I’ve just finished my new novel based on a year in the life of Opal Whiteley– one of the most fascinating women you will ever meet!
Chapters one and two are coming over the next couple of weeks. For now, here’s the scoop on Opal, and my approach to writing I Have Thinks….
- Background & Setting – Opal (b. Dec. 11, 1897; d. Feb. 16, 1992) was a child prodigy. Her incredible imagination, her creativity, and most of all, her capacity to love and forgive those who abused her, emerge in an episodic narrative that spans the year between her 6th and 7th birthdays (about 1903/4). Even as a six-year-old, she resolutely clings to her vision of life as a cornucopia of sights and sounds, of people and animals that are to be celebrated, and loved.
- Opal charms people with her love of life and her uncanny knowledge of ancient characters (all of her animal friends bear their names).
- Faeries visit her world, though she rarely sees them – only “where they have been.” Nature is alive to Opal. Opal hears and understands the gentle whispers of the wind, the flowers and ferns, the rocks and the magical river – and she translates for any “big person” who wishes to understand.
- Opal’s Diary – Opal claims to have composed her diary when she was between age 6 and 7 (around 1903/4), in an Oregon lumber camp. I adopt her speech pattern, and her unique descriptive ability, employing many of her own words as I trace the year covered by the diary.
- Plot/POV – The entire story is told as memory, recalled by the elderly Opal during the last days of her life. She relives her childhood – as six-year-old Opal – from her outpost as a patient in Napsbury Mental Hospital outside of London. At that point, having sunk into deep delusion, she has lost her ability to distinguish between her present reality and the vivid memories of her childhood which beckon her to return.
- Characters from her present (doctors and nurses at Napsbury) take on roles in her memory, and occupy the places of men and women Opal knew as a child as she continues to confuse her past and her present. By visiting with Opal, several of the doctors and nurses become aware of the roles they are playing in her memory, and they use that knowledge to try to coax her, as the characters in her past, to recall more detail from her childhood.
- Opal proves to be a difficult patient at Napsbury. There, the overworked and impatient hospital staff subject her to ice baths and electro shock therapy in efforts to drag her back to reality, and to “settle her down.”
- Antagonist – Opal claims that the Whiteleys adopted her when she was “a little girl.” Lizzie Whiteley, “the Mama,” is the prototype of the stressed out, overly-practical mother who never “gets” her hyper-creative daughter. Opal’s singing (often in Latin, or French), her odd locutions, and her menagerie of animal friends irritate Lizzie. Still, the elderly Opal longs to escape the severity of her confinement at Napsbury and return to her childhood.
- Comparative Novels – The structure is episodic. The approach is along the lines of fictionalized memoir – akin to James Harriot’s, All Creatures Great and Small.
- Most of the italicized sections represent “real” world interruptions – Napsbury Hospital, circa, early 1992. I also use italics, more conventionally, for Opal’s thoughts, and for foreign words she used as a child. I employ regular type for her memory, which forms the bulk of the novel.