I’m frequently asked where my ideas come from. Sometimes that’s a difficult question to answer. Often I simply can’t recall. But Purgatory Ridge is different. I remember well the day this story was delivered to me.
At the time, I was employed by the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development. Iron Lake was already on bookshelves. Boundary Waters was nearly complete. I was trying to open myself to an idea for the next novel, but nothing was coming to me.
On my coffee break one afternoon, I sat down with a terrific woman named Kaye O’Geay, one of my cohorts at the Institute. Our conversation turned to fathers, and she told me the story of the death of her own father. He’d been a deckhand on an old ore carrier, a ship called the Daniel J. Morrell. In November of 1966, while making the final passage of the season across Lake Huron, the Morrell encountered one of those horrific gales that occasionally sweep across the Great Lakes at that time of year. In the course of battling the storm, the ore carrier broke in half and sank. In terms of the loss of human life, it was, at the time, the worst disaster ever to occur on the Great Lakes. (The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald was still nine years away.) Along with Kaye’s father, 27 other men were lost. But one man survived, a watchman named Dennis Hale. For more than forty hours, he drifted on an open pontoon raft, dressed only in his pea coat and skivvies. The winds raged across the lake at sixty miles an hour; the air temperature hovered around freezing; the water was a bitter forty degrees; the waves towered thirty feet high. Hale should have died. But he didn’t. The Coast Guard found him—nearly frozen—and flew him to a hospital, where he made his recovery.
It was a remarkable story, and as soon as I heard it, I knew that somehow this was going to be at the heart of the next book. I had no idea what kind of narrative I would build around it, but I had a clear image of the way the book would open: with the sinking of a great ore carrier during a terrible storm, seen through the eyes of the sole survivor.
Dennis Hale has given his account of the incident in a fascinating book called, in fact, Sole Survivor. If you’re interested, you can order it online at a number of sites.
How did I take the seed of that initial idea and create the very complex storyline that became Purgatory Ridge? It happened in the way it usually happens—the result of gestation.
While I was finishing Boundary Waters, I let the possibilities of “story” roll around in my head, all centered on the sinking of an ore boat and what part that might play. I had a few ideas already for other elements that could contribute to building a plot, and all these possibilities bumped around in my thinking. Over the course of several weeks, a complex storyline developed. By the time I finished writing Boundary Waters, I knew most of the plot of Purgatory Ridge: how it would begin, how it would probably end, who was going to do what to whom and why. As I usually do, I sat down and outlined the book. And then I began the writing. I opened with a prologue—the ore boat sinking—which is a technique that creates lots of controversy among readers and writers alike. And that’ll be the subject of my next blog.
See you down the road!