“The key seemed to be whether the event served the emotional journey of the characters .~~Hillary Hauck
Journey of a Debut Novelist
By Hillary Hauck
Editor’s Note: If you’ve published a story or book and want to share your journey, please query in the contact box. Articles giving solid advice and thought will be given preferential treatment.
From Ashes the Song was inspired by the true story of three Italians who immigrated from Italy to the US almost a century before I did.
I discovered their story at the perfect time. I had recently moved to rural Pennsylvania and was fascinated by the pride people had in their heritage in the coal mining heyday. Not only did the architecture of a coal mining town exude the period, but everyone, it seemed, had a story of a parent or grandparent who was ‘off the boat’. It was like a living history.
Of all the stories I heard, one stood out. It was told to me by Irene Smylnycky, whose dad was a musician, coal miner, and composer. Such a compelling combination. What’s more, there was an intriguing love story.
The research process was quite glorious, centered around afternoon tea with Irene and her daughter, Susan, listening to family stories and pouring over photographs and pages of music. We took day trips to explore the Pennsylvania towns that appear in the story, Colver, Ernest, Vintondale, and Indiana, and to meet other members of the family. We even took an epic trip to Italy to visit the towns where the three main characters grew up.
When it came to writing a real-life story, I came across two main challenges—I didn’t know enough, and I knew too much.
There were so many interesting events, snapshots of life, and relationships. I had to decide what to include and in what order. For the most part, I used the actual births, deaths, and marriages. I kept some close to the truth, I shifted around the time or the players for others, and I left some out entirely. The key seemed to be whether the event served the emotional journey of the characters.
It was this emotional journey that I didn’t know enough about. I could not know how the people who inspired the story felt about or responded to their challenging lives, and so I developed the characters based on nuggets of information and photographs of them.
Then I was able to imagine their hopes and dreams, dig down for inner demons, dissect what stood in the way of their accomplishing their dreams, and the fictional story really began to take shape.
Five top tips based on what I learned while writing From Ashes the Song.
1. Keep a notebook where you gather snippets from real life.
2. Write daily.
3. Find a supportive and knowledgeable writing community.
4. Learn as much and as often as you can from others.
5. If the story won’t let go of you, don’t let go of it.
From Ashes to Song
by Hilary Hauck
Pietro breathed lightly into his clarinet so his song would not travel the length of the grapevines that stretched like lines of music on either side of him. He didn’t want Nonno to hear it—not yet. On his oath, he’d make himself play it for him in the next week.
The song was Pietro’s first composition—not that anyone could credit him, he had simply captured the sounds of harvest, of the annual tending of plants whose roots had burrowed into the soil long before he’d been born.
Without a specific plan in mind, he had tucked away the beats and notes, adding new rifts each year until this summer, when it had all begun to spread out and rearrange in his mind. The paper-light tremble of leaves had given him the rhythm. It scampered so heartily it might have dissolved into chaos if it hadn’t been grounded by fruit held by the improbable strength of the vine. The grapes were a firm, reliable beat.
The only thing that had eluded him had been the ending, but now he had found it, he couldn’t imagine it any other way. It brought the music together, so it no longer felt like a rough sketch of a song, not telling the whole story at once as it did now.
He’d found the ending in the celebration that followed the harvest when family and friends gathered around the table heaped with a feast that had taken an entire week to prepare. The culmination of the long season that brought both relief and melancholy for the end of the summer days, even though Pietro could depend on the same cycle beginning all over again next year.
At this year’s celebration, he’d wait until the food was gone and glasses filled with last year’s wine were raised to this year’s grapes, when he, Nonno, and the others gathered their instruments to shroud the night’s sky with song—that was when Pietro would play his music.
First, though, he needed the courage to play it for Nonno. Only then would he know if his efforts were worthy.
About the author:
Hilary Hauck is the author of From Ashes to Song, her debut novel. A writer and translator, her work has appeared in the Mindful Writers Retreat Series anthologies, the Ekphrastic Review, Balloons Lit. Journal, and the Telepoem Booth. She moved to Italy from her native UK as a young adult, where she mastered the language, learned how to cook food she can no longer eat, and won a karate championship.
After meeting her husband, Hilary came to the US and drew inspiration from Pennsylvania coal history, which soon became the setting for her debut novel. Hilary is Chair of the Festival of Books in the Alleghenies, past president of Pennwriters, and a graduate of RULE. She lives on a small patch of woods in rural Pennsylvania with her husband, one of their three adult children, a cat with a passion for laundry, and an oversized German Shepherd called Hobbes—of the Calvin variety. For more information, please visit