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Writing Tips from Fiona Davis, author of The Dollhouse

Sep 12, 2016 Writing Tips

We know readers tend to be writers too, so we feature writing tips from our authors. Who better to offer advice, insight, and inspiration than the authors you admire? They’ll answer several questions about their work, share their go-to techniques and more. Now, get writing!

How would you recommend creating and getting to know your characters? 

The most important task is to figure out what your characters’ goals, history and personality quirks are – what they most want from life, and why. And for characters who live in an earlier time period, there’s the additional task of conveying what life was like back then. Since part of my book takes place in the early 1950s, I headed to the library and read old newspapers and magazines, scrutinizing the advertisements as well as the articles. I also listened to the music of the time period, from bebop to Rosemary Clooney, to get a sense of popular trends.

Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking?

The Met Museum in New York City is a great place to be inspired. I was lucky enough to catch the designer Charles James’s exhibit while working on The Dollhouse, and the fabrics and styles perfectly captured the essence of 1950s fashion. A run around the reservoir in Central Park can be helpful when I’m trying to solve a plotting problem or visualize an upcoming scene. I find I procrastinate for a good hour before getting down to the actual business of writing. This can include doing laundry, checking email, and reading the paper, until the guilt becomes inescapable. But once I start, I fall into that state of flow and become unaware of time passing. I love that feeling.

Did you always want to write? How did you start your career as an author?

I got a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University, which taught me how to research and do interviews and write on deadline, and all those skills transferred over to writing fiction. When you’re used to writing every day, it’s easy to power through the painful moments of the first draft, knowing you can clean it up later. The process isn’t precious, it’s just work.

What clichés or bad habits would you tell aspiring writers to avoid? Do you still experience them yourself?

I have a Post-it on the bulletin board above my desk with the heading “Bad Words” written on it: these include “realized, wondered, felt, saw, thought, and heard.” Once I’m done with the first draft, I search for each bad word and instead use deep point of view. (For example, replacing “She heard the cat meow,” with “The cat meowed.”) Makes the writing simpler and more powerful. Luckily, I’ve gotten to the point where I usually catch myself before using them, but you can never be too sure.

What are three or four books that influenced your writing, or had a profound effect on you?

The Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro is set in two decades, the 1950s and the 1920s, and her attention to detail and descriptions are breathtaking. The Lottery by Shirley Jackson, published in 1948, is eerily timeless, as is People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. I swear Brooks traveled back in time to write that one, it’s so rich in setting and character. In high school, I had a teacher who instilled an early love of Shakespeare, and the musicality of Macbeth definitely stuck with me.

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