Several years ago, my daughter asked me to play a game. She gave me the set-up: “We’re sisters. You’re nineteen. I’m seven. You wake up one morning and I’m in bed with you. I tell you our parents are missing.”
“Missing?” I said. “That’s terrible. What happened to them?”
“They were taken,” she said. “Into the woods.” She shrugged her shoulders nonchalantly and added, “Sometimes it just happens.”
I wrote down the idea for a story I called “The Missing Parents Book” but I didn’t have much more, so I put it away, knowing I’d write about those girls one day.
Fast forward to a couple of years ago. My agent was encouraging me to try something different, something “bigger.” I started playing around with an idea for a story set partly in the Civil War. I was watching the Ken Burns Civil War documentary and there was a little bit in there about Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd’s young son dying in the White House. Mary Todd was grief-stricken, but claimed the boy visited her after death. She began having séances in the White House. Something clicked and I decided I would write a book about a woman who becomes a spiritualist in Vermont at the turn of the century. I’d have her lose a child, but believe she could communicate with her and with others who had passed on.
Then, one day, I was writing from the point of view of my turn-of-the century character, Sara. And I wrote down this line: The first time I saw a sleeper, I was nine years old.
Whoa! I thought, getting chills. What’s a sleeper? And I had to keep writing to find out, to let Sara tell me her story. And soon, I understood that I wasn’t writing a book about a woman who believes she can communicate with the dead, I was writing about a woman who believed she could bring the dead back to life.
I remembered my two sisters with the parents who were taken into the woods (“Sometimes it just happens”) and knew they belonged in there, too. The sisters would live in Sara’s house in the present day and somehow, what happened to them would be connected to Sara, to something that happened over a century ago.