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.

Perkins Corner – love and comfort in a package “to go”

My mother had a tradition. Whenever we visited, when it came time to leave, Mom put together food for us to take along for the drive. It didn’t matter if we’d just eaten and the trip only a couple of hours long, she sent food along for the drive.

As a result, I was charmed – and not a little homesick – when I heard that Nan Johnson’s family named this common tradition. As we enjoy this holiday season and associated travels, I invite you to take a little “Perkins Corner” love along.

A to-go bag makes that hug last longer.

A to-go bag makes that hug last longer.

Perkins Corner – love and comfort in a package “to go”

by Nan Johnson

Recently, as our daughter packed her car to leave after a visit home, my husband stepped out of our pantry holding a package of Mint Milano cookies. “These will be good for Perkins Corner – Kathryn likes these.” My husband caught me by surprise, because in that simple, off-hand comment, he connected generations of my family, paid a loving tribute to my late mother, and demonstrated that he pays more attention than he lets on.

A “Perkins Corner,” in my family, is a bag of treats assembled for the person leaving. It is an assortment of fruit and snacks, and may include a coupon for an oil change or a free smoothie. Practically speaking, of course, they are road trip provisions. Symbolically, they are a loving gesture to the family member who is leaving that says “we are reluctant to let you go; here’s a small part of us to take with you.”

While the practice is undoubtedly common among families, the name for it is not. It comes from my great-grandparents, Dutch immigrants who arrived two years before Ellis Island opened and settled in a community of fellow Frisians in northwest Iowa farm country.

Pakka was a stone mason and Beppa supplemented their income by making and selling cheese. Every summer in their childhood, my mother and her sister took the train from Rochester, Minnesota, to Rock Valley, Iowa, to visit their grandparents. These days, it is a three and a half hour trip by car; back then, the trip by rail probably took the better part of a day.

My mom and aunt spent the long summer days fishing with their grandpa, weeding the garden with grandma, and playing in the hayloft with cousins – children of their father’s siblings who had married other first generation Dutch Americans­­.

When it was time to leave the idyllic life of loving attention only grandparents can give, the tears began. To soften the sting of good-bye, Beppa handed her granddaughters a brown paper sack as they boarded the train with instructions not to open it until they reached Perkins Corner, the first train stop down the track. During that eight-mile journey, as Mom would tell the story, the sniffling subsided, cheeks wiped dry, and curiosity peaked as to the contents of that mysterious brown bag. When the conductor announced the Perkins stop, the sisters peeked inside and pulled out apples and cookies – one last figurative hug from their loving grandparents.

I grew up hearing the story, but never experienced my own Perkins Corner since my own grandparents lived in town. But after I married, had children and we visited my parents, who now lived in faraway Tucson, the tradition began again.

“Just a little Perkins Corner,” Mom would say tearfully as she thrust a brown paper lunch bag into my hands as we pulled up to curbside check-in at the airport. I wasn’t always as appreciative as I should have been; flying with three young children, our hands were already full of toddlers, strollers, diaper bags and luggage. What do I do with this extra sack? But I accepted the gift anyway, dutifully nodding at the updated instructions to not open until the airplane’s wheels retracted after lift-off.

Moments after we left the ground and felt the rumble of the wheel doors close underneath us, our kids would turn in unison toward me, and I would pull the slightly squashed bag from my carry-on. Mom got pretty creative over the years. She included candy made from prickly pear cactus, chocolates shaped like cowboy boots, decks of playing cards with colorful photos of Arizona. Whatever minor irritation I felt from being forced to hold on to an additional package faded at the sight of our kids’ smiles. After all, it was one last hug from loving grandparents.

So, when our grown-up daughter, with car packed and ready to go, came back inside to grab her travel coffee mug, she saw a brown paper sack waiting for her on the kitchen counter. Her eyes lit up and she said with delight, “Perkins Corner!” I felt three generations smiling with me.

Do you have quirky names for common traditions? Take a moment to share. And Happy Holidays.

Nan Johnson is a former reference and rare-book librarian. She lives in Missouri where she writes and where she and her husband maintain a tallgrass prairie. Her first book “The Open Road” will be available in April 2017.