When I teach, I like debunking the mythical dictates carved in the Styrofoam pillars supporting the shrine built to deify the Real Writer. (Picture the Lincoln Memorial, but it’s Ernest Hemingway up on that throne, fountain pen clenched in a fist as big as a Thanksgiving turkey.) There’s a reason, I point out, that novelists do not have to pass exams to practice their trade. Architects and sea captains, sure. Surgeons, you bet. Why not novelists? Simple: Our form of malpractice won’t kill anybody. The worst we can do is bore you silly, fail to suspend your disbelief, make you waste a little money. So we get to do this thing we do by whatever rules and rituals we devise.
Prominent among those dictates (close on the heels of Write every day) is Write what you know. Which holds true, admittedly, to the extent that every journey begins at home. But I like Grace Paley’s retort: “We don’t write about what we know; we write about what we don’t know about what we know.” Write what you want to know, and start out pretending you know a lot more than you do. Surmise, invent, and bluff your way through it as far as you can. Flex your imagination. Why else are you here?
One of the ancillary pleasures in writing fiction, however, is finding out stuff; “real” stuff; stuff you never knew before; stuff you need to know if the story you’re telling is to hold up as true. Curiosity is the apprentice to your imagination. Yet I have found that the longer I can put off my research, the stronger and tighter my stories are. This is personal, of course; maybe you, setting out to write the great modern Western, need to pack up and live as a Wyoming cowhand before you can write a single word. Herman Melville went on an honest-to-God whaling voyage — no luxury cruise — before sitting down to write Moby-Dick. I hasten to add that I am not writing historical fiction, so the broad context of my work is the world we live in now; nevertheless, I delve deeply into my characters’ personal histories, which means I’m facing history with a capital H. I may need to find out about, for instance, the rationing of farm equipment during World War II. (Wars of the last century have influenced the lives of my fictional people as dramatically as they have the lives of actual people.)
I won’t deny that laziness factors into my method. Years ago, I loved nothing more than a good excuse to roam the library stacks. Now, even heading down screen to Safari seems like a chore when all I want to do is hang around with my characters, eavesdrop on their secrets, and get them in trouble just to find out how they’ll endure (or not).
In every story, I challenge myself to create characters outside my know-it-all zone, but never arbitrarily. Though I may not understand why, I will have felt a deep curiosity to inhabit the psyche of a wildlife biologist, a pastry chef, a Guatemalan gardener, an elderly widower, a music critic, the devout Catholic mother of two gay sons, a cancer patient, a cellist, a lonely film star, an insolent young man bent on what he sees as constructive anarchy.
To know their passions, preoccupations, and afflictions, I have researched the infrastructure of wedding cakes, the culture of a 1960s summer camp for teenage musicians, the pathology and treatment of AIDS in the 1980s, the training of Border collies, the politics of water rights in the Southwest, the conservation of grizzly bears — but I began by writing from instinct and hearsay. The problem with doing research too soon is this: If I uncover too much captivating knowledge in advance, I cannot resist including it, nor can I tell when it dilutes or distracts from the story I’m trying to tell. If, on the other hand, I must pack it into the brimming suitcase of an existing story, only the pertinent details will fit. (The vast lore I uncovered on the variously eccentric traditions surrounding wedding confections was hard to leave behind, but because I was working to authenticate an existing scene, the narrative had only so much give.) The story must be the boss of the research, not the other way around.
I like doing my research live, using people as sources whenever I can. And sometimes those people find me. Years ago, while struggling to craft a character living with the after-effects of head trauma, after reading medical journals had left me more confused than informed, I was called for jury duty — where I happened to meet a stranger who In every story, I challenge myself to create characters outside my know-it-all zone, but never arbitrarily. had gone through an experience parallel to that of my character. I conducted some enormously fruitful “research” over lunch breaks from the courthouse.
Inevitably, you miss things. If you’re lucky, people who read your work early on catch those gaffes before it’s too late: the clam sauce with onions, the cello seated behind the flute; an idiom or a gadget or a popular song deployed before its time. Sometimes, however, alternative facts wind up in print. In Three Junes, I began by using memory and guesswork to describe the surroundings of a Scottish country home, an essential setting, knowing I’d fine-tune the details later. Several drafts later, I consulted a guide to British birding, overwriting my placeholder blue jays, robins, and cardinals with yellowhammers, chiffchaffs, and collared doves. Botanically, however, it turns out I wasn’t so thorough.
There I was, out on tour, closing my book after reading to a small audience, when a hand shot up, emphatically. “Excuse me,” said my questioner, “but please see page 117. It isn’t possible, you realize, for the women’s final at Wimbledon to fall within the month of June. And, on page 47, can you tell me what a dogwood tree is doing in Scotland? Dogwoods grow only in North America.” He was holding a copy of my book sprouting a thicket of Post-Its. He was my first of a certain kind of reader. I want to hug and slug these people at the very same time. They are, after all, devoted to the truth.
Okay, so he had me on Wimbledon — a necessary torquing of reality that I had hoped no one would notice. “But as for the dogwood,” I said, keeping my cool, “there were these American houseguests who, wanting to make a memorable impression on their Scottish hosts, and knowing how much they cherished their garden, smuggled a dogwood sapling in their luggage as a house present. The climate proved perfectly hospitable. The guests were invited back. Next time, they brought a pair of blue jays.”
History that downplays individual experience — that focuses exclusively on movements, economic forces, social developments, and the like — can be worthwhile and enlightening, but it’s never going to make very compelling reading for non-specialists. People are interested in people, so they like to see how the larger forces of history shape — and are shaped by — recognizable, specific persons with stories all their own. As a narrative historian, I therefore face a lot of the same challenges that a novelist does. I’ve got to find characters whose life histories will allow me to express what needs expressing, and who are in and of themselves fascinating to read about.
As a former fiction writer (or, as Walter Isaacson teasingly called me in the New York Times a few years ago, a “lapsed novelist”), I’ve seen the task from both perspectives, and I can tell you that the narrative historian has, in some ways, the harder job. Yes, we don’t face the yawning terror of the totally blank page every morning (that daily existential crisis), but we also don’t have the luxury of creating elements from whole cloth to add dimension to a dullish character or enliven a lagging plot. We can only draw on the raw material offered up by the historical record. Of course, many popular historians of the past had no qualms about inventing freely — details, dialogue, scenes — whenever the historical record was lacking, but the new school of narrative history insists on higher standards of scholarship. In other words, we can’t just make it up.
So when deciding on what characters to focus on in my books, I look for people who (A), were at the center of the important issues of the day, (B), were complex and interesting in their own right, and (C), were also well documented in the historical record. That last criterion is important. Memoirs, letters, newspaper interviews, diaries — any kind of account in which a participant in the drama tells what happened in human, on-the-ground terms — are critical for me, since they give me the concrete details I need to bring people and events to life. (Incidentally, since a lot of my main characters are colorful types who frequently wound up in court, transcripts of trial testimony have been particularly useful.)
Naturally, all of these documents can be as unreliable as any other sources in the record. Accounts are only as trustworthy as the people who give them, after all, so I find myself constantly having to judge how much to believe in any given source. Often I’ll talk about this decision-making process in the end-notes to my books, which I see as a kind of running commentary on how I used the historical record to create the book, for those who are interested in seeing how the sausage is made.
The three criteria I mentioned were important considerations when I chose the main characters around whom to base The Mirage Factory. William Mulholland, D.W. Griffith, and Aimee Semple McPherson were all central to the story I wanted to tell, representing the three forces — which you might shorthand as Water, Celluloid, and Spirituality — that allowed Los Angeles to grow up in a place where no big city has any right to be. They’re also intriguing, multidimensional people with character flaws as big as their talents. And they were all extremely well documented in the historical record. All three wrote autobiographies of a sort (although Mulholland’s was very short). Each left behind a fairly comprehensive archive. And as highly visible public figures, they were covered extensively (in McPherson’s case, one might say “obsessively”) by the local press in their lifetimes.
So narrative historians have definite limits on what they can do, particularly when telling stories that involve people for whom the historical record is skimpy or incomplete. That’s why I sometimes have to take a pass on a book idea that might seem irresistible at first glance. If the material isn’t there to give the characters and events the kind of texture and dimension required, the idea won’t work, no matter how interesting the story may be in outline. Fortunately, though — thanks to the hard work of archivists who keep developing more sophisticated ways of cataloguing and searching their collections — the amount of raw material available just keeps growing. It’s up to the narrative historian to choose wisely.
I love it when readers say to me, “After I finished your novel, I went straight to Google to figure out what was true and what was made up!” That’s exactly why historical fiction is my favorite genre: In a good story, I become immersed in a different time period with people I’d never meet otherwise, who are living through situations that are unimaginable today. After I’ve turned the last page, I’m eager to discover the nuggets of truth buried within the work of fiction.
My fictional characters are built around the framework of historical fact. Once I have an idea for a setting for my book — The Doll- house is set in the Barbizon Hotel for Women and The Address takes place in the Dakota apartment house — I do a deep dive into the research of the time period (1950s for The Dollhouse and 1880s for The Address, although they both feature contemporary plotlines as well). I read everything I can from that era, including newspapers, magazines, fiction, and nonfiction. I also interview experts, like architectural historians who specialize in the Gilded Age, or women who lived in the Barbizon Hotel for Women in the ’50s and ’60s.
That’s when the ideas start to pop. While researching The Dollhouse, I learned that when the Barbizon Hotel for Women was turned into luxury condos, a dozen or so long- time residents were moved into rent-controlled apartments on the same floor. Great set-up for a book, I thought.
I read a harrowing newspaper article from the 1950s about the rising heroin epidemic, which was often blamed on bebop jazz musicians. What a great contrast to the rarified world of the hotel, with its guests in pearls and white gloves, right? So in my plot, I sent one of my characters downtown, where she got mixed up with some seedy characters.
I used the same approach while working on The Address. I discovered that in the 1930s, a “lady managerette” ran the Dakota. That gave me the idea for one of my characters: a housekeeper named Sara Smythe who gets an unexpected promotion early in the novel.
In general, the characters in my stories are all fictional. That gives me room to play around with them, get them into and out of trouble, and not feel constrained by a true historical figure. Exceptions do occur, though. Nelly Bly, a fabulous reporter from the 1880s, makes a quick appearance in The Address. As a former journalist, I couldn’t resist. And both buildings were touched by famous, tragic figures. Sylvia Plath stayed at the Barbizon Hotel in 1953 and wrote about it in The Bell Jar, and John Lennon was murdered outside the Dakota in 1980.
In both those cases, I felt it was important to mention the association, but not linger there. For example, I set the modern-day timeline of The Address in 1985, when Strawberry Fields first opened, as a way to respectfully touch upon the tragedy without making it a major part of the story.
A couple of times I’ve had to slightly fudge dates of real events in order to make the story work. When that happens, I mention it in the author’s note at the end, where I also list many of the resources I relied upon. My hope is that readers will continue on in their journey to learn more about the past, and enjoy it as much as I did.
I’m an author. And an editor. But never at the same time.
I’ve traveled a lot — all over North America and to Europe as well — to talk to writers about the craft of writing. I’ve given talks about plot, about character, about voice, about emotion, and have had wonderful conversations about stories with tons of booklovers. But inevitably, at some point in the conversation, someone asks me how my editorial brain coexists with my writer brain — whether I’m always editing what I write. And the answer, of course, is yes, I do edit what I write, but I don’t edit it — I couldn’t possibly edit it — in the same way I edit someone else’s work. And I never edit it until I’ve finished a complete first draft.
In the first book I wrote, The Nina, The Pinta, and the Vanishing Treasure, which is a mystery for elementary schoolers, I edited and edited the first chapter until I felt like it was as close to perfect as I could make it before I moved on. And then I did the same with the second chapter. And the third. The book — which is only about 20,000 words — took me nearly a year to draft, and then when I got to the end, I realized that I’d constructed the plot all wrong, and all of that painstaking editing was, while perhaps not a waste of time, extraordinarily inefficient, because now I had to rewrite half of those chapters and revise the rest so that they made sense with the new plot structure. So over the next couple of years, I devised a plan, a way to turn off my internal editor and write more efficiently. These are my writing commandments.
1. THOU SHALT OUTLINE:
Before I start writing, I go through the entire story, chapter by chapter, and decide what important plot and emotional events will happen in each one. That way, I always know where the story’s going and will feel compelled to move forward instead of working on the same chapter for months.
2. THOU SHALT NOT RE-READ EARLIER SECTIONS
With my first book, I would start every writing session by rereading everything I’d already written, revising all of that, and only then start on new material. That meant that the longer the book got, the more time I needed to set aside each day to write. I realized afterward that this made no sense, so now I don’t read over what I’ve written until I have a whole draft done.
3. THOU SHALT HAVE GOALS
I break down my writing goals into manageable tasks that I must complete. When I’m drafting, my goals are all quantity based: 1,000 words today, 1,500 words this weekend, etc. And then once I have a draft done, I give myself chapter goals: Revise four chapters this weekend, one chapter after dinner. When I have that target in my mind, I push through to get things done.
4. THOU SHALT NOT SHARE YOUR WORK UNTIL IT’S COMPLETE
I have an amazingly generous, perceptive writing group, but I try not to share pages with them while I’m mid-draft. I want their thoughts on the whole book at once, otherwise it’s quite likely I’d begin inputting their edits into early pages and work so hard on those that it would take me forever to get through a complete draft.
5. THOU SHALT ACCEPT THAT SOME THINGS CAN BE FILLED IN LATER
Sometimes I’ll be going along and a thought will strike me about a section I’ve already written. Instead of going back and revising that scene right then, I scroll back to that scene and make myself a note that says something like [REMEMBER TO ADD IN THE THING ABOUT THE PASTA POT]. And then when I’m up to the revising stage, I add that part in.
6. THOU SHALT REMEMBER THAT THIS MANUSCRIPT IS NOT WRITTEN IN STONE
I think the true key to turning off any internal editing is to remember that every book goes through multiple revisions in its lifetime. The words and phrases and sentences don’t have to be perfect right away — I spent four years writing and revising The Light We Lost. Some lines are the same as they were in the first draft, but many are not. In the end, understanding that I’d eventually be letting go of so much that I’d written is what made it easiest for me to turn off that internal editor and enjoy the act of creation inherent in writing.
Food is one of my top five favorite things in the world. Maybe even the top three. But if I have to be honest, it’s probably in the top two. That says a lot about me. Likewise, food can be used to say a lot about your characters.
What’s for Dinner?
Do you know what your characters eat? Does the reader know?
Food can be more than sustenance. It can be used as a tool, a prop, something to show instead of tell. The main characters in my first novel, My Lovely Wife
, live in a gated community, eat organic food, and use almond milk instead of the real thing. When one of them chooses to eat something like a hot dog, there’s a reason for it. Food can be used not only to show a person’s character, but also their state of mind.
Do they eat when they’re stressed, or not eat at all? Or do they eat different foods? All of this can say a lot about a character.
Something to Do
Funny thing about characters … they have to do
things. Eating can be a big part of that, but it doesn’t have to be fluff.
Imagine two characters meet at a coffee shop to discuss a topic integral to your story. Maybe one lost a job, or their spouse is having an affair, or maybe they’re having an all-out war with a neighbor. The dialogue may be the most important part of this scene, but it doesn’t have to be the only
For example, if both characters order the same thing — say, medium lattes — that’s hardly notable. Or if what they order isn’t mentioned at all, it becomes irrelevant.
But what if one character orders a plain black coffee, and the other orders a jumbo cinnamon roll with an extra-large salted caramel mocha? And which ordered which? Does the one with the problem order the food, or is it the one who has to listen? Either way, the scene just became a lot more interesting.
Cook or Burn
The preparation of food is as important as the consumption of it … or so my friends tell me. I do not cook, not ever, and anyone who knows me is grateful for that.
If I said the same thing about character, it would tell you something. The same applies to characters who cook all their food from scratch, using only ingredients from the farmer’s market. Or maybe your character’s idea of cooking involves pre-made sauces and pre-cooked meat, because they don’t have the time to make homemade marinara sauce.
Kitchens are places where people gather in life and in books, so use the location to your advantage.
To Drink or Not to Drink
Alcohol has at least as many uses as food, if not more. Going out for a drink is another thing for your characters to do. Bars are also where people meet, flirt, and — as often happens in fiction — decide and plan to commit crimes. How much or how little a character drinks, and what they drink, can tell the reader a lot.
But that’s not all alcohol can do. Characters can change when they’re drunk. The shy become bold, the calm become angry, and the happy start to cry. Some drink to the point of blacking out, only to find themselves in a mess the next morning.
Or picture this scenario: A group of colleagues go out drinking after work. As the night wears on, and the group becomes more intoxicated, people start to flirt. They start to say things they shouldn’t. Maybe they gossip about their boss and other co-workers. Secrets are revealed, embellished, repeated.
One of the characters — let’s say a man — goes to the bar to get another drink. He orders a club soda with lime. Unlike his colleagues, he hasn’t been drinking at all. He’s just pretending to be as intoxicated as they are.
Now it’s not just a night out, it’s something deceitful — maybe even sinister. Alcohol can do all of that, if used properly.
Enough is Enough
This is not to say food can be used to show everything, nor should it. While I’d like to spend the majority of my time eating bonbons and bacon cheeseburgers, I don’t. Neither should your characters.
Food is one example of how everyday activities and needs can be effectively used in fiction. It’s not the only thing. It may not even be the most interesting thing. It’s just one of the many tools available to tell your story.
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Here’s the thing about writing, or more specifically, about being paid
to write: it’s a job.
Of course, you could describe it in more romantic terms: it could be calling
, or a vocation
. Or perhaps your mind has a more prosaic bent; perhaps for you it’s an itch that needs to be scratched
. There are reams and reams of twitter conversations on the topic of why writers choose to write; if you go looking for those I’m certain you’ll find
one that matches how you feel. But if you’re actually getting paid to put your stories down on paper, then whatever else you might call it, one thing is certain: it’s a job. I admit that I may have a more businesslike approach to writing than most given that I also work part-time in fund management, but I truly don’t see why the principles that are relevant within a mainstream workplace wouldn’t apply also to writing. So on the principal that you have to fake it before you make it, here are my top three pieces of somewhat businesslike advice for the writer who wants their writing to be more than just a hobby.
- You have to go to work.
This is the most important one. Even if you aren’t (yet) being paid, you must believe that you deserve to be paid and act accordingly. If you have only certain hours in the week when you can write, ringfence those hours. Sit down and write in those hours, regardless of whether you feel like it or not — if I always waited until I felt like writing, I would still be writing The French Girl
— and make sure the environment you do that in lacks other distractions. (For my part, I’m extraordinarily unproductive at home because sometimes even doing the laundry can seem more appealing than opening the laptop, so I usually write in cafés.) Don’t allow anything else to steal your writing time — after all, you wouldn’t accept an invitation to coffee at a time when you had to be in the office, or your boss might very well fire you. You are
your boss now. You have to be tough, and you have to make yourself go to work.
- Create a polished product
For the content of your work to earn proper consideration, it has to look the part. Your manuscript might be the Koh-i-Noor diamond in the rough, but agents and publishers get thousands of submissions — why would they spend time on one that isn’t correctly formatted or lacks proper punctuation and grammar? All those things scream amateur
, and nobody wants to waste their time with that. Find out what the submission guidelines are for the individual or organization to which you are submitting (which will almost certainly be on their website) and make absolutely sure you meet those requirements. Oh, and proofread your work. Very
- Know your market
You may have the most wonderful crossover chick-lit/gothic/cyberpunk novel ever written, and there might be a publisher out there willing to take a chance on it … but I wouldn’t stake my career on it, and you shouldn’t either. If a publisher isn’t sure how to market your book, or whether there’s even an audience for it at all, they won’t take a leap of faith on it. Have a clear idea of the genre you are writing within and what the readers of that genre expect. As my wonderful agent once told me: save the interesting genre-bending for book five, when you have a devoted readership who will follow you anywhere. (Clearly there are books, and writers, which have defied this last piece of advice and done astronomically well, but those are the exception rather than the rule.)
And that’s it, except to add that writing is one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever had, but it’s also the most rewarding. I wish you the very best of luck. Now go to work!
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“How did you finish it?”
I’m asked some version of that question a lot, with “it” referring to my debut novel, The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls
. The question about the finish is not a request for a spoiler that would reveal the book’s ending, but rather, it’s an inquiry about how one simply goes about getting the thing done. Every writer has his or her own process, so you’ll find that advice on this question is equally varied, but there is at least one universal writing truth: It’s not easy. For me, scheduling makes it less hard. I know, the topic of time management is not particularly sexy. A lot of us would much rather discuss craft, creativity, or the things that inspire us. But you won’t get far with those things if you don’t master the more laborious, workaday side of writing.
It’s true, it takes a certain compulsive drive to be a writer, but a lot of us still fall victim to procrastination or outright avoidance, particularly when the writing feels like a Sisyphean struggle — and in my experience, it feels like that a great deal of the time. It may be helpful to know that giving in to that urge to do anything other than writing in those moments is not entirely because of a lack of discipline. You may be able to put the blame on your brain. The New York Times
recently reported on a study that found our brains can trick us into feeling an urgency to do less important, more immediately rewarding tasks like, perhaps, cleaning up that backlog of emails rather than taking on more difficult projects in which the finish is a long way off, as is the case with that novel that’s been languishing on your desk or knocking around in your head — hence the need for scheduling.
There is the element of ritual in a good schedule, which can be a comfort. Showing up at an appointed time to a familiar place and performing your task — there’s equilibrium in it. But don’t think your schedule has to be perfect or meet some writerly ideal. It just needs to be habitual and workable for you. If a two-hour block after putting the kids to bed is all you have, then go with it. Early mornings before rushing off to your day job? Set the alarm accordingly. Many of us are quite adaptable when we need to be. In my case, I prefer working early mornings, but I usually only have time in the late afternoons and on weekends, so that is when I write. I also prefer quiet but, having worked in busy newsrooms for my entire professional life, I can handle a bit of noise.
So, find the time and — crucially — keep it for yourself and your writing projects alone. You are more apt to do this if you think of writing as what it is: work. And whether your workplace is at an office desk, the kitchen table, or a counter in a coffeehouse, showing up there without fail or distractions must be a priority. That may mean skipping that impromptu party, missing that movie with your friends, leaving that email backlog to another day. Writing is part of your routine. Your daily ritual. Treat it that way.
And even on those days when you can’t get motivated (which will be more days than you might imagine), clock in. Keep writing, even when what you put on the page proves unusable or even shockingly inadequate (which will also happen more often than you might imagine). With every sentence, you’re finding your way. You’re working on craft. And even when you can’t come up with anything at all, stay with it. As you sit drumming your fingers on your forehead or staring off into the middle distance, puzzling over how to fill that blank page, you’re plumbing the depths of creativity. You’ll figure out what comes next. And if you don’t figure it out during that workday, then maybe you will on the next one. Or the next. And here, I should probably make a note of this important fact: Inspiration works on its own schedule. So keep yours. I promise, the two of you will meet up in due time.
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