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  • Writer's pictureCarolyn E. Cook

The Story Behind the Story, Part One

"Where do you get all the ideas for your novels?" a reader friend recently asked me. My response was that inspiration can come from just about anywhere -- old newspapers, online articles, something I hear in a conversation, a vintage photograph, a person I once knew, family anecdotes. All stories arise from another story that produces the spark of invention.

This is the story behind my novel "Early Frost."

In the late summer of 1918, the Spanish flu began its relentless march around the world. By 1920, when the disease had finally faded, it had killed more people than any other contagious outbreak in recorded history, somewhere between 50 and 100 million. Yet most nowadays know little to nothing about those horrific times.

The antique photograph shows just one of the Spanish flu's victims, taken a few weeks before his death. He was a professor of Vegetable Gardening at what was then called Maryland State College, located outside of Washington, D. C. In 1918, he and his wife had been married five years and were parents of two children. By all accounts, he was much liked in the community and considered to be of "sterling character."

His name was Edwin Freeman Stoddard and he was my grandfather.

From the time I was little, I heard my grandmother repeat the details of his demise. "Everyone was getting sick," she said, "and the doctors didn't know how to treat the illness or stop the spread. One of our neighbors -- Edwin thought the fellow to be a great friend -- had a very bad case. Since Edwin seemed full of health, he volunteered to walk to the neighbors' house and help care for the man. As things happened, the friend recovered, but Edwin came down sick. I nursed him for ten days and tried all sorts of remedies, but nothing worked and he succumbed." She stated that, before he drifted into his last sleep, his final words to her had been, "Elizabeth, God will take care of you."

When he'd spoken that encouragement, Edwin was a few months past his 30th birthday. My grandmother was 33, her little boy was 3, and my mother, 14 months. No funeral was held for Edwin, as large, indoor gatherings were prohibited, due to the fear of contagion. He was buried in an Episcopal Church cemetery and a short, graveside service was delivered, although Edwin had been a Presbyterian. But burial plots were already scarce and people had to take whatever could be found.

My grandmother Elizabeth managed to get a job to support her family and held that job for 25 years, but she never remarried. She remained fast friends with the neighbors, though there was always the unspoken assumption that Edwin's death had in some way been the neighbor man's fault. I think even the man himself believed this to be so.

That was my spark. I took the story to a location in Texas, developed townspeople and a distinct main family. The oldest child, twelve-year-old Stella, gives the account from her perspective, how influenza ravaged her town and her own family in 1918. While I made the members of the neighbor family entirely different and rather problematic, I chose to retain the concept of the man with sterling character who goes to care for his sick friend.

"Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."


If any of this struck you, feel free to write a comment. I'd appreciate reading what others have to say. And if you haven't yet joined the group, go to the Subscribe page and leave your name and email address. Then you can get updates on the next blog and about the upcoming novel.

Many thanks.

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