Although the idea of writing a 1920s rum-running novel had occasionally tempted me, what made it begin to take shape was a merry-go-round … and a chance meeting with an old man on a beach.
Don’t picture sweeping stretches of sand with acres of bikini-clad bodies. This was a beach strewn with shells and pebbles near Salem, MA. Yes, there’s sand, but cold water and the occasional boulder give it character. It’s the kind of place that invites solitary walks.
I can’t recall now how we happened to stop and chat with the old man. He had rosy cheeks and the twinkle in his eye seen so often in native New Englanders. He wore the sort of small-billed cap I associate with a bygone era. He was a retired firefighter, I think, though it might have been a policeman.
My husband’s grandfather had worked for the City of Salem back in the day. Possibly the mention of that made the stranger more talkative. One of us revealed that I was a novelist, and was fascinated by Prohibition-era Salem. That led to some chuckled reminiscences about the time on the old man’s part. Toward the end, still peering into the past and smiling, he told me:
“One bunch came in and found out the police were watching, so they hid the liquor under the Flying Horses until they could get it out safely.”
It was the sort of comment that sends an electric jolt through a writer. The jolt of knowing you’ve just found a story.
I knew The Flying Horses!
I loved The Flying Horses.
Possibly most of all, I adored the name Flying Horses. Born and reared in the Midwest and West, I would have called them a merry-go-round, or maybe, having become a bit more worldly, a carousel. What dull, unimaginative names for those magnificent prancing creatures which, as any child knows, are secretly – down deep where no one else can see it – really and truly alive.
The Flying Horses that have lent their magic and their brassy music to Salem since 1866. (Yes, my character Zenaide Cole really could have ridden them as a child – if she’d been allowed.) They are the most enchanting carousel horses I’ve ever seen. Part of the reason is their setting, in the graceful old-time amusement park known as Salem Willows. At the edge of the park 200-year-old white willow trees dip their flowing branches into the Atlantic. In the arcade a nickel lets you hand crank your way through “naughty” movies of 1900s bathing beauties showing off stockinged limbs.
Many years stretched between that meeting on the beach and publication of THE WHISKEY TIDE. In the finished novel, the comment which provided the spark for it became little more than a throw-away line. Yet in some mysterious way, those horses remained the heart of the novel. The Flying Horses became a symbol of lessons each main character learned about living life and embracing chances.
Looking back at how the novel started, and now at the finished product, I find myself wondering:
Are there such things as chance meetings?
M. Ruth Myers, April 22, 2013