Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2008

New novelist finds story in an unlikely place

Chevy Chase resident writes about a 19th-century wheat farmer

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Dennis McKay of Chevy Chase went off the page for ‘‘Fallow’s Field.” He says, ‘‘I often say that I did not pick this subject ... it picked me.”
Dennis McKay ignored the oft-dispensed advice to would-be novelists in choosing the setting for his first book ‘‘Fallow’s Field.” Instead, the 61-year-old Chevy Chase resident opted not to write what he knew.

Why would this Bethesda-bred, retired concrete contractor tell the story of a 19th century Kansas wheat farmer?

‘‘I often say that I did not pick the subject ... it picked me, and I pursued it where it led me,” McKay says.

‘‘The idea just came to me,” he explains. ‘‘It’s one of the mysteries of fiction writing — the how and why. Once I began, the story would not leave me alone. I dreamt about it, and thought about my characters constantly until I got to the point that I knew them as well as my family.”

Literary aspirations came late to McKay, who preferred sports to academics in school; he played baseball at Walter Johnson High School and attended University of Maryland on an athletic scholarship. Not until 1995 did he get ‘‘the writing bug and began writing short stories.”

Still, McKay suggests, perhaps he was predisposed toward writing via his father, ‘‘an accomplished writer of technical information for Congressional reports,” and both his paternal grandparents, who published short stories in small fiction magazines.

‘‘Fallow’s Field” started as a short story for a 1998 course at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, where he acquired ‘‘the fundamentals in developing plot, the power of point of view and telling the story through the characters’ dialogue and actions.”

McKay proceeded to spend ‘‘many years studying these fundamentals by dissecting the works of” authors he admired — Ernest Hemingway, A.B. Guthrie, Flannery O’Connor and Somerset Maugham — ‘‘reading and re-reading sections and understanding the process of unfolding a story.”

‘‘Yes, all people long dead,” he acknowledges, ‘‘but there is something about their writing that seems closer to Mother Earth and thus the essence of the characters.”

To learn about the setting of his novel, McKay ‘‘read many books about farm life at that time in the Midwest.” He also spent a week in Kansas, interviewing elderly wheat farmers and doing research at the Kansas Historical Society, where he found ‘‘journals on the price of wheat in the 1890s and the weather for that time period.”

He also met an excellent source in Kansas, a ‘‘historian and wheat farmer who e-mailed me the answers to my countless questions about the machinery used and the process of growing and cutting wheat in the late 1890s.”

McKay says he worked hard, writing and rewriting his manuscript more than 20 times — especially after his 2006 retirement.

‘‘Every time I thought I had finished, a nagging feeling would stir inside me, and I would take a break from it and begin rewriting it over again,” he recalls.

McKay did write what he knew in at least one respect.

‘‘People who read my early drafts told me they saw much of me in my protagonist,” he says. ‘‘I did not see it until the final stages and now realize that through writing the story, I learned much about myself, and like Ned Fallow, I am a better person for having gone through the experience.”

Having identified with his main character’s abruptness and impatience, for example, he now realizes how such traits affect others.

‘‘Writing the story in some ways was a cathartic experience, revealing to me my strengths and weaknesses,” he observes. ‘‘I have reflected back on this, and have tried to be more patient and understanding with people, especially those closest to me.”

The author also believes his first novel taught him a few literary lessons.

‘‘I learned not to explain too much to the reader, not to be afraid to let my characters go where they want, and finally, not to play it safe, [to] go for it and see where it leads you.”

‘‘After one frustrating year” of waiting for a literary agency to find a publisher in 2004, McKay decided to do some additional work on the book, then self-publish with iUniverse.

‘‘I am very happy that I did for I had the final say from beginning to end in the editing process,” he says, noting that he also hired an illustrator to design the book’s cover ‘‘to my specifications” as well as eight drawings.

McKay is planning a spring tour to promote ‘‘Fallow’s Field,” which will include a return visit to Kansas, and then get back to working on ‘‘Once Upon Wisconsin,” a novel as well as a screenplay. This time, although still far from home geographically, the story is set in his own century.

‘‘Fallow’s Field” can be purchased at, or by calling 800-authors.