Sometimes “Why” Is the Answer

I’m rushing to finish a long-standing family project this month.  In this case, “long-standing” means that nearly eight years ago I promised my extended family of sisters, cousins and their children, that I would complete a family book.

It began as a huge (well over 200 double-sided pages) three-ring binder of family photos I collected from relatives.  The collection began with my maternal grandparents and ended with the newest great-great-great grandchildren.  At that time it would have cost a politician’s fortune to print a full-color book of that size.  So after printing it once on my home printer, flipping each page by hand to print the second side, I kept putting off completing the project.

Now, in just over a month and a half, we are all gathering again for a family reunion, and I want to be able to share as much as I’ve finished with everyone.

One of my sisters spent about a hundred hours gathering twigs of the family tree.  But the census pages and faded documents she’s uncovered aren’t the real story.  And that story is what I’m compelled to discover and share; even if I won’t have it all by finished the end of next month.

A couple of days ago a friend, who knows I’m knee-deep this month in finishing what I am able of the book, asked why I’m compelled to do all this work.

Her question stopped me short, until I realized the answer to my interest in this project is the “why.”

I’m enticed to discover the fascinating facts behind my ancestors’ decisions to leave the homes they knew and set sail for the New World.  I’m drawn to unlock the dynamics of world and local events that placed them in the position of boarding ships upon which they were treated almost as well as cattle.  I want to discover the mental and physical strength each of these people demonstrated as they built new lives in a strange land.  I want to understand what impelled them from the shores where they landed, to undertake harrowing journeys half-way across an unsettled continent.

It’s the “why” that grabs my attention and insists that I follow the spotty path of old census forms and barely legible marks upon crumbling papers.

And it’s the “why” that forms most of the stories I write.  Why does a character act in certain manner?  Why are some people strong enough to do the right thing no matter what they face, while others take the easy path every time?  Why can one event in a person’s life shape their entire self-belief into something warped, or into something warm and nurturing?

I ask a lot of “why” questions while I write.  Sometimes the answer to a particular question never makes it onto the page.  But it always shapes the path of the story, creates the emotions I want the reader to experience, and draws me into creating one story after another in order to reveal the next “why.”

What drives your interest in creating a new character, place, or story?  Why?