By Lu Anne Stewart
These past few weeks, The Author Lab has been taking a look at the subject of inspiration: where do writers get their ideas? As my colleagues Allie Burns and Foday Mannah have related in their posts, inspiration can happen gradually as we collect life experiences and quirky bits of knowledge that trigger the idea for a story or novel. I’d like to pick up on that thread and say that in my own experience, inspiration can have a very long fuse, burning quietly over decades until it bursts into a fully formed idea.
My inspiration for Digging, the novel I’ve just finished writing, traces back to the late 1970s when I began my career as a reporter for a small daily newspaper in New England. It was an exhilarating job, covering everything from the daily police blotter to a toxic waste dump discovered on a rural pig farm. I worked with a team of tenacious young reporters, all of us committed to getting the facts right, uncovering wrongdoing and holding the powers-that-be accountable.
I hadn’t started writing fiction at that point, but I began thinking that a small-town newsroom would make a great setting for a novel someday. The trouble was, I couldn’t come up with a strong idea for what this novel would be about. What kind of story could my reporter-protagonist uncover that would keep a reader interested over 300-plus pages?
Over the next couple of decades I started to write some short stories and a first (still unpublished!) novel about a mother-daughter relationship. The idea of a journalism novel remained stubbornly embedded in some remote corner of my mind. Its overall theme and plot still eluded me, but the fuse continued to burn.
Finally, around the 2013-14 timeframe, a variety of trends and developments related to journalism began to coalesce in my mind. Polls showed the news media sinking to lower and lower levels of public esteem. Reporters and news outlets were derided by some as the “drive-by media.” The emergence of social media was taking its toll on “old-fashioned” print journalism, which experienced significant reporter layoffs and often, reduced resources for investigative reporting.
I found these trends disheartening. This was not the journalism I knew. I came of age at a time when journalists were heroes. The Pentagon Papers. Watergate. In my journalism training in college and throughout seven years as a working journalist, I never met a colleague who was biased or motivated by anything other than uncovering important facts that the public had a right to know.
And suddenly, there was my inspiration. My slow-burning novel would, at its core, be about idealism. It would be about the essence of journalism as a noble calling. About the importance of a free press in a democracy. And I would tell that story through the very narrow lens of one idealistic reporter in the late 1970s who sets out for a small town to begin her career as a newspaper reporter. She would discover a web of corruption in that town that tests her commitment to stay true to those high ideals.
Over the next three years spent writing this book, the news was a constant source of inspiration to keep me going. We witnessed the rise of Trump and relentless attacks on the freedom of the press. Solid, well-sourced reporting was routinely dismissed as “fake news.” The troubling notion emerged that there can be “alternative facts.”
Now, as I finish up some final edits and focus on getting this book out into the world, I hope it will give readers a glimpse into the inner motivations of a working journalist and, perhaps, if my wildest dreams come true, change some hearts and minds about the importance of a free press.