather Never Forgives. I was moved, saddened, intrigued. A bit horrified. What could the grandson have done to arouse such rage? I began thinking about what understanding I could dig for.

The traffic light changed too quickly, and the SUV made a left turn. Impulsively I followed it, hoping to glean more. I imagined a possible scenario: maybe Nicholas had been a teenager, repeatedly warned against drinking or smoking pot, say, but he’d done so, and killed himself and other people in a car. Or, then I thought—wait! Who exactly is the unforgiven? There’s another story in it, perhaps. Maybe someone else killed the grandson? What can I extrapolate about how people express grief? What else is this grandfather doing?

That’s how a novel started from an SUV I saw on the way to the grocery store, but I saved the idea and set it aside to keep working on the one I was writing at the time. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to take a picture of that SUV. At the time, I didn’t know that it would fit with other experiences that would start later, in the spring, so compelling that I’d start THE TESTAMENT OF HAROLD’S WIFE right then because I’d met some of TESTAMENT’S most memorable characters. The chickens.

Given my love for the natural world, I hit the jackpot when my dear friend Diana lost her mind and brought home four baby chicks in early April the same year. I gleefully recognized that I could use chicken-raising in a novel based on the fun of this effortless research. My husband and I went over to see the brood box lined with pine shavings in their garage. It was masterfully done, complete with heat lamp, two large thermometers, feed and water systems. A small roost completed this chick world, the entirety of which measured about two by three feet with eighteen inch high walls. It had to be maintained at ninety degrees; I hear chicks are picky about that. Apparently there’d been one screw up on an especially warm day and all the chicks’ eggs had nearly been fried before they’d ever been laid, but the overzealous heat lamp had been corrected in time. Weeks passed and the ordered-in-advance coop didn’t come and didn’t come. It seems that baby chicks grow faster than dandelions in April. The brood box was expanded, but finally Diana had to let them loose in the garage during the day so they didn’t peck each other to death or whatever chicks do when the brood box gets too small. While Diana and husband Nik were at work, the growing chickens ran around pooping on a garage floor that’s normally kept more pristine than my kitchen. At night they’d go back in the brood box to sleep while Diana scrubbed the garage floor to relax.

Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy they were named, three of them Americaunas and one, Jo, a Rhode Island Red of the variety known as probably. Diana said Jo’s the sweet one, introducing me to the idea that chickens have personalities. Better and better fodder for fiction, I said. I had practically begged her to name them after the Dixie Chicks, with the biggest and yellowest called Dixie, and the others to be Martie, Emily and Natalie, but my brilliant and creative nomination lost out to her husband’s staid suggestion. Maybe I should have been thrilled they went such a literary route, but Dixie and The Chicks appealed to my unmuzzled political side. Anyway, now I’m happy Diana didn’t use the really good names because they’re all mine for another novel.

The big, heavy coop finally arrived in a large truck delivery, and was uncrated, assembled and connected to a newly-constructed chicken run in record time, all the while Diana eyed the birds especially closely. Oops. The chick she’d named Amy was starting to look alarmingly like an Amos. We tried to reassure Diana that the thing emerging on top of Amy’s head was probably a wart, not a comb, even if she did have those unfeminine, thick legs. The worry was that chickens are perfectly legal within the city limits, but roosters are a giant no-no. And for a while, it was looking like there could be more bad news—Meg had started to raise a bit of suspicion, too. Was she briefly cross-dressing, or was she really Mark? You can imagine the fun I was having with all this, can’t you? This stuff was so compelling I had to set aside what I was working on and start to get down some ideas for a novel that started with that grandfather somehow and involved these chickens. Diana wasn’t the only one who had lost her mind. Meanwhile, the chicks finally got big enough and it got warm enough weather that they could all be out in the coop, Diana having become a reluctant expert on sexing chickens. 

I ended up moving the setting of the novel from my university town to the southeastern Indiana farmland that’s close enough to where I live that I’d traveled across it once a week for years on the way to take one of the family kids to flute lessons. I was ever-aware of the land as I drove through it, watching the plowing in the spring, the planting, the rising corn, how it silvered in the sun. Harvest. Combines crawling across the acres like slow ships on an inland sea. The novel needed a rural sheriff who’d have, in his way, taken and not taken the law into his own hands. It needed hunters. And so I moved Jo, Beth, and Amy (Meg, like the real Meg, had died) and Marvelle, a haughty tuxedo cat, to a small family farm on the kind of land I know so well. Harold’s the grandfather I conjured from that SUV, who would never forgive. Louisa, Harold’s grieving, angry, but still sassy widow, whose adult son Gary routinely drives her nuts, seemed entirely natural in southeastern Indiana. As does her devotion to her land and the creatures that live on it. To find out what she does, you’d have to let her tell it in her own kick-ass way.

I so hope you’ll do that, and that you’ll love Louisa. Maybe you’d consider pre-ordering the novel? Here’s why it’s such a huge boost to a book. Books that are pre-ordered are added to a book’s first week sales. First week sales are incredibly significant to the amount of attention a book gets which in turn may affect the size of the print run, advertising plans, and help to generate professional reviews. As you may know, the only other thing that really helps a novel succeed (other than positive reviews, of course) are the sheer number of reader reviews on Amazon (unfortunately—that site carries the most weight) and Goodreads, now linked to Amazon. If a book gets fifty reviews, Amazon starts recommending it to readers looking for books similarly tagged. So not just for me, but for all authors whose work you either intend to read—preorder!—or do read—leave a review. ONE SENTENCE counts as a review. Two words counts as a review, believe it or not.

Finally, I’m really proud to let you know that Kensington Books has partnered with Mothers Against Drunk Driving. The publisher is donating 200 copies for me to sign and give away at a MADD anniversary event on September 29, as well as featuring the MADD logo in all advertising. I’ll also be donating a portion of my royalties to MADD.

Pre-Order Now

18 Responses to The Story Behind The Story

  1. Pre-ordering at Concord Bookshop. We’ve got to help the local bookstores! Looking forward to this. All the best!

    • Oh, thank you so much, Sterling! You are so right. The independents are wonderful and important. I love them and agree about supporting them especially.

  2. Hi Lynne,

    Congratulations on this exciting news! I have forwarded your email to the library’s Collection Development Manager to make sure that a copy of your latest book is ordered for the Oxford Lane Library.

    Have you considered applying to attend Books by the Banks Festival in Cincinnati? The release of this book is perfect time as this year’s festival is on Saturday, October 20. Here’s the link for the festival if you are interested: http://booksbythebanks.org/

    All the best,
    Rebecca

    • Thank you, Rebecca. My publicist at Kensington already submitted the novel and it was accepted. I’ll be there! and I’m looking forward to it greatly.

  3. Loved this blog post, talented sister. Neat to read about the origin and evolution of your story. Thanks for sharing with all!

  4. Loved reading your blog and plan to preorder your novel! Your novels always teach the reader something new, and your writing paints pictures in my mind. When I taught fourth grade many years ago, my class and I had an incubator of chicken eggs, which we had to turn every 10 hours or so. Yup, I had to go every Saturday and Sunday over to school or make sure the eggs were rotated. Eventually, the chicks hatched- so cute when they were tiny, but a lot of work as they grew. Linda, one of my students used to come early to school to help me. When we walked in Monday morning, there was loads of chicken droppings. Without thinking, I said, “Linda, we need to get this chicken shit picked up!” She did not even blink, but I was horrified with my choice of words. Needless to say, those chicks were quickly given away to new homes! And then there was the rabbit. . .

    • Wendy, what a great story! I love it. (You’ll probably resonate to a chapter in the novel in which Louisa recounts what it was like to watch chicks hatch!) I’m so glad you shared this. Thank you!

  5. Hi Lynne,
    I just pre-ordered your new book and can’t wait until September 25th to start reading it! It looks like it will be another great read!

    • Pam, thank you! I hope you love it. It’ll be published in large print, too. I know you’ve asked about that before. Also, the audiobook will be published the same day, I’m told. Thank you again for being so supportive.

  6. Chicken hatching the old fashioned way. I’m a historian and thought you might be interested in an account from 1601 A.D. when an Englishman named Henry Timberlake traveled from “Grand Cayro” (Cairo) to Jerusalem. He came upon this chicken hatching operation in a small village in Egypt. Here’s his account (in Elizabethan English, slightly edited)—and talk about mass production!

    At this towne, being named Philbits, we stayed two daies and one night: in which time I went into a house, where I sawe (in my iudgement) a very strange secret of hatching Chickins, by artificiall heat or warmthe: the like I had seene before at the Grand Cayro, but not in such extraordinary numbers or multitudes as heere, the manner whereof (for your better satisfaction)was as followeth.

    The country people inhabiting about this towne, by foure or fiue miles distance euery waie, doe bring their Egges vpon Asses or Camelles to this place, where there is an Oven or Furnace purposely kept temperat∣ly warme, and the Master thereof…standeth ready at a little doore, receiuing the Egges of euery one… And let me tell you this for a trueth, that I sawe there receiued by the Master, in one day, to the number of thirtie five or fortie thousand Egges: and they tolde me, that, for three daies space together, hee doth nothing but receiue in still, and at twelue daies they come againe to fetch Chickins, some∣times at tenne daies, and sometimes (but not very often) at seauen daies, according as the weather falleth out.

    Perhaps some two hundred persons are owners of one Rangefull, some having two thousand, some one, or more or lesse, as the quantities amount to: but the Master noteth the names and porti∣ons of euery bringer, and if he happen to haue an hundred and fiftie thousand, or two hundred thousand at one heate (as many times it chaunceth that he hath) yet doth he mingle them altogether, as not respecting to whom they seuerally belong. Then doth he lay them one by one vpon his range, so neere as they can lye and touch each other, hauing first made a bed for them of Camelles dunge burnt: and the place, whereon the ashes doth rest, is of a very thinne matter made of earth, but mixed with the Camels dung in the making, and some Pigeons dung is also amongst it.

    Yet herein consisteth not the secret onely, for there is made a concave or hollow place about three foote breadth under it, whereon is likewise spread another layer of Camels dung, and vnder that is the place where the fire is made. Yet can I not rightly call it fire, because it appeareth too be nothing but embers:

    This artificiall heate gliding through the embers whereon the Egges lie, doth by degrees warme through the shelles, and so infuseth life by the same pro∣portions of heate: thus in seuen, eight, nine, ten, or sometimes twelue daies, life continueth by this artificiall meanes. Now when the Master perceiveth life to appeare, and that the shelles begin to breake, then he beginneth to gather them: but of an hū∣dred thousand, he hardly gathereth threescore thousand, some∣time but fiftie thousand, and sometime (when the day is ouer∣cast) not twentie thousand: and if there chaunce any lightning, thunder or raine, then of a thousand he gathers not one, for they doo then all miscarie & die.

    And this is to be remembred with∣all, that be the weather never so fair, the aire perfect cleare, and let the Chickens be hatched in the best manner that may be: yet have they either a clawe too much or too little: for sometimes they haue fiue clawes, sometimes sixe, some but two before, and one behind, and seldome very fewe or any in their right shape. Afterward, when the people come to receiue, that before had brought in, the Master giues to euery one ratably [in proportion], according as the Furnace yeel∣ded, reseruing to himselfe the tenth for his labour. Thus have you the secret of hatching Chickens by heate artificiall, at the towne of Philbits in the land of Gozan…

    Chicken hatching made easy—not! Best of luck with The Testament of Harold’s Wife!

    • Jim–wow! if only Louisa had known about digging a hollow and spreading a layer of camel dung over a fire–well, “…that which cannot rightly be called a fire, but embers.” She, too, could have raised thousands and thousands of chickens instead of her paltry flock. Although, there would have been that danger of the extra or missing claw(e). Still, I don’t know how I managed to miss what would have been such a thrilling way to raise the stakes in the narrative. I’ll definitely be consulting you for relevant historical references for all my future books. Especially those concerning camel dung, of course.

      Note to readers: James West Davidson is the author, most recently, of A Little History of The United States (Yale University Press). It is short yet complete, incredibly thoughtful and readable. As Jim says on his website (jameswestdavidson.com), “…Democracy doesn’t work if its citizens suffer from historical annesia…The history of our republic is worth examining. Do it now! For the sheer enjoyment. For the intellectual engagement. For the sake of the nation. A democratic republic can survive only if it boasts an informed and engaged citizenry.”

  7. Definitely plan to pre-order. Sounds like another good one – very intriguing!

    I remember when I was eight years old and convinced my parents to let me raise three colored baby chicks in our tiny kitchen. My father, bless him, got up during the night more than once to make sure the light bulb dangling over their cardboard box was positioned just right in order to warm the chicks, but not burn down the house. Soon they were big and white and running around our backyard in Virginia. Before long, they went to live happily ever after with the man who worked at the Safeway and had a farm. Or so they told me.

    Good luck with the launch!

    • I’m so impressed your parents let you do this! I never realized how many people have had experience with chickens–which I hadn’t, until Diana’s, which gave me enough expertise to write fiction. Well, that along with a lot of research. Thanks for sharing this neat story, Susan, and for reading!

  8. I read the Mary Oliver excerpt you posted. Not for me, but many decline fact in favor of fantasy. I have never known how to do that.

    I remember Lake Wawasee, all the cornfields, and those irresistible chicken baskets. Ah well, we are all part of the food chain.

    It surprised me to learn that Koko, a recently deceased gorilla fortunately much beloved by her keepers, had learned to speak sign language. She called watermelon candy water (or was it water candy?) Either way, rather evocative.

    “Combines crawling across the acres like slow ships on an inland sea” is also quite evocative and a bit reminiscent of Updike. An imagistic foretaste of coming attractions.

    I know in advance that I am sure to treasure the volume, and may even keep it in a solander box. Wherever it gets stored though, it will be kept–barring natural disasters–virtually pristine.

    May it rocket you into stardom. Best of luck. And keep skewering Tweety!

  9. OK now I gotta figure out who to talk to at my library down here in Mobile cause your books would be great to have here

    • Thank you, Teresa! Libraries are so important, aren’t they? It would be wonderful to have my novels in your library. And I hope you especially love this new one. I’m counting on you to let me know. Thanks for your comment.

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