Category Archives: Creative Writing
Don’t all authors dream of being interviewed on TV? Ideally, the topic should be their sweat-and-blood books, but if not that, then maybe their knowledge of the topic about which they’ve written.
For historical novelists, getting to express our opinions on a legitimate documentary is a virtual Holy Grail. In just a few breathes, we leap from the shadows of fiction into the bright light of authenticity, speaking side by side with scholars and experts in the fields that have heretofore informed our creations.
Well, on November 13, 2012, I will join some truly illustrious experts in the documentary series MANKIND: A History of All of Us, airing on the History Channel at 9:00 PM ET.
No kidding!!! Click above and watch the video. That’s me–the first voice in the promo–saying, “Planting the first seed is the first step toward civilization.” How cool!
I’ve had this under my hat for months. The taping took place back in January. It was Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, cold, blustery, and my boys were off from school, but I gussied up (yes, thanks to beloved Sandra Joseph, one of our old TWC friends, who took me to the Short Hills Mall and made sure I had the right color blouse and some decent make-up!) and schlepped into the City to a mysterious mansion tucked in the Village only a few blocks from where I once lived. Who knew?
There I spent several hours answering questions about the Vikings, of course, but also about a half dozen other topics I was lucky enough to be familiar with, crossing timelines and geographies to many of the realms of human history I’ve been fascinated with and researching for years. I knew somehow, someday, all of that extra-curricular reading I’ve done would come in handy.
Please tune in on November 13. Please please share the news. Blog, Facebook (Here’s my Author Page – please “like” me!), Tweet, Pininterest and tell them I sent you!
Meanwhile, in the hopes that my few minutes of air-time might spur some latent interest, I’ve put some of my personal copies of The Thrall’s Tale up online for sale. It’s technically and sadly out of print now, so I’m just about the only source there is. But I’m planning an e-book one way or another. In the meantime, let my publisher know that you haven’t forgotten me!
Oh, and yes, Pasture of Heaven is inching along!
What a week it’s been! Anyone in the path of Hurricane Sandy will tell you how much we now appreciate the simple things in life: heat, hot water, enough light to read by after dark, and the generosity of neighbors and friends.
Even this morning, as I drove back from teaching, I rolled over extension cords connecting house with power to house without. And I spent many hours though the last few days sharing a friend’s Wifi with neighbors around a crowded dining room table while all the kids played (somewhat peacefully) in the other room, laughing as we prepared a potluck supper using whatever was still edible in our not-so-frigid freezers.
The crisis still isn’t over . Right now there’s snow falling from a less intimidating Nor’easter, but with so many trees leaning and huge, broken branches dangling overhead, we’re expecting to lose power at almost any minute! Many people still don’t have power at all, including TWC Associate Director Michelle Cameron. Thanks to MONDO and Sparkhouse, we’ve managed to keep TWC and Michelle warm and alive. Though I don’t quite understand why she has chosen not to take up my offer of a comfy couch, given my household of three cats, two rats, a lizard, a tarantula and, of course, my two rambunctious but adorable kids.
To all of our community, those we know and those we don’t, we send our prayers and wishes for a quick return to normalcy. And for those so inclined, take a moment to jot down a few thoughts about the past week’s experiences. Whether you just need to vent your anger and frustration or want to record a family moment that might not have happened with the Xbox working and everyone busy on their devices, it’s well worth the time. One day you might want to share what happened here this week with someone who isn’t old enough to remember.
At TWC, we’re forever expanding the definition of the concept of “writing”. Composing words into works goes beyond prose and poetry, especially in the digital world where we can all tell our stories in so many different ways. But the keyword is always “story” – how to tell it in the best way that it can possibly be told, as one of our newest TWC instructors, Cynthia Granville, shares in her guest blog, “Story, Study, Practice, Craft”. – Judith
In the current issue of Filmmaker Magazine, when the Chair of Columbia University’s film department, Ira Deutchman, discusses what sets his program apart, he cites its concentration on storytelling. “You’re a storyteller when you’re a director, writer or producer. No matter what we teach, it’s always about concentrating on telling a story.”
This focus on storytelling is something I have made a priority in my own work as a filmmaker, and even in my approach to roles as an actress.
Much has been written about the democratization of filmmaking due to the availability of professional quality equipment at a much cheaper price point than ever before. What can set our work apart in the growing number of films being made as a result? Attention to telling a good story. It’s a strong story that touches a nerve or a heart.
Later in this same article, Cressandra Thibodeaux, a Columbia graduate, is also quoted. While having some positive things to say about her educational experience, she advises aspiring filmmakers who are going into film production NOT to attend film school. “…you should just be doing it…. With production, you just kind of need to do [the thing itself].”
For me, this points out the challenge that faces those of us whose disciplines, like writing and filmmaking, are also called “crafts”. (Merriam Webster: an occupation or trade requiring manual dexterity or artistic skill). As craftspeople, we must practice. We need to write; we need to make films. We can’t improve unless we do. And if we continue, we will create better work and be better at our craft.
A writer needs a pen and paper, perhaps a laptop, a word processing program. Years ago, a filmmaker had to hope to get into a film school where equipment was made available, or apprentice at a studio. Today we can start with that very same piece of paper and pen to create the story we want to tell; then we can use that very same laptop and its included camera to start practicing how to tell that story on film or video. Or we can work with a cell phone, or the point and shoot camera we got as a birthday present. When we are one day able to access better equipment, we’ll know exactly what we want to do with it to tell our story. How exciting that we don’t need deep pockets these days to make a film that can last forever!
As a young actor, I was inspired by Dustin Hoffman’s Oscar acceptance speech, when he talked about all the out-of-work, broke actors who “practice accents while you’re driving a taxi cab.” He called them “that artistic family that strives for excellence.” As we continue to strive, we seek those stories that we simply have to tell; and we study, so that we have the knowledge we need to tell them. Then we practice, so that we can tell them the best way we know how.
Cynthia Granville is an actress, director and filmmaker who works in theatre, film, and television. She teaches VIDEO OVERLOAD: Making Stories for the Small Screen to middle and high school students at The Writers Circle.
We’ve reached the end of another summer session, which means Michelle, I and all our wonderful teachers finally get a few weeks’ to relax and just WRITE! Yet I cannot help but feel a little melancholy to see you go, and also just a little bit proud.
Writers at The Writers Circle come from all walks of life, all experiences, all classes and races, and definitely all ages. We’ve got, between us, at least an eight-decade spread, with talent, energy and vision at every stage of development and maturity.
I am proud to have created a place that has brought together so many wonderful people. Prouder still that we’ve gathered around us such wonderful teachers and mentors: Michelle, Jenny, Allie, Tara, Sondra, Amanda, and all the writers who’ve shared their gifts to our students. Without you, it would just be me and my once-a-week Thursday night workshop. I do miss the simplicity of those old days, but that was a simple flowering plant in a pot. What’s grown since then is a garden.
Every day when I join you around the writing table (or sitting on the floor, if you’re young!), I feel your energy and feed off of it, watching as you work to express yourselves on paper or on screen. I love to see when the light of understanding flashes on or, as one of my “For Boys Only” students said in class this week, “Oh, I feel my creative juices flowing!” The work that once was sketchy, week after week becomes stronger, more alive, and sometimes, eventually, polished and ready to send into the world.
I am proud of our young people, like Zoe*, one of my long-time Young Storymakers, who has just started her own blog: Zoe loves to write; like April, Siahra and Isabelle who started their novels when their ages barely amounted to double-digits and yet they persist month after month, year after year; like Abbie, our youngest intern, a hard worker and talented young writer, and Nick who’s twisted worldview and philosophical bent will surely make everyone gasp if he’ll ever finish something. (TYPE THAT STORY UP!)
And I’m proud of our adults who come to the Circle to reignite their creative spark or to express some of the life experiences that have transformed them. Many of you are crafting stories that deserve to be published. Whether the world ever takes notice is beyond the reach of my rather cloudy and insufficient crystal ball. But your efforts and craft do not go unnoticed. In fact, every day when you share in our workshops, you make an indelible impression on us all.
I hear the voices of your characters and see your scenes in my head often long after we’ve said goodbye for the day or the session. Whether it is Fern and the sweater, or Moses contemplating his place in the world, or Shop and Alex driving home from PA, or Ettekamba and Lady Tabac, Spruce or Jemma or Seton, or the young girl with Broadway stars in her eyes — they have all influenced me and each of us who have shared in your creations. The ripple you’ve created may stay small or grow large, but there is a ripple, and its effect is moving.
Writers must do their work alone, but loneliness is a choice, not an inherent condition of the writer’s life. At The Writers Circle, we’re growing a real, flesh-and-blood community of fellow writers to cheer you on, to offer a shoulder on those days when you want to burn your pages, and a warm pair of arms to hug you when you succeed.
It was never my intention to run a business. I simply wanted, in the beginning, to find a circle of friends – fellow writers who could share the struggle and joys of their creativity and self-expression. What it has become is a little breathtaking, and we’re not finished yet. Though sometimes I gripe about how much time it takes away from my own writing, I do believe it’s worth the sacrifice, because every day I know that The Writers Circle is making a difference in our community.
* We never publish kids’ last names online for safety reasons, but I hope you all know whom I’m talking about. And to anybody out I left out, please don’t feel hurt. We love and appreciate you all!
When I created Shira, the heroine who narrated my novel, The Fruit of Her Hands, I found myself wrestling with a fairly common problem for storytellers – how to make scenes that my narrator could not witness as vivid and dramatic as if she’d been there.
Our protagonists cannot convincingly be in every scene, for reasons both practical and contextual. No one would believe, for instance, that a woman during the Middle Ages would be allowed to attend a meeting where men learn that their community is threatened. Yet the story I wanted to tell was in that room with those men. So what could I do?
There are many techniques that writers have employed to describe those scenes. Among them are:
- Recounting what happens through conversations with other characters. In my novel, Shira’s father and husband would be in those rooms, and they would sometimes come home and tell her what happened. This works especially well when the characters are emotionally invested in what has happened, and bring that strong emotion – anger, disgust, joy – home with them.
- Eavesdropping. When Shira walks by a room and overhears what is happening inside, she very naturally lingers by the door, taking care not to be seen by anyone. This gives her a first-hand view of a scene she could not naturally take part in – with the extra spice that she might be detected as she spied upon the scene.
- Through such natural second-hand mechanisms as letters – or, in more modern day recounting, email and news reports. The beginning of Baz Lurhman’s film Romeo+Juliet includes that riveting opening scene, followed by the “chorus” of the news report, which brings the story to cinematic life. In my novel, Shira’s father-in-law sends a letter telling, in chilling detail, how the Christian clergy interrupted a Jewish prayer service, which helps to show the increasing anti-Semitism of Medieval Europe.
These are fairly standard techniques. However, and in some cases, they simply aren’t sufficient to fully portray the stirring events of the scene. The danger is that they can become flat and distanced, as any story told second-hand is prone to be. To retain all the “juice” of being in the moment, a writer needs to pull a rabbit out of a hat – to use sleight of hand that moves the reader from a second-hand recounting to feeling present in the scene.
When F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby is shot, for instance, Nick Carroway, his narrator, is off-stage. Yet he allows Nick to surmise not merely what happened, but also what Gatsby must have felt during those last few minutes of life:
No telephone message arrived, but the butler went without his sleep and waited for it until four o’clock – until long after there was anyone to give it to if it came. I have an idea that Gatsby himself didn’t believe it would come, and perhaps he no longer cared. If that was true he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass.
I myself employed such sleight of hand in an early version of my current novel. The hero, a young boy, cannot possibly be present when his father is killed at the Bastille. But, to bring the scene to life, I start with “only later would Christophe learn what had happened” and then, slowly, slip the scene into present tense, as though the boy had actually been there.
Remember the last time someone told you a story second-hand? Some storytellers are able to pull it off with such verve that you really feel that “you were there.” Others, without quite knowing why, simply leave you cold. As storytellers, we writers must learn the tricks that put our readers in the very thick of the story, even when our protagonists can’t be.
TWC instructor and Young Adult novelist, Jennifer Walkup, shares some honest and instructive thoughts on the struggle of a first draft and the value of non-writing:
After a good writing weekend – in which I got very little official writing done, I can say I’m feeling accomplished. I realized a few things this weekend that, yeah, I’ve known for some time, but that bear repeating, because, no matter how many stories or books I write, or how many times I take this writing journey, I forget the little lessons I’ve learned along the way. So here is a list in case any of my writer pals find themselves in the same boat while drafting.
When I’m feeling stuck, I remember:
1. This is a first draft. A first draft! It does not have to be perfect. Gosh, it doesn’t even have to be that good. It just has to be words on a page that are telling the story I want to tell. I will revise and revise and revise again. I hardly ever get a story anywhere near where I want it to be until at least a few drafts in, so why am I letting myself get paralyzed over trivial things in draft one? It’s silly. All it does is halt creativity and that certainly isn’t going to get my story told.
2. What do I have? It’s easy to think of all the things I’m lacking. I’m famous for this – I don’t know the next ten plot points, I haven’t figured out a secondary character’s motivation, how does this plot thread fit into the bigger picture, etc. I have to remind myself to, yes, keep working on what I’m lacking, but also to focus on the positive. What I realized this weekend: I have my main character, I have her voice, I have developed many secondary characters, solidified my setting, outlined a smattering of plot points I want to hit during this next section, and I know the tone I want for the book. So when I sit back and think about that, I realize, hey, that isn’t half bad for first draft progress. So keep writing!
3. Thinking absolutely does count as writing. Nope, not a joke. Brainstorming counts as writing. I spent a lot of time over the last few months in the mind of my character. I slipped on her shoes, entered her world and imagined exactly what it was like to be in her mindset. I took long walks as her, thinking of how she would view things and how she feels about the world around her. Was this putting words on the page? No. Was it helping me know what those words will be when they get there? Absolutely.
4. Set goals, but be gentle with myself. Like many writers, I aim to write daily. I used to aim for 1000 words, now I typically aim for at least a scene, even if it’s 200-500 words. But, if I don’t write, or don’t hit that goal, I don’t let it stop me from moving forward. Goals are worthless if they’re only going to foster guilt. I count anything related to my story as working, even if it’s spending an entire long walk just thinking about my characters and letting them wander around in my head deciding what they’ll do next.
5. Tomorrow is a new day. We’ve all had it happen. You were determined to write. You were set. You sat at your desk, you brewed your coffee (or poured your wine), and you cracked your knuckles. And then, the words didn’t come, or life interfered with your plans. So what. Close the computer, go do something else, and come to it later, with a hopefully refreshed muse. Feeling discouraged is often nothing but counterintuitive to writing, so find something else to do.
6. Writing is fun. There is one reason I write: because I love it. I love telling stories more than almost anything in the world. It’s really easy to get caught up in the pressure or stress of writing and deadlines and all the mental anguish that can go along with the craft. But at the end of the day, I do it because I seriously could not live without it. So when I’m feeling overwhelmed or stuck, I try to remember how much I love this and how good it feels when it is working. I try and remind myself that I’ve been in this position before, but that I’ve always moved past it and through it and gotten back to that creative stride that makes it all worthwhile and wonderful.
Happy writing, friends.
(Originally posted on July 9, 2012 at http://waltzwithwords.blogspot.com/ reprinted by permission. Thanks, Jenn!)
I have been pondering the pace at which I write my novels. I’d thought that I’d been working on this latest book for five years now, until I realized just today that in fact it’s edging past six, since Memorial Day half a dozen years ago when I cried my way through a wholly unsatisfying draft of a different half-baked work and finally realized it was destined for burial in the bottom drawer.
So here I am, six years, five drafts, and a whole lot of paper, toner and heartache later, ALMOST DONE!!! If I ever had a following among readers somewhere out there, they’ve almost certainly completely forgotten who I am!
I comfort myself that another dear author friend has been working on her novel for at least that long, and that Stephanie Cowell, who used to amaze us at writers group meetings by pulling out an entire, completed manuscript from her tote bag every month or so way back when, now sometimes also struggles for years on a book. (Though she as easily finishes one in a few months, which leaves my mouth gaping.)
I had started to call myself the Queen of the Ten-Year Novel, until my truly brilliant and wise editor, Carole DeSanti, revealed at a book talk the other day that her newly released and absolutely gorgeous novel, The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R., first formed in her mind seventeen years ago. Seventeen years!! If I am the queen, then she is the duly crowned empress!
No one in their right mind begins to write a novel of any scope and thinks, “Oh, I’ll whip this off in a few months, maybe a year.” Writing novels is a labor of love – emphasis on LABOR. If you value your craft, if you respect and love books – reading them, holding them, pondering them, standing in awe of them – and if you long to see your own broad spine proudly tucked beside others in one of the few precious bookstores left in this world – then you must accept that the work will be long, lonely and hard.
You do it because of that love, or because of an insane vision that shows up in your head one foggy dawn, or because of the voices that start speaking and won’t shut up or leave you alone until you have finally listened to them.
This is the writing’s tormented blessing, its muse, its terrible genius. In her recent TedTalk, Elizabeth Gilbert defines “genius” in its original sense: genius wasn’t in us, it spoke to us. We did not own it. It was separate from us and came to us at its will, not at our calling.
Let me tell you truthfully, that is the nature of this strange work. And sometimes it comes, and those days for a writer are glorious.
But they are rare. Many days for most writers are just work – hard work that requires attention, discernment, discipline, a critical mind and the patience to expect that some days you won’t get it, that you’ll stare at the screen and move paragraphs around and write three dense pages and delete them. And that’s OK. That’s part of the process. Whole drafts are scraped and thrown away. But we pick up and keep going because we have to get it right. Only then do we dare to put our work out into the world.
And yet the pressures of modern technology and the voracious consumer market seem to scoff at the deliberate slowness of both the novel and its creators. A recent article in The New York Times declared “In the E-Reader Era, a Book a Year Is Slacking“. Should this make writers like me feel guilty?
The best rebuttal to this pressure came in a comment to the article itself, that if we want our work to join the mass of forgettable fiction that’s piling up out there, feel free! Dash it off! Self-publish and start your marketing! Everyone has something to say and something to sell!
And I don’t blame you. In a world where we can reach an audience so readily, it’s all too tempting.
But in this very same world where writers can push a button and be instantly “published”, the true craft and expectation of excellence are all the more on authors’ shoulders. In respect to the larger goal – to create something memorable, worth reading at least once and perhaps even again – we must take the time to craft the very best novel we can and not regret the labor or the time involved.
As Graham Swift wrote so eloquently in his essay, “Words Per Minute“: “a benign intrusion into someone else’s life for even such a short duration seems to me quite a feat of communication, … a time-suspending experience that stays with them well after they’ve closed the book and that they might one day wish to return to, …that’s as much as any novelist can hope for.”
Yesterday, in my Wednesday Evening Adult Writers Circle, I used the first line from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 as a tribute to the now late, always great science fiction author. Anna Cunningham wrote such a moving piece to the prompt (in 15 minutes, no less), that we asked her if we could publish it on the TWC blog. We’re delighted she agreed. – Michelle Cameron
“It was a pleasure to burn,” he wrote, I know, although I didn’t read that one. He’s been on my mind lately. Not too long ago I took out his biography from the Hillsborough Library. And Dandelion Wine. He said that he’d hedged his bets, writing short stories instead of novels. I rented Moby Dick on Netflix in March because he’d written the screenplay. It turned out to be nearly unwatchable.
But there are writers whose work forms you and he was one of them. I Sing The Body Electric seemed to have fallen from the sky into my 11 year-old hands. “The stars, one by one, were going out.” Some lines you can’t forget.
I copied out his breakthrough short story, “The Lake,” in January. I was going to do what he did, a short story every week. “Throw it up in the morning, clean it up in the afternoon,” he said.
When we moved to South Pasadena, up by the library, was an adobe building with a large banner on it, proclaiming that Fahrenheit 451 would be performed there that weekend. In the five years we were there, that banner never came down. He loved theater and apparently endowed this particular little group with his works. We never went in. It seemed like one of those places where you’d be the only two patrons.
I loved his stories, but reading his biography was probably not a great idea. He became too human. The biographer was not a great writer, or very tactful, and included his affairs and bad behavior and strange family life. The writing is the thing.
He lived to be 91, in a wheelchair, diabetic, blind – all that ice cream he liked to eat in the closet hadn’t done him any favors. But he did me several.
Stephanie Cowell is a very old friend. For those of you who’ve been in my classes before, she’s the “Stephanie” I mention enviously (in the most generous of ways) when she got her first book contract so many years ago. She’s a novelist of inestimable talent and beauty who inspired me when I was struggling with my very first words of fiction. I’m thrilled that Stephanie’s agreed to share her thoughts on the mysterious and mystical world of the historical novelist. I also hope you’ll join us, along with Michelle Cameron and Susanne Dunlap, for our June 10 event, Literary Time Travel: Adventures in Writing Historical Fiction. And I’m utterly honored that Stephanie has agreed to share her wisdom with The Writers Circle as one of our newest private editors. Learn more about working with her at our One-on-One Sessions page. But first, Stephanie Cowell…
“…the distinction between past, present, and future is only an illusion, however persistent.”
- Albert Einstein, 1955
When I was a child, I wrote in secret hours, making sure no one could see the words which formed my world. Mostly, my setting was elsewhere. I never felt I entirely belonged in my own life, but that I was constantly being called back to another one.
Often when meeting other historical fiction writers, I have been struck by the mystical quality of their experience in writing of the past; they speak of it reticently yet it is often this deep and most personal experience which first compels them to undertake a novel.
It begins with a feeling, a dream… you read something, you encounter an old street in Italy or a graveyard or a song and you are there suddenly. You have a strong feeling you have to go someplace and meet someone, but that place is hundreds of years before you were born. You listen and begin to hear people speaking. After a while you wake in the middle of the night, turn on a lamp, and begin to write what you hear. Page after page gets filled as you write about people who seem to call you. They wake you up and say, “Write me…” Before you know it, you are writing a historical novel.
In my writing world, snow is falling on London houses near the old cathedral of St. Paul’s 1662 and on the stalls of the booksellers which cluster in the churchyard. In my real life, it is spring 2012. I am writing on a computer and drinking brewed coffee. I am writing a historical novel and living two lives. I date my letters in the wrong season. I travel through centuries in a moment.
Novelist C.W. Gortner grew up in Spain and his third novel about a Spanish queen, The Queen’s Vow, debuts this June. He writes, “I do feel as if I have a connection with the past; certain places, sights, even smells, can evoke strong emotions in me. I’m very attracted to the Renaissance; I’m drawn to the 16th century in specific and my interest spans several countries. I’ve had a few eerie moments during research trips where I’ve visited a certain place and I’ve known something instinctual about it, as if I’d been there before.”
One of my most haunting experiences occurred in Canterbury, England where I went to research my first novel. Christopher Marlowe, a character in the novel who had been born there, had been murdered young in 1593. I was finishing my dinner in a restaurant when I had the odd sensation that he was standing behind me. The hairs on the back of my neck rose but when I turned, he was not there. The streets were rather empty when I left; the great Cathedral rising above me into the sky. As I walked under the medieval gateway to my room, I felt him a few steps behind me. I again turned and saw no one. Was it an over-excited imagination at being there? I don’t know. I jumped into bed and hid there, rather shaken.
But writing a historical novel only begins with a passionate interest in another place and time. Between that and the finished work are often hundreds of research books and, if the writer is fortunate, journeys to where the character lived. Susan Vreeland wrote, “There’s nothing like walking where your character walked to discover uneven pavements, mosquitoes, river stench, the smell of plaster frescoes and old wood in a convent. For Artemisia, I climbed the 400 steps of Giotto’s bell tower in Florence not only to see what my characters would have seen (which I had imagined incorrectly), but to be able to describe the steps.”
A sense of place also drew Cathy Buchanan, author of The Day the Falls Stood Still. She wrote, “I have stood at the brink of the falls, filling with wonder, filling with awe, and I think I strove in writing my novel to pass along a bit of that feeling to my readers.”
Sometimes you know a great deal about a character; sometimes you know little or less no matter how many history books you read. “When research doesn’t provide answers, imagination gets to step in,” says Michelle Cameron, author of The Fruit of Her Hands. “We knew Meir must have had a wife, for example – but because the medieval record didn’t tell us anything about her, I got to invent her completely, from her desire to be a scholar right down to her name.” Sheramy Bundrick created her main female character from a one sentence reference for Sunflowers: a novel of Van Gogh.
A Vermeer painting, again of an anonymous girl, “spoke” to Tracy Chevalier. She wrote, “I was lying in bed one morning, worrying about what I was going to write next. A poster of the Vermeer painting Girl with a Pearl Earring hung in my bedroom, as it had done since I was 19 and first discovered the painting. I lay there idly contemplating the girl’s face, and thought suddenly, ‘I wonder what Vermeer did to her to make her look like that. Now there’s a story worth writing.’ Within three days I had the whole story worked out.”
Judith Lindbergh, author of The Thrall’s Tale, wrote, “For me, it’s more than simply breathing life into the dry facts of history books. It’s trying to slip back into another time. I love going to museums or, better still, visiting historic sites. When I stand in a place where my characters would have been, I start to see the world as they might have seen it. From dusty stone ruins, the spirits of those who once enlivened them begin to emerge. I try to listen for those spirits, to let them enter my body and my mind.”
We also use what we know in this life. Susanne Dunlap (The Musician’s Daughter) was a concert pianist before she became a writer; I called on my years as a Mozart singer when I wrote Marrying Mozart. One writer whose novels are of historical England drives by a ruined medieval castle there to reach the supermarket for her weekly groceries. Mary Sharratt rode her beloved horse all over the Pendle Forest area in Lancashire which made her novel Daughters of the Witching Hill seem to grow out of the woods and earth where those women once lived long ago.
To sustain the journey of writing a historical novel requires passionate interest, research, many rewrites, great skill, and the patience of a saint. Lives often do not come with plots; we have to create a plot to take the reader down the path of the story. We have to say, “Come with us. We will show you something wonderful.”
Is the past calling us? Are we calling the past? Or when we write and read historical fiction, is it somewhere in between? As Shakespeare says, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dwelt of in your philosophy.”
Historical novelist Stephanie Cowell grew up in New York City adoring the past, reading Shakespeare and historical fiction, and longing for Europe and England. She published her first short stories in her teens. She was a classical singer for many years and produced a singing ensemble, a concert series and a small opera company before returning full-time to writing. Stephanie is the author of Nicholas Cooke, The Physician of London, The Players: a novel of the young Shakespeare, Marrying Mozart and Claude & Camille: a novel of Monet. She is the recipient of an American Book Award. Her work has been translated into nine languages. She still lives in New York City with her husband and has two grown sons. Her website is http://www.stephaniecowell.com.
I’ve been kind of quiet lately on the blog that I began, but there’s a reason. With everything growing on steroids here at TWC, I’ve been stealing what little free time I have to DO MY OWN WRITING!
Yes, I have not given up and I won’t — ever. I was telling one of you the other day in class that the work of a novelist is the ultimate long distance run. The minute you lose your endurance, you’re lost. You can admit you’re bored, or exhausted, or simply SICK OF IT! But you keep going anyway. As I am, still picking away, word by word.
Still, I long to wax poetical here for just a moment about what I’ve started to call “literary surgery”. It’s the process that inevitably comes when you step back far enough to look at your precious manuscript in all its vast and carefully wrought wholeness and start to realize that it’s got lumps and bumps, bits of story that have grown too long, tangents sticking out to the left and right, detours in the narrative so lovely but irrelevant that you cannot imagine the story without them.
And yet, when you finally find the courage to step back, you must that your creation is a monster.
Well, maybe not a monster. That’s a bit harsh. But you’ve got to do something about those unsightly nodules. That’s what I’ve been doing on the last third of my book. If we can use a theatrical metaphor here, my third act is a bit lumpy. The rising tension is so plodding that most of the audience will take a bathroom break just when I need them to stay put. Not good. I want them riveted to their chairs.
And it’s not even bad writing. Much of it is quite good. But the flow, the direction of the characters, the scenes that build relationship when they should be resolving it. There are even a few new characters I decided to introduce. New characters in Act III had better be PRETTY IMPORTANT! Well, they’re not, I realized as I read through the last 80 pages or so. They are symbolic of a larger issue that is really where the crux of my story must go. They’re incidental and, I see now, so are those passages.
Back to the surgery metaphor, my patient is lying on the table. I’m in scrubs and I’ve got my scalpel in hand. I cannot look at this body as my baby, conceived in passion and lovingly nurtured to full vivid form. I must see this body as flesh, and it’s got to be reformed or it simply will not survive.
OK, at this point, it’s probably more cosmetic surgery than an life-saving operation, but these days, if I ever want to see this book published by a “traditional publisher” (more on that anxiety at a later date), I’ve got to make it the most gorgeous, model-perfect manuscript that any talent scout would care to see.
So time for the knife. I close my eyes, breathe deep, then open them wide and cold and clearly and start cutting.
What I’ve pleasantly discovered is that, when I step back far enough, the new arrangement becomes utterly clear. That section with the new characters – CHOP. I only need a paragraph or two and then move on. And that motivation over there. Reorder it to make it work more quickly. Get rid of that redundant scene. Cut quick, and don’t worry about mending the inevitable tattered transitions. Once the rearrangement is complete, I can go back to the fine handiwork that I love, mending the big ugly chunks so neatly that it seems as if it was conceived that way. There’s the art, trying to stitch back the bits without leaving scars.
Oddly, once it’s done, you realize that that section you anguished over belongs someplace else anyway. That’s when I put it in my “USE LATER” file where it languishes, sometimes coming out for a moment to be tried on and rejected, only to be later discarded completely, cut and pasted in the section called “CUTS”. I rarely delete anything completely. Probably I’m just too precious about my work, but there’s bound to be a gem there that I cannot recreate. (Though most of that brilliance stays down in “CUTS” and never gets looked at again.)
The key is to find the courage and distance to step back and cut things at all. We’re all too close to our writing. We all fall in love, even if we know our work is flawed. These creations are our children and we cannot help ourselves. We made them and we believe in them and we want the world to see their brilliance, too. But the world is harsh. Traditional publishing has always been and is getting harsher. There’s no room for anything but absolute “perfection”, as if any of us know what that is. So I take my scalpel and cut, mold, reshape, slowly stitching back together my Frankenstein’s monster into more of a Galatea.
I still have sixty pages to go, so pray for me that I don’t carve out more damage than I stitch in good.