Finding inspiration – The Open Road, a novel

I’m pleased to welcome M.M. Holaday to my blog today. You may remember Holaday (aka Nan Johnson) from the story she wrote about Perkins Corner, a post that struck a chord with many readers. Holaday has published her first novel – The Open Road – and it launches this month.

Set in the American West after the Civil War, as settlement hastens the close of the frontier, The Open Road tells the story of two adventurous young men, a horsewoman, and an Arapaho who discover the depths of their character as they tie their fates together in a heart-felt story of friendship. Click here to read my review.

In this post she answers a frequent reader question: ‘Where did you get your inspiration?’

Drawing from the inspiration well

By M.M. Holaday

Writers gather ideas from all sorts of places. For me, a lyric from a song on the radio or a tactile experience like weeding the garden will spark an idea. That random thought is filed for a time when I need to add texture to a story. But then there are other experiences that etch themselves deep into our hearts and minds. As I wrote The Open Road, a poem, a novel, and my grandmother inspired me.

The yearning for connection

I confess I do not understand nor appreciate every line of Song of the open road by Walt Whitman. He goes on and on for forty-plus stanzas; perhaps he is intentionally long-winded to show how journeys themselves are long, winding, sometimes arduous, sometimes delightful, and filled with an array of experiences, moods, and people.

His opening lines are exciting and the most quoted: Afoot and light-hearted, I take to the open road. Recent Volvo commercials have familiarized more great lines from the poem: The east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine. All seems beautiful to me.

The very last lines of the poem, however, grip me and break my heart every time I read them. For all the bravado the traveler expresses about getting out of libraries and into living life, he ends the poem with: Will you give me yourself? Will you come travel with me? Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?

In the end, the traveler in the poem wants connection; he wants companionship. The final lines speak volumes to me and inspired much of the plot and interplay between Win, Jeb, and Meg, the main characters in my story.

Importance of place

I read Willa Cather‘s My Antonia for the first time as an adult over 25 years ago. Cather beautifully captures the bittersweet attraction, platonic love, loyalty, caring, independence and interdependence, and ultimately shared memories, between Jim Burden and Antonia Shimerda. The connectedness they shared was similar to what I wanted for Win, Jeb and Meg.

In contrast to Whitman’s poem, Cather gives the reader a profound sense of place. Antonia represents home, as the narrator states in the Introduction before Jim takes over telling the story, More than any other person we remembered, this girl seemed to mean to us the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood.

Jim’s recollections of his Nebraska prairie farm and Antonia are tightly interwoven; it is impossible to think of one without the other. I wanted to examine the “connection to place” from the different perspectives of Meg, Jeb, Win, and Gray Wolf.

A lively grandmother

A third important influence that helped shape The Open Road was my grandmother. I only knew her as an old woman, but when she was young she taught school and spent her summers working in Yellowstone Park. Before she married, she and her girlfriend sailed for Europe, expanded her world view, and perhaps caught the travel bug that she and my grandfather later shared. In her senior years, she still had infectious energy; her conversations were always lively, but they had substance. She was grounded and steady; I could count on her.

While no character in the book is patterned after anyone I know in real life, Meg comes the closest to being modeled after my grandmother. She embodied the push-pull dynamic of home and adventure that tugged at Meg.

What ideas or inspirations can you trace to specific books, experiences, or people? What made a deep impression?

Author M.M. Holaday

A graduate of St. Olaf College and the University of Minnesota Graduate School of Library Science, Nan Johnson (who writes under the pen name M.M. Holaday) is a former reference and rare-book librarian. She lives in Missouri where she writes and where she and her husband maintain a tall grass prairie.

To learn more about Holaday, visit her website.

The Open Road is available on Amazon in hardcover and ebook formats.

Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing. I always enjoy hearing what made someone write about a particular subject.
    Your novel sounds interesting, and it’s somehow heartwarming that your grandmother was an influence, as well as Whitman and Cather.
    In my poetry, I’m often inspired by something I see, hear, or read–a bird song, a Google Doodle, an NPR story. But my doctoral dissertation, which became my first book, was inspired by two important articles written by historian Nancy Cott on divorce in seventeenth-century New England. I wondered if anything like that had been done on Pennsylvania. It hadn’t, and so my work began. 🙂

    • Carol Bodensteiner says:

      Thanks for starting the conversation, Merril. Many new works start, as yours did, with a question. Interesting how divorce led to many more books on women and sex. You found a niche expertise.

    • Nan Johnson says:

      Very interesting, Merril. Whether writing poetry or dissertations, the sparks of inspiration take us in a variety of directions, but are sparks nevertheless; our minds always gathering and wondering!

  2. Elfrieda Neufeld Schroeder says:

    Thank you, Carol for this interesting and inspiring post. I love to read about what inspires others to write. I often get my inspiration when I go for a walk. Things that have been cooking in my head suddenly come together and voila!
    On another topic: I have resisted using Kindle to read, but have started doing so now because I’m downsizing my library. I still love the touch and feel of the book. I’m reading “Kalyna” a novel by Pam Clark, about a Ukrainian family settling in Alberta in the 1920s.

    • Carol Bodensteiner says:

      Walking inspires me, too, Elfrieda. And clears my head. Always useful.

      I prefer to read a physical book, as well, but like the compact portability of the Kindle, particularly for travel. The novel you’re reading might be inspiration for memoir you’re writing. Do you find it triggering thoughts about your own life?

      • My great grandmother and her family came to Canada in the 1920s, so it would be more like their experience. Our family arrived in Canada in 1952 and joined the clan.
        But the people in the Kalyna story are not Mennonite, so it is a little different. But, for sure, it gets my mind going back to that time.

        • Carol Bodensteiner says:

          Yes, each memoir tells the author’s own story, which I almost always find interesting. Beyond that, I find myself reading as a writer, asking: What did they include and why? How did they bring the story together? If I were writing my own story, how would I do that? Or not? I thought “Kalyna” might trigger thoughts for you because it is about another family that made a journey ultimately landing in Canada, as your family did. If you are still able to read a story simply for the enjoyment of that story, I’m happy for you. I seem to have left that ability behind.

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