Monday, June 15, 2009

Planning the Novel

A typical scene from this writer's life:

Me, googling Cherokee women's names frantically, cross checking them with my notes for any meanings or symbolisms I can use to my advantage. The boys are in bed, I can research to my heart's content, and I want to make the most of my time. Tom is in the kitchen, unloading the dishwasher.

Tom: There's a pile of your laundry on the bed.

Me: Mmm hmmm. (I acknowledge the pile of laundry on the bed, but I could truly care less.)

Tom: Do you think you can get to it tomorrow?

Me: Maybe. (I have a million things to do tomorrow, none of which has any bearing on whether my clothes are clean, folded, or put away.)

Tom: Are you going to be working on your book all day tomorrow?

Me: (Stop interrupting me!) No. I've got other things to do. (Re-organize the closets, pick up the finished painted pottery from the paint-your-own pottery store, play with the boys, work on wedding favors, etc.)

Tom: I don't know why you're spending so much time doing all this research for a book idea you're going to change your mind about fifty times anyway. The least you could do is fold your laundry...

This is the point in the conversation when I start looking for a large blunt object to lob at his head.

Whoever thinks being a writer is all glamorous fun is kidding themselves. Maybe once upon a time it was, when a writer like Hemingway could live in Key West, have six-toed cats as his chief distraction, hang out all day in bars with the locals, drinking himself silly, and still have an editor like Maxwell Perkins foaming at the mouth. Maybe that's still what it's like for male writers. I certainly have no idea. As an as-yet unpublished female author, I get no respect, and my writing takes a backseat to well... everything.

But back to Hemingway for a moment. Try to imagine poor Ernest... He has a great idea for this book about a group of American expatriates who travel to Pamploma to see the bull fights. He's buried in a pile of books, researching Pamploma and bulls, when his wife comes in and harrasses him about folding his socks. Then, to add insult to injury, tells him he's wasting his time on a book idea that will never come to fruition.

Of course it won't come to fruition if he's interrupted every time there's a pile of laundry to fold.

I tried the "write as you go" approach with How Home Improvement Saved My Marriage and it was a complete nightmare when I got to the middle. I had no idea how to get from one part of my story to the next and probably spent six months staring at a blank screen and a blinking cursor. But then again, when the idea for Home Improvement occured to me, I only had a title, a rough beginning, an end scene, and a very vague middle. Consequently, it played out a lot of times like a choose-your-own adventure novel in my own head. I'd write myself into a scene and think "Uh oh." Then I'd have to sit there (sometimes for months) wondering where to go with the story next. I wouldn't recommend this method to other novelists.

Home Improvement popped into my head, literally. The ideas were a lot like the first bursts popcorn kernels make. Idea here. Idea there. Scene. Character. Dialogue. As Yet Un-named Novel didn't pop. It unraveled. Protagonist, antagonist, motivation, turning point, dark spot, conclusion. Subplots unraveled in the same way. In my head I saw all the connections. Within an hour, I had worked out the entire story. Beginning, middle, end, every plot twist, in the order they would occur. The only thing I didn't get was a title.

All that was left for me to do was name my characters (harder than you'd think... and yes, I've already changed Ivy's name to Anna--for a reason), outline the story so it wouldn't be a jumble of notes in a Word document, and research, research, research. The story takes place in 1916. I need to know exactly what people wore, what they ate, what they grew, how people talked, what they lived in, how they traveled, the medical interventions that were common at the time, what it was like to vacation in WNC, the experience of the Cherokee during this time, what they were named, what they wore, how they lived. I also need to know about life in Boston at the time, and what Harvard Medical School was like. I have to research an endless number of things. It's going to take some time. But in order to write with any authority or transport my reader to another time, I have to know.

This does not mean I'm not committed to the idea, or that I will change my mind again. It just means I'm still planning...


  1. re: women's writing taking a back seat to everything: you said it sister. and and a special nod to tom for the never amount to anything cheerleading.

    ugh. it's hard enough trying to write through the guilt of not bringing in income while the stuff is unfinished, no matter that i'm caring for the baby all day...

    oh yea, we were talking about you. ;)

    brittany, i may be able to help with some of the cherokee research. my great grandmother, same time period, was full blood, though married into a white family in waldeboro, nc. my grandfther was a bit of a phto buff, and in my parents' garage are stacks of his old photo slides i can go through with my father when i visit at the end of next month. i know some pics of her are in those boxes. some of my father's people are still in waldeboro, too. could be a good family research field trip at some point as well as helpful to you...and get us both out of the house for a few nights of mom-writer time. hint-hint.

  2. ops, making sure i hit subsribe to comments.

  3. That would be incrediably helpful! I'm drawing from a lot of family history, but we did not have any Cherokee kin (that anyone knows of) so I don't have any information about that. Coincidentally, your great-grandmother sounds like that character I'm writing about. A Cherokee gifted in the art of healing (not neccessarily a medicine woman)who marries a white man.

    I would love an excuse to go on a research gathering field trip!

  4. Are you sure it's Waldeboro? Couldn't find it when I googled it.

  5. He'll sing another chorus when your novel is published. Maybe then he'll even fold your clothes for you. LOL!

    Good luck with the research. I find research is almost more fun than writing the story.

  6. if it's not, it's close.

    my great-grandmother was a hired indian to take care of my great-grandfather's kids from his first wife after she died. then the story is they married then she had the twins, my grandfather and his brother. oh i've got small but juicy tales to tell. my father is a quiet person. my mother not so much. tough to get him alone to talk, but i'm all ears when i can get him going on his family.

    i've been wanting to pull photos from my parents to copy anyway, i'd love to share the homemade dresses look of them with you, the phots are from later, of course.


I love your comments! They make my day.


Related Posts Widget for Blogs by LinkWithin