There’s Gold in Them Thar . . . Trunk Novels

Welcome to a new week and the last day of April, friendly SEers! You’re with Mae today, and I’d like to chat about trunk novels.

We’ve all got ’em—some more than most. Trunk novels are how we cut our writing teeth, and for the most part, they should (usually) stay in the trunk. After all, they were a learning curve. A few of mine have even spilled over into the trash. Hopeless dreck that will never see the light of day. But occasionally, there’s gold to be found in them thar trunk novels—that gem of an idea you spun several decades ago when you were struggling to manage POV or scene setting.

golden nuggets in tin pan at water's edge

I give you . . .

The Lifespan of a Trunk Novel

Some of you probably weren’t even born, but in ’88 I wrote a novella that would ultimately spawn a long life. Why do I remember the year? Because I was working in property management at the time and my supervisor read Herald of the Storm. I was experimenting with magical realism and grew rather fond of “Herald.” I had no clue it would hang around as long as it did. A nugget was born.

Mid 1990s
Herald of the Storm blossomed into a full-length novel. If I’d known what YA was at the time, I would have pegged it for that genre, but YA didn’t exist back then—or, if it did, no one was reading it. The book had no market, so it went back in the trunk.   * Bummed *

Late 1990s
Title change to Elf-Shine. I was writing urban fantasy and had no clue. My lead character aged from sixteen to twenty-three. I added an elaborate ancestry tree and family history dating back to the early 1800s. Without realizing it, I created two story lines—one set in the present, one in the mid-1800s (who did sh*t like that back then? ). I fell in love with the characters and the dual story lines, but once again there was no market. I had too many POV characters plus a mash-up of genres, not to mention those crazy timelines. What was I thinking?  * Sigh *

The freaking story wouldn’t leave me alone so I fished it out for a new rewrite. Untitled, this time. I beefed up the family ancestry, even created colorful charts and diagrams, plus a detailed family history. I knew these characters inside and out. The genre segued to mystery and gothic. I was sure something was finally going to come of all that work and proudly sent it off to my critique partners. They loved it. One said she thought it was my best work to date. Pumped up, I made it three-quarters through the rewrite, then hit a stone wall. Still no market. * Sulk *

Thirteen years after its last resurrection, “Herald” started calling again. By this point, the original story concept had been with me for twenty-nine years. I probably should have ditched it long ago but there was something “magical” about the book—at least to me. I was determined it should see the light of day, so I started another rewrite. I added a new character, and even went so far as to send the opening chapters to my editor. She liked it but thought it needed work. Ugh! She suggested a few changes, but before I could consider them, the entire plot of Cusp of Night popped into my head one night when I couldn’t sleep (a blog post for another time). Herald was abandoned again.

So, here I am in 2018 and I’ve just completed book two in my Hode’s Hill series. I owe my editor a synopsis for book three next month, but as a panster, I don’t think that far ahead. Worse—the characters I kinda/sorta/maybe thought of making my leads in book three pretty much reached the end of their story line in book two. I’ve been wracking my brain trying to come up with an idea for book three—and then it hit me. You know those moments when the stars align, and everything falls expertly into place?

I struck gold!

Herald of the Storm/Elf-shine is never going to see the light of day, but I’d already created a complete mystery set in the mid-1800s that I could easily plunk into book three of my Hode’s Hill series. And a character I never anticipated, pantsed her way into book two, setting herself up as the perfect lead in book three. So that trunk novel story line set in the mid-1800s—with those characters I’ve carried around inside my head for thirty years—are finally going to have their story told. I never would have believed it, but there’s gold in them thar trunk novels!

Stacks of paper piled high

Whatever you do, hang onto those early attempts at writing. No matter how wobbly they may seem, those concepts resonated with you for a reason. Maybe the way you told the tale wasn’t perfect back then, but there is still plenty you can harvest:

  • Characters
  • Settings
  • Plot Devices
  • Backstory / History

Sometimes, the guts of our next novel is only a “trunk” away.

Do you keep your trunk novels? Have you ever pulled one out, reworked it, and published it with a spiffy new gloss? Did you ever write something in a genre that was unknown in its day, but is now popular? I remember submitting a paranormal romance to an agent in 1990 and receiving a reply that “no one will ever read these two genres together.” Yeah…right. I wonder what that agent is marketing now 😉

Maybe as writers, we’re just always ahead of the curve, stretching into new boundaries. Some of those frontiers aren’t as new as we’d like to think, but old ideas that have been kicking around for years. Or decades. Buried gold—in a trunk.

Let’s hear your side of it. What are your thoughts on trunk stories?

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54 thoughts on “There’s Gold in Them Thar . . . Trunk Novels

    • I spent this afternoon writing the synopsis of book 3. Usually, I hate doing them, but in this case, I had most of the story planned out, thanks to a trunk novel. I’m going to have to siphon from them more often, LOL!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. OMG, yes, trunk novels! I’ve even got one I wrote way back in elementary school (took me two years). And another, not really trunk, just unfinished for now. And yep, I had one I wrote in high school/college that I totally rewrote, queried, and shelved for now. It’s so interesting how some of those old ideas/characters/plots resurface. And I cannot wait until Cusp of Night is released!

    Liked by 1 person

    • You wrote a novel in elementary schoo?!?! Wow, you were clearly ahead of your time in the writer’s curve, Julie. I wrote my first novel at 15 (on a manual typewriter, no less, LOL). It’s fun—and sometimes fruitful–to go back and visit those old characters and ideas. I’m glad this post sparked memories for you. And thanks so much for your interest in Cusp of Night. Release day is just a little over a month away! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Wrote that first novel by hand in a 3-ring binder w/ notebook paper. Still have it, though it’s been eons since I’ve looked at it 🙂 Never bothered with a manual typewriter–I waited for the computer age 😀 (it was one reason I dated my husband–he had a computer and I didn’t 😉 )

        One month! Yippee!

        Liked by 1 person

      • I wrote my first “long” story longhand on purple notebook paper. It might even be kicking around somewhere. Called “The Night Dog” I wrote it when I was 8. It was about 9 pages long and I was trying to learn how to write dialogue, only I had it backward and put the quotes around the tags. So everything was like….

        There goes the dog “Paul said.” 😀

        I like the computer story 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Well now you’re just plain making me jealous. Sadly, my trunk is empty. I’d never written an actual story in my life, until I wrote Wake-Robin Ridge. sniff In truth, I don’t even have a TRUNK, much less one with manuscripts tucked away in it. I feel bereft. two sniffs However, I’m delighted that you DO have a trunk, and you’ve finally found the perfect way to use your ancient . . . er, I mean, treasured . . . earlywork. 😀 What an inspiring story, and one sure to give ideas for those who have been writing stories for years. I love it!! 🙂 ❤

    Liked by 2 people

    • Well, you might not have a trunk full of old manuscripts but you have a passion for writing and you’re turning out BOOKS! You have to remember I wrote my first trifling story when I was six, so there was a lot of time to write stories with training wheels. Some of those ideas were good. The execution, not so much 🙂
      And yes, they ARE ancient…even treasured for all those awkward attempts, LOL.

      And shouldn’t there be a new Wake-Robin Ridge book soon? Hmmmm? 😀

      Liked by 2 people

      • Aaaah. Ya got me. There SHOULD have been a new WWR book out already, as per my own deadlines. Sadly, since the night Hurricane Irma decided to pay us a visit, our lives have been beset with one minor(ish) calamity after another, and I just keep sinking farther and farther into the Black Hole of Behindness! Gack. The good news is, after being pretty much out of the picture for more than 3 weeks due to some health issues, I’m baaa-aaack. And I’m hoping to finish this draft in the next few weeks, if Trouble will just leave us alone for a couple of months. Then it’s on to revisions and edits, and it will be good to go. Hopefully. 🙂 Rabbit meets up with the infamous Brown Mountain Lights, and the “one that doesn’t belong.” Hope you’ll enjoy it when I finally get it done. 🙂

        I guess you could say I was writing as a child, too, though my 5-year-old self was only interested in poetry. 😀 I wrote long, rambling poems on legal tablets about cowboys and horses and cats. (See. Poetry was my first love, for sure.) But I never actually sat down to write a book before Wake-Robin Ridge. I did, however, have a kajillion stories floating around in my head, just dying to be told. (Sadly, nobody told me I should write them down and put them in a trunk for later resurrection. Might have saved me some time when I finally got around to publishing them. 😀 )

        Liked by 1 person

      • This made me grin. I spent my younger years writing stories about cowboys, horses and dogs, LOL. I also did a lot of poetry too, but it was mostly dark/surreal type stuff.

        I’m so glad you are “back” and— fingers and toes crossed— the worst is behind you now. I love the folklore of the Brown Mountain Lights and can’t wait to see what you do with them!

        Liked by 1 person

    • Wow, you probably have a couple of books in that single trunk novel, John—at least a lot of gold waiting to be shifted and panned. Thanks for the smile about the doorstop. I should do that with a few of mine 🙂


  3. Love this post, Mae! And you’ve given me a fantastic idea. Shawnee Daniels was one of those early characters that stuck. The first Daniels book I wrote in three weeks. She’s a character that would never let me rest (three Daniels’ novels are trunked) till she forced her way on to the page in Wings of Mayhem. I’m now writing Silent Mayhem and you reminded me of a subplot in one of those trunked novels that could work perfectly in this book. Perfect timing, Mae. Thank you!!!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Awesome! First I’m thrilled that Shawnee kept nagging you, because she’s my favorite of your characters. Second, I’m excited to learn another Mayhem book is in the works, and finally, i’m so glad this post helped remind you of a subplot you can use. Trunk novels do reveal gold now and then. Happy writing, Sue!


  4. What a great and inspiring post, Mae! And how awesome to have the chance to resurrect some of those gems. I love everything I’ve read by you and can’t imagine that you actually have stories that have found a trash can. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Excellent idea for shifting the heart of the original into a current work. My Bow of Hart Saga was basically a trunk novel that kept nagging me. When I re-booted my writing aspirations, I chose to use it since I’d already finished a book and once was offered a small press contract for it. I cut my teeth on that series and learned a lot. One is – don’t give up on ideas since you can likely use them in some way. Kudos for finding a way to use yours, Mae.

    Liked by 2 people

    • The story of my life, Teri….I was writing YA when there was no market for it. The same with urban fantasy and paranormal romance. Thinking back on that makes me laugh today but it was highly frustrating at the time, when I knew someone other than me had to have an interest in those types of stories. Herald did indeed have good bones 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow! It took a long time, and lots of rewrites, but your story’s finally going to make it! Congrats.

    I have lots and lots of trunk novels, and most of them should stay buried in their plastic boxes in the basement:) If I try to work with the actual manuscript, I find myself repeating some of my old mistakes. They stealthily creep into the revised version. I do better taking the characters and ideas and doing a fresh write on them. A few stories, that were in good shape but I didn’t do anything with for one reason or another, I put on my webpage, just for fun.

    Again, hooray for book three in your series!

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s a great idea about sharing them on your website, Judi. That would be fun to do.

      And I know what you mean about reworking old books and falling into the same habits as when they were created. It’s really hard to work with an existing ms. Far better, as you said to take the idea and start fresh. In my experience, that’s the best way to rework the “old” 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I have two trunk novels. Writing them brought me tons of joy. I know they aren’t up to snuff, and they belong in the trunk. They were learning experiences, and I like knowing they’re where I can find them. Kind of like badges of honor.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I like the idea of looking at them as badges of honor. We had to work through those learning curves to get where we are now. If I ever decide to write fantasy again, I have an old series of 2.5 books that maybe someday, I’ll take out and play around with. Other than that, most of what is left in my trunk needs to stay there.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. That’s great you were able to reinvent your story so it finally made it into the world (or will soon). I have only one full novel in my trunk. Not sure I’ll ever resurrect it, but it’s nice knowing it’s there.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You might be able to glean some ideas from it, Carrie. Who knows …. even years from now, something from that old novel might call to you.
      I’ve got 7.5 novels tucked away in my trunk so I’ve got a lot of panning for gold to do, LOL.

      Liked by 1 person

    • That’s so true! I finally parted with some VERY early writing I did, but I still have most everything from when I began to “get serious” about writing. There are gems to be found in our earlier stuff if we dig deep enough.


    • When trunk novels won’t leave you alone, there’s definitely gold waiting to be found in those old pages and ideas. It sounds like you are destined to revisit that novel at some point, Yvette! 🙂

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