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  • Leslie Tourish

The Imaginary Waitress

Updated: Dec 1, 2020

My first book The Headshrinker’s Brigade had been in my mind so long, the characters (Julia, Walter, Rowena, and Nick) were clearly formed. I was as comfortable with them as a roomy, well-worn sweater. I knew them because we’d been together the whole time I wrote the book.

When the final manuscript was published, I felt a mixture of relief and nostalgia, sending the characters out into the world. After that point, I could no longer explain them or defend them. They’d have to speak for themselves. And they seemed to do just fine on their own. Readers fell in love with them. (People asked if I’d write more about Julia’s life, and while the door hasn’t closed on my red-headed character and the fictional town of Elston, Texas, I’ve said goodbye to the crew, at least for now.)

So, what to do with the dreaded blank page for book number two? When you write a story, it starts with the broadest of strokes. You pick up an idea, toy with it, imagine some scenarios, and then, if nothing strikes you, set it aside, and stir the imagination cauldron again. For several months I sketched out characters, but nothing felt right. There needs to be a magic when you think about a flawed character facing a problem they must conquer to avoid professional, psychological, or physical death. The writer has to be invested because they’re going to be living in that world right along with the characters. The writer is the first reader.

I kept my antenna up and just did what I love to do: notice things. One early summer evening, my husband John and I were traveling from Colorado to Texas, and we stayed the night at The Plaza Hotel in Las Vegas, New Mexico, an hour north of Santa Fe. The Plaza was built in 1882, back when the state was still a territory, so you know a lot has happened in that old three-storied building.

As we walked around the airy lobby, checking out the restaurant and gift shop, I passed a darkened saloon with a long gleaming bar of marble and wood. Some bikers in leathers sat in a corner near an open window, their tricked-out Harleys parked just outside on the street in a tight diagonal. The bikes were the color of candy and looked fast sitting still.

In my mind, an image came to me, fully formed, of a woman with long blonde hair working as a waitress, serving not this quiet room but a packed bar filled with noise and excitement and electricity, and she was working the crowd. Energy flowed from her because she was beautiful and had the grace of a ballet dancer. But she glowed a little too brightly. That fire might consume her, and maybe even others.

The image gave way to reality as the table of bikers laughed at someone’s joke. John and I went back out onto the street to stroll around the town in the cool of the evening breezes. But that image had appeared to me like a tarot card: simple at first glance, but textured with small, meaningful details.

The woman stuck with me. I could see her. The next morning as we drove east, I thought, who was she? Why was she working the bar? Had she once taken ballet lessons? Why was she a danger to herself and others? I grabbed my notebook, and began writing her story.

I built out her world. I added a sister, a fraternal twin. And from these rough sketches, my new story took on shape, a story of the special bond between twins named Rachel and Sienna.

I’m on chapter six now. The girls have a long way to travel, but as I continue to imagine the world from their perspective, these two will continue to grow and come alive, sharing their hopes and fears. There’s almost nothing more magical.

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