When I started writing this story in 2002, it was without Moira’s tale and began with Maeve bidding on a keris at Lansing’s Block. The manuscript didn’t sell, so in 2005 I decided to rewrite it completely. I still felt the auction house was the best place to kick things off, because that scene sets the most important incident of the protagonist’s life in motion. What had happened between the twins was a fundamental part of Maeve’s tattered fabric, though, so I decided to interlace the story of her past with the present day narrative and tell the former from Moira’s point of view.
The biggest challenge was weaving everything so that the two stories dovetailed when they needed to and tensions evolved at a comparable rate. Oh, and I wanted to build off similar themes between each chapter and out-of-time sequence. Many hairs went gray during this process.
A lot of research, but I’m a researcher at my core, so I love this stuff. I have file folders—real and virtual—full of information on musical prodigies, foreign languages, twin phenomena, Rome, Trastevere, Castine, the keris, Javanese culture, wayang shadow puppets, empus, resident physicians, post-traumatic stress disorder, survival guilt, art, antiques, sailing, pop culture, university schedules, card tricks, cabbies, how to talk like a guy, and more! I have travel guides, maps, and plenty of books—including a few obscure ones, like Old Gypsy Madge’s Fortune Teller and the Witches Key to Lucky Dreams, published by M. Young in 1880, and The Keris and other Malay Weapons, published by the Council of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society. I haunted obscure message boards, conducted interviews over email and by phone, and even traveled to Castine, Maine to gather research for the book.
The locations—especially Castine, Maine, and Rome, Italy—became important players in The Last Will.
I read a lot about Castine, and then I traveled there to get a feel for the place, talk with the people who live there, ride on the Penobscot, and more. Castine is an interesting town with a rich history, and changed hands I don’t know how many times between the French, Brits and Danes throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. It was highly prized for its waterways and later became known for the care its townsfolk took over its elm trees. I liked this history, some of it for thematic reasons, but I felt truly inspired by the story of the drummer boy ghost. (You can read more about the ghost of Castine HERE.)
Rome was even more critical to the story, because specific aspects of the city shaped key moments in the plot and revealed character. I didn’t travel to Rome, though I learned a lot about it by reading guidebooks and speaking to someone with intimate knowledge—Adam Nixon at RomeBuddy.com. I devoured his site, then emailed him directly. Adam was terrific, explaining things I’d never read in a travel guide and describing the types of happenings you’d find in Rome around the holidays.
I don’t know that all twins share a special bond, but I’ve read enough about twins who say they do to write about it without worries. One of the most interesting books I found was the slim and accessible Twin Stories by Susan Kohl. Twin Stories is filled with first-hand accounts by twins—their struggles with separateness, unexplained phenomena and the gap left when one twin dies before another.
“Twin speak,” aka cryptophasia or idioglossia, definitely exists. You can learn more about it in Kohl’s book or HERE.
Oh, I like telling this story.
When I started version one of this book back in 2002, I began with research, which in part involved gathering virtual items for the antiques shop, Time After Time. I had books on antiques, and I used those, but I also liked to hop around eBay for dusty treasures—and that’s where I found a keris. It looked intesting, so I added it to my list. When I decided that the first scene in the story should be at an auction house, I basically eeny-meenied the keris out of the list and stuck it in the scene. A friend later read that scene and asked about the keris; would it be an important part of the book? It sounded like a good idea, like I might even know what I was doing, so I said, “Sure!”
My research into the Javanese keris came later, and I couldn’t believe the goldmine I’d found. Nearly everything alluded to in The Last Will about the keris is documented in one place or another. It’s a weapon with a fascinating history and mythology.
What I like best is that, in the end, the keris found its way into the story in a way an empu might appreciate; it seemed fated.
I don’t know why acceptance became the main theme. Maybe because I’m an introvert and somewhat of a social nerd. Or maybe it’s just what the book needed.
A few things happened that made me feel less secure about my future as a romance author. The first was that several writers who’d been keeping up with my storyline’s convolutions suggested it wasn’t a romance. They didn’t know what it was, to be honest. I stubbornly insisted that it was a romance, partly because I had a friend who was a big fan of the genre, and I wanted to write something she’d like.
The nail in the romance coffin for me was when I submitted the story to agents specializing in romance and received comments like these (reaching into the rejection file now):
The premise of your book is compelling and the writing evocative, but the tone and set-up make this novel a bit difficult to categorize.
The scope of your novel is too broad for a contemporary romance.
The heroine is much stronger than the hero.
It wasn’t until agent Deidre Knight came along, read the full manuscript, sat on the fence with it for a while, and then rejected it with a detailed accounting of why, that I really understood. She’s graciously agreed to let me share her notes here.
Maeve’s grief issues might not work with editors. For me, personally as the reader, yes— definitely resonated big time. I actually cried there at the end, as everything came out about Moira. But I worry that editors would say it’s too heavy to make this commercially viable. I could be totally wrong, but it almost has a kind of women’s fiction feeling to it, and yet it’s a romance. My gut tells me you probably have a part of you that either wants to write women’s fic, or that ultimately *will* write women’s fic. How could you morph this into women’s fic? Not entirely sure. But you’re close. Writing is a frustrating game. All I can tell you is be true to what burns inside you. My gut tells me you need to write something bigger than romance.
I sat with her note for a long time. I felt sick about the rejection, because she’d connected with the story, a story I’d worked on for two years. The truth of the matter—that it just wasn’t working, that it was a bigger story than I’d let it be—started to resonate with me, though. There’s also something fueling about someone in a power position telling you that you have potential. I felt challenged.
Did I ever consider dumping the story altogether and moving on to another? Absolutely. I’d already started writing another story—a sequel to this one. I set both stories aside for a while and started a third, something completely different. But the thought of abandoning Maeve’s tale knotted my guts up, so in the end, I went back to it. Ironically, a romance agent did express interest in the story later, if only I tightened some plot threads, made it less about Maeve, more about the romance, etc… But I chose to listen to Deidre and my gut, and make the biggest change of all—scrapping 99% of the work and starting over with the women’s fiction market in mind. I will be forever grateful to her for taking the time to tell me what wasn’t working and more importantly, what was. Her foresight and guidance altered the trajectory of my career.
I did a lot of craft work; I wanted to avoid any more missteps if I could. One of my biggest aids was Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel, for the great thinking questions he poses. It was through these exercises and others, and simmering with the story for several months, that I concocted some new story twists.
I also submerged myself in women’s fiction—a genre I knew little about. I read books like Marsha Moyer’s The Second Coming of Lucy Hatch and Barbara Samuel’s No Place Like Home. I also read books like Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees, Anita Shreve’s Where or When, and Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. Each had romantic elements, but also a more expansive story involving the female protagonist and her family. Some of the novels ended happily, others not so happily, but there was a salient strength in each female protagonist’s character and her arc. I liked that, I just wasn’t sure how to develop Maeve’s story to get there. I finally realized that the solution in Maeve’s case was to better explore her past with Moira and change the dynamics of her family life; so I altered history, made everything grittier.
I decided to write the story—at least the majority of it—in first-person point of view. This distanced me from the old draft, which had been written in third, and also helped me get into Maeve’s head a bit more.
Maeve’s character became oddly elusive to me. When the story had been a romance, I’d submitted it into a contest—The Heart of Denver Romance Writers contest called The Molly—and was named a finalist for producing an Unsinkable Heroine. But something happened when I started to write the story as women’s fiction. I think in trying to make Maeve’s character more serious, I made her lifeless; she came across as a little depressed, even self-pitying—not that she didn’t have reason, but she’d lost her unsinkable-heroineedge. I didn’t find it again until I had her hack off her hair and bleach it white. Transforming Maeve into a warrior, someone who rebelled against her grief, made all the difference in resurrecting her spirit.
I removed Noel from the first part of the story entirely. It was just too easy to slip into “romance mode” when he was around—sexy, half-Brit that he is—and I needed to concentrate on establishing Maeve’s story and her central conflicts. What I learned is that in women’s fiction, the female is both the hero and heroine of her story. It was critical not to lose sight of that.
In the end, I don’t think any character remained the same. It’s hard to pinpoint why everyone changed so drastically. Maybe it’s because when you’re writing romance, you’re writing escapist fiction. It can be dark, but ultimately it’s uplifting, romantic and idealistic. It’s Cinderella and the Prince. When you’re writing women’s fiction, you write without the rose-colored glasses and crystal slippers. It can still be romantic and contain a love story, but there may or may not be a happily ever after; the emotional connections between people and their behaviors with one another should bleed authenticity—at least, that’s what I was aiming for.
The story became richer and revealed more of itself with every draft, even during the final edit once the deal came through with Random House. Over time, I understood more about writing and became more confident in my abilities.
Little things kept me going over the years. Deidre’s entire email was taped beside my desk for the longest time. Other snippets from other positive rejections were there, too:
You’re a luscious writer, with loads of vivid details and language.
We loved your style of writing and unique voice.
There is something about your prose that it unique and captivating.
The writing is exceptionally good.
You have great potential.
I admired these pages very much.
I think the pitch is great, very high concept and ambitious.
When you’re an unpublished writer, not sure if you’re “wasting” your time or not on your work, it’s important to hang on to all the positives, even to surround yourself with them as I did. But I think the most important thing that kept me committed to this story was the story itself; it just wouldn’t let go. It haunted me, in a way. I had to write it.
Yes, but one of the rules of good fiction is to make your characters suffer. I didn’t have a full understanding of Maeve’s history or the scope of her journey until I wrote the story as women’s fiction. There were times when I paused after brainstorming a new possibility, thought, “Can I really do that to her?” before realizing that I had to; it supported one of the main premises of the story: “Knowledge comes from caring enough to suffer and learn.”
When I was told we’d have to change the title, which came almost immediately after the book deal, I was devastated—ridiculously so, maybe, considering my book was going to be published. Why should I care so much about the title? But I cried buckets over it. I was convinced that Unbounded was the only title that would ever work for the book. I did not want to brainstorm new titles. I’d start thinking on it, come up with a few cruddy ideas, then walk away from the whole mess. I wasn’t any fun to live with. My husband, who can always be counted on to lighten a mood, came up with a top-ten list:
TOP TEN TITLES FOR TERI’S BOOK REJECTED BY RANDOM HOUSE
10. The Big Wavy Knife
9. Good Thing He Didn’t Use eBay
8. The Life and Times of George Lansing
7. The Plumbing Crisis behind the Door
6. “A Javanese mystic, a crazy Italian and an Irish girl walk into a secret, subterranean jazz bar….”
5. Waves of Nausea
4. The Keris of Monte Counto
3. Wet Dreams
2. Angry Nails: The Javanese Hatred of Wooden Doors
1. Bleach Blondes Have More Sax
Our title hunt hit a more critical point in December of ’08. We had to find something, and I was determined to like it. Eventually, we came up with a few contenders, including:
The Shadow of Castine
Out of Time
The Third Will
The Color of White
The Far Side of the Storm
We weren’t able to agree on anything before the holiday, so brainstorming resumed after the New Year. I already had a strong idea for what I wanted my second book to be titled, so I considered a similar formula:
The ___ ___ of Maeve Leahy
Something about it stuck in my mouth, but I thought
The ___ ___ of Moira Leahy
sounded poetic. I ran The Long Shadow of Moira Leahy by my editor, Sarah Knight. She liked the idea behind it, but wasn’t sure “long shadow” was It. I agreed. About two hours later she emailed me:
Ooh, what about The Last Will of Moira Leahy?
I loved it. It was perfect on so many levels, for the same reasons Unbounded had been perfect to me. I loved that it established Moira as the book’s protagonist, and that it tied in with the novel’s structure, which is divided into sections: the first will, the second will, etc… That was January 5th, 2009.
On January 6th, which is also the holiday Epiphany, and a critical day in the book, Shaye Areheart chose The Last Will of Moira Leahyfrom a list of other titles as her favorite. And that was pretty much all she wrote.