Tag Archives: writing

Listen: Allison Pataki on storytelling, music, and journalism

New York Times bestselling author Allison Pataki of SISI joins Lindsay to talk about the little known Empress, Sisi of Austria, how historical fiction drives powerful storytelling, and why she listens to music for inspiration. Allison also talks about her journey from journalism to full time novelist.

Writing Tips from Mary Balogh, author of Someone to Hold

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!

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

Yes. As a child, when people used to ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would say I wanted to be an authoress (that word certainly dates me, doesn’t it?). I used to fill notebooks with stories. When I grew up, of course, I discovered that I needed to eat so became a high school English teacher. Then I got married and had children. There was no time to write. I took a year’s leave of absence following the birth of my third child and worked my way through a suggested Grade XI reading list. It included Georgette Heyer’s Frederica. I was enchanted, perhaps more than I have been with any book before or since. I read everything she had written and then went into mourning because there was nothing else. I decided that I must write books of my own set in the same historical period. I wrote my first Regency (A Masked Deception) longhand at the kitchen table during the evenings and then typed it out and sent it off to a Canadian address I found inside the cover of a Signet Regency romance. It was a distribution centre! However, someone there read it, liked it, and sent in on to New York. Two weeks later I was offered a two-book contract.

What’s the best piece of advice you have received?

 Someone (I can’t even remember who) at a convention I attended once advised writers who sometimes sat down to work with a blank mind and no idea how or where to start to write anyway. It sounded absurd, but I have tried it. Nonsense may spill out, but somehow the thought processes get into gear and soon enough I know if what I have written really is nonsense. Sometimes it isn’t. But even if it is, by then I know exactly how I ought to have started, and I delete the nonsense and get going. I have never suffered from writers’ block, but almost every day I sit down with my laptop and a blank mind.

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

You don’t have to know everything before you start. You don’t have to know the whole plot or every nuance of your characters in great depth. You don’t have to have done exhaustive research. All three things are necessary, but if you wait until you know everything there is to know, you will probably never get started. Get going and the knowledge will come—or at least the knowledge of what exact research you need to do.

Do you ever base characters off people you know? Why or why not?

Never consciously. I wouldn’t want anyone to recognize himself or herself in my books. However, I have spent a longish lifetime living with people and interacting with them and observing them. I like my characters to be authentic, so I suppose I must take all sorts of character traits from people around me. And sometime yes, I suddenly think “Oh, this is so-and-so.”

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

All the books of Georgette Heyer would fit here. She was thorough in her research and was awesomely accurate in her portrayal of Georgian and Regency England. At the same time she made those periods her own. She had her own very distinctive voice and vision. When I began to write books set in the same period, I had to learn to do the same thing—to find my own voice and vision so that I was not merely trying to imitate her (something that never works anyway).

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Meet the author: Ottessa Moshfegh

Ottessa Moshfegh’s debut novel Eileen, published by Penguin Press, was one of the literary events of 2015.  Garlanded with critical acclaim, it won the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Fiction, was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and was named a book of the year by The Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle.  But as many critics noted, Ottessa Moshfegh is particularly held in awe for her short stories.

Homesick for Another World, on sale now from Penguin Press, is the rare case where an author’s short story collection is, if anything, more anticipated than her novel. And for good reason. There’s something eerily unsettling about Ottessa’s stories, something almost dangerous, while also being delightful, and even laugh-out-loud funny.  Her characters are all unsteady on their feet in one way or another; they all yearn for connection and betterment, though each in very different ways, but they are often homesick for another worldtripped up by their own baser impulses and existential insecurities. Homesick for Another World is a master class in the varieties of self-deception across the gamut of individuals representing the human condition. In this interview, Ottessa takes us inside her world:  How would you describe your writing regimen and routines? Obsessive and neurotic and captivating. I wake up, I work, I dilly dally, work, take out the trash, work, pace around, eat, work, shower, work, read, work, go for a walk, call people, work, eat, work, sleep. Toward the end of writing a book, I often sleep with my computer under my pillow… What differentiates your approach to conceiving a novel as compared with your short stories? The motivation to write a short story often comes from an abstract, mysterious noise in my head, and I can take my time concentrating on that sound and experimenting with what words, voice, characters, and narrative movements are being described by the music in my mind. Writing a novel is that, plus a million pounds of pressure at my back, loaded with questions about how my life is being reflected in this writing process, and what I want to learn and say to the world. So, novels are more prolonged and intense journeys, although they can start out as playfully as a story. ottessa quote1Where do inspirations for your characters and storylines come from?   They come from my life experiences, overheard conversations, dreams, the imagination, the ether… It what ways has Penguin Press impacted your writing career? Penguin Press has been a miracle in my life – this team has been so incredibly supportive, positive, and – I think – gutsy.  I tell everyone how blessed I feel to have a publisher that understands my work and sees its value today and the potential for the future. Explore Moshfegh’s books below:

Writing Tips from Nick Petrie, author of Burning Bright

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! Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking? I find that I do my best work at the beginning of the day, but I’m rarely in a writing mood when I sit down.  I’m usually somewhat sleep-deprived, and I always have a long list of other responsibilities calling my name. But if I can get myself into my chair with a cup of coffee, and start reading the last few days’ work, I find myself making a few changes here and there.  Then I’m adding a few new sentences at the end, and before I know it, several hours have passed, I’ve written a few new pages, and I’m in a pretty good mood. When I fall out of that flow, I get up and go for a walk, make another cup of coffee, and sit back down in my chair, just for another minute or two, and that’s another few hours gone, and some more sentences stacked up to reread tomorrow. Which is a long way of saying that the best way for me to get into a writing mood is to sit down and start writing.  And if I do it every day, it all gets easier. What’s the best piece of advice you have received? The painter Chuck Close said, “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.” He didn’t say it to me, but I consider this good advice for anyone doing creative work.  Don’t wait for inspiration.  Learn to cultivate it.  Write your own writer’s manual.  Find the tools and mindset that help you move forward when things get difficult.  Because things almost always get difficult.  That’s not necessarily a sign that the work is bad, it’s just a part of the process.  Learning to understand and manage your own process is, for me, the secret to creative life. I’m still working on it, by the way.  But I’ve found that when I show up and do the work on a daily basis, inspiration will eventually perch on my shoulder and begin to whisper in my ear. What clichés or bad habits would you tell aspiring writers to avoid? Do you still experience them yourself? I love the beautiful distractions of the world – television and movies, video games, the internet in general.  But I try really hard to avoid them, because they don’t help me become a better writer.  They subtract hours from my day.  And a writer’s main currency is time.  Time to daydream, time to walk and think, time to sit and do the work. Reading good books is one distraction that will help you become a better writer.  And writing – that’s the thing – writing is what will really make you a better writer.  Write bad stories until you begin to write so-so stories, which might, if you keep at it, turn to writing good stories.  So put down your phone and keep at it. This is not a new idea, nor one exclusive to writing fiction.  The way to get good at playing the piano is to play the piano.  And play, play, play. I tell myself this every day. What are three or four books that influenced your writing, or had a profound effect on you? Cormac McCarthy’ Border Trilogy (All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain) had an enormous influence on me.  I love his prose, his use of place as character, and his vivid descriptions of character in action, but the most powerful effect of reading those books was that they freed me up to write about what really interested me.  At the most fundamental level, these are cowboy novels.  The fact that they also rank among the best of American literature somehow made genre distinctions irrelevant. Elmore Leonard had a profound influence on me as well.  There are a few of his books I really love – Freaky Deaky, Stick, Glitz, Bandits.  But I love his dialogue, his humor, his small-time hustlers, and the economy of his prose.  He does a lot with a little, over and over. The Writer’s Chapbook is a collection of bits and pieces of writers’ interviews culled from The Paris Review – a long list of great writers.  The book is organized by topic, so no matter what problem I’m having, I can find far better writers who’ve had the same problem.  It makes me feel better.   In addition to dipping in and out, I’ve also read it cover to cover about ten times in the last ten years.  I found it used in a clunky old cloth-covered hardback that makes me smile just to hold it in my hand. Ask me this question next week and I’d probably give you a different list. Learn more about the book below:

Writing Tips from Emily Ruskovich, author of Idaho

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? Marilynne Robinson once told a class that I was in that “all character is just a sense of character.” This feels very true to my experience writing fiction. I don’t actively create my characters; instead, I get a feeling about them, and so I try to chase down this feeling and trap it in a scene in order to spend time with it, and hope that the feeling metamorphosizes into something I can see and understand. I don’t build a character by thinking deliberately about the facts of that person, like what they want, what they look like, what they’re interested in. Those details come later. I know that creating a character profile is a method that works very well for a lot of authors, but when I try to get to know a character, it’s like I’m trying to get to know a shadow cast by someone I can’t see, and maybe never will see, even when the story is finished. And the only way it works for me—the only way—is by building a scene around that shadow, that mere “sense.” But even when a story or novel is finished, I don’t actually ever see my character’s faces. When I think of them, the feeling I get from them is distinct and very, very real, but I don’t picture their facial structures, their hands, their clothes. Though those things are important, they are somewhat meaningless to me as I write; they feel like the only things that I straight-out “create.” In fact, sometimes I forget basic facts and have to go back and check eye color to make sure it’s consistent, or even check the age of my character. Those kinds of facts feel very separate of who the character actually is. There are certain aspects of them I can see. Their stances are often very distinct to me. So are the way their shoes look. The way their voices sound, and the way they speak. And sometimes hair color is clear to me, too, but not always. It’s like when I try to visualize them, they are turning their faces away. They are always in motion. I realized recently that this is how I read, too. When I am invested in a novel, I don’t actually “picture” the people in my head, even if their faces are intricately described. I just feel them. There isn’t really something I can compare this experience to, because there is no experience to me that is anything like reading except for writing. And maybe having a dream, when you have such a strong sense in the morning of what occurred, and it really affects you, but you can’t remember details. The faces are blurred. I don’t know if this is useful or not. I guess what this boils down to is: When you are trying to get to know a character, maybe try not to see them so exactly. Trust your instincts, however fleeting and confusing they may be, and just try to build a scene around a feeling, or rather, let that feeling build the scene for you. It’s the only way my characters ever feel real and honest. I hope this isn’t too ethereal to be useful advice. Of course, there are many ways to get to know your characters, and I think other writers have a much more straightforward time getting to know them. I find it very difficult transcribing feelings into people. I think it’s really hard. Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking? I like to write with animals around. My rabbit has an enormous pen which we built right in front of my window, so I am always looking inside of his pen, watching him and his squirrel visitors. In the morning, before I start writing, I go down to the river and call to my pet ducks. Usually, they fly right to me and have a treat from my hand. I hatched them in an incubator, so they are very tame, even though they have chosen to live in the wild now. When they were little, they would sleep on my lap, or else on my feet, as I worked on my computer. When they decided to fly to the river, I adopted kittens, in part so that I have something to summon onto my lap while I write. Even just having a bird-feeder out my window is very helpful to me. Often, I start by reading beautiful passages by authors I admire. My husband’s office is just on the other side of mine, and often we start out our day by reading to each other what we’d written the day before, to get us going, to get our confidence up. It really helps to have someone pursuing the same things that I am. We help each other a great deal. He always has a cat on his lap, too. Did you always want to write? How did you start your career as an author? Yes, I have wanted to write since I was very young. Before I could write, I would often dictate stories or poems to my mom and dad, and they would write them down for me. I remember it seemed like the most magical thing to me, that the things I said could be saved forever simply by my parents making marks on a piece of paper. I was very lucky that I grew up in a house where writing was a natural part of life. My dad is a very prolific writer. Even with all he had to do when I was growing up—teaching, farming, gardening, taking care of children, chopping wood, building barns, managing money trouble—he still found time almost every single day to write, even if he was exhausted. And so it was a very natural part of my existence. I understood writing as a thing that people simply did, a crucial part of daily life. A few years ago, my dad gave me  suitcase full of poems. Fifty pounds of poems! I know it’s exactly fifty pounds, because we didn’t want to pay an extra fee at the airport when I was flying these poems from Idaho to Colorado, so we weighed it very carefully and had to remove quite a few to get the weight down. Hauling the suitcase from state to state, whenever I move, makes me feel very sentimental, like I have been given the gift of actually holding the weight of his imagination. Most of the poems are handwritten. Many of them are sonnets. Many of them are very beautiful. Those fifty pounds of poems are my favorite possession. I always wanted to follow in his footsteps, and so I wrote all the time, too. He taught me from a very early age. So I feel like my career never had a starting point. It was always what I was going to do, because it was always what he did. What clichés or bad habits would you tell aspiring writers to avoid? I do have a list of cliche’s that I give to my intro-level creative writing students. It’s called “The List.” As a class, we build on it throughout the semester. It’s very long, and I hope students find it funny as well as useful. It was made in good humor. It contains all the themes or situations that I have encountered many times in student writing. Some of the items on the list include: “No coffee shops; no waking up to begin a day; no college or high school parties; no awkward Thanksgivings; no storms that knock out electricity; no hospital beds; no hitmen; no kids kicking cans; no amnesia; no FBI agents; no CEO executives who suddenly quit their jobs and become free-spirits living on the streets playing music; no serial killers; no unwanted pregnancies if the central conflict is whether or not to keep the baby; no camping or hiking stories if the central conflict is getting lost or attacked by a wild animal; no stories whose energy comes entirely from a bitter or sarcastic voice; no grinning. A grin is so much less complicated than a smile.” The list goes on and on. None of these things are absolute, of course. All of them have been written about very, very well. But it is a challenge I like to pose in my writing classes. I think students enjoy it. I hope so. Of course, I break these rules myself sometimes. One of the rules is, “No stories from an animal’s perspective.” And I definitely broke that rule in my novel. Also, my novel has storms knocking out electricity all over the place. And it also contains a hospital bed. Do you ever base characters off people you know? Why or why not? Yes and no. My characters are all their own selves, distinct from anyone I’ve met. But I do find that I give my characters many qualities of the people that I love. In my novel, the main characters resemble my family members. Not in their actions, or in their stories, just the sense I get of them. The best parts of my character Wade remind me of my dad. There is a moment in the first chapter when Wade knocks his knuckle on the piano as if to test the quality of its wood, and that moment is my dad exactly. Of course, they are very, very different, too. Similarly, I see my mom in both of my central female characters, Jenny and Ann. This may be a strange thing to say, considering I see my mom as the gentlest person on Earth, and yet I have given some of her kindest qualities to Jenny, who has committed an act of horrifying violence. But lending Jenny some aspects of my mom was a way of empathizing with Jenny, a way of complicating her, a way of loving her in spite of what she’d done, which I felt was very important. And I do love Jenny. I needed to, in order to continue this quite painful story. May, too, was inspired by my sister Mary. This is the closest that I came to writing about someone so directly, though it wasn’t at all my intention. Mary came alive in May so quickly. I have hardly changed a word of the May chapters since their very first draft, because those chapters were almost written for me, by Mary’s childhood voice. I have a photograph of my sister when she is young taking a “swim” in a garbage can filled with water that has been warming in the sun. When I look at that picture, I see both Mary and May, equally. It made writing May’s perspectives both very natural and very painful. I feel May’s loss even more deeply because of her resemblance to my sister. Some parts of the novel, in fact, are painful for me to return to because of that. June, also, reminds me a lot of what I was like when I was young. What are three or four books that influenced your writing, or had a profound affect on you? The Progress of Love by Alice Munro, and all of her other books, too. Beloved by Toni Morrison. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. Lila by Marilynne Robinson. And Watership Down by Richard Adams. Learn more about the book below:

Read John Carter Cash’s foreword to his father’s Forever Words

Johnny Cash’s son reflects on his father, his legacy, and his poetry.  FOREWORD: REDEMPTIONS My father had many faces. There was much that made up the man. If you think you “know” John R Cash, think again. There are many layers, so much beneath the surface. First, I knew him to be fun. Within the first six years of my life, if asked what Dad was to me I would have emphatically responded: “Dad is fun!” This was my simple foundation for my enduring relationship with my father. This is the man he was. He never lost this. To those who knew him well—family, friends, coworkers alike—the one essential thing that was blazingly evident was the light and laughter within my father’s heart. Typically, though his common image may be otherwise, he was not heavy and dark, but loving and full of color. Yet there was so much more . . . For one thing—he was brilliant. He was a scholar, learned in ancient texts, including those of Flavius Josephus and unquestionably of the Bible. He was an ordained minister and could easily hold his own with any theologian or historian. His books on ancient history, such as Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, were annotated, read, reread and worn, his very soul deeply ingrained into their threadbare pages. I still have some of these books. When I hold them, when I touch the pages, I can sense my father in some ways even more profoundly than in his music. My father was an entertainer. This is, of course, one of the most marked and enduring manifestations. There are thousands upon thousands of new Johnny Cash fans every year, inspired by the music, talent, and—I believe hugely—by the mystery of the man. My dad was a poet. He saw the world through unique glasses, with simplicity, spirituality, and humor. He loved a good story and was quick to find comedy, even in bleak circumstances. This is evident in one of the last songs he wrote within his lifetime, “Like the 309”:

It should be a while before I see Dr. Death So it would sure be nice if I could get my breath Well, I’m not the crying nor the whining kind Till I hear the whistle of the 309 Of the 309, of the 309 Put me in my box on the 309. Take me to the depot, put me to bed Blow an electric fan on my gnarly old head Everybody take a look, see I’m doing fine Then load my box on the 309 On the 309, on the 309 Put me in my box on the 309.

Dad was asthmatic and had great difficulty breathing during the last months of his life. On top of all this, he suffered with recurring bouts of pneumonia. Still, through the gift of laughter, he found the strength to face these infirmities. This recording is steeped in irony, although made mere days before his passing. His voice is weak, yet the mirth in his soul rings true. Dad was many things, yes. He was tortured throughout his life by sadness and addiction. His tragic youth was marked by the loss of his best friend and brother Jack, who died as the result of a horrible accident when John R was only twelve. Jack was a deeply spiritual young man, kind and protective of his two-year-younger brother. Perhaps it was this sadness and mourning that partly defined my father’s poetry and songs throughout his life. He was likewise defined at the end of his life by the loss of my mother, June Carter. When she passed, their love was more beautiful than ever before: unconditional and kind. Still, it could not be said that any of this—darkness, love, sadness, music, joy, addiction—wholly defined the man. He was all of these things and none of them. Complicated, but what could be said that speaks the essential truth? What prevails? The music, of course . . . but likewise . . . the words. All that made up my father is to be found in this book, within these “forever words.” When my parents died, they left behind a monstrous amassment of “stuff.” They just didn’t throw anything away. Each and every thing was a treasure, but none more than my father’s handwritten letters, poems, and documents, ranging through the entirety of his life. There was a huge amount of paper—his studies of the book of Job, his handwritten autobiography Man in Black, his letters to my mother, and likewise to his first wife, Vivian, from the 1950s. Dad was a writer, and he never ceased. His writings ranged through every stage of his life: from the poems of a naive yet undeniably brilliant sixteen-year-old to later comprehensive studies on the life of the Apostle Paul. The more I have looked, the more I have understood of the man. When I hold these papers, I feel his presence within the handwriting; it brings him back to me. I remember how he held his pen, how his hand shook a bit, but how careful and proud he was of his penmanship—and how determined and courageous he was. Some of these pages are stained with coffee, perhaps the ink smudged. When I read these pages, I feel the love he carried in those hands. I once again feel the closeness of my father, how he cared so deeply for the creative endeavor; how he cared for his loved ones. There are some of these I feel he would have wanted to be shared, some whose genius and brilliance simply demanded to be heard. I hope and believe the ones chosen within these pages are those he would want read by the world. Finally, it is not only the strength of his poetic voice that speaks to me, it is his very life enduring and coming anew with these writings. It is in these words my father sings a new song, in ways he has never done before. Now, all these years past, the words tell a full tale; with their release, he is with us again, speaking to our hearts, making us laugh, and making us cry. The music will endure, this is true. The music will endure, this is true. But also, the words. It is ultimately evident within these words that the sins and sadnesses have failed, that goodness commands and triumphs. To me, this book is a redemption, a cherished healing. Forever. John Carter Cash 35,000 feet above western Arkansas, flying east . . .

Writing Tips from Fiona Davis, author of The Dollhouse

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. Learn more about the book below:

Writing Tips from Jillian Cantor, author of The Hours Count

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 absolute first thing I do is decide my main characters’ names. I feel like I need to know someone’s name before I can start to know him or her. My favorite place to figure out first names is the Social Security popular baby names website, where you can view name popularity by birth year (back to 1879) to see what common and (uncommon) names were in the year your character was born. After I decide names, I’ll start to make notes of other things, like birthdays/age or relationships to other characters, quirks, where a character lives, or things he/she likes or dislikes. But I start drafting pretty soon into this process. I mostly learn and get to really know my characters as I’m writing the first draft, thinking about what they do and how they react and speak when I put them in different situations. So I think the best way I get to know my characters is to write them. By the time I get to the end of the first draft, they’re often different than what I started with (and I know them much better). But then I go back and revise. After developing an idea, what is the first action you take when beginning to write? The first line of novel is really important. It sets the tone for the entire book. I want it to show what the book is ultimately about, but also to be interesting and hook the reader. When I first start thinking about and developing an idea I always start thinking about first lines. I jot down ideas, often for weeks or months. But, I don’t wait for the perfect first line before I start drafting a book. I begin with the first one that comes to me and then I keep writing from there to get my first draft going. So just the act of getting words and ideas down on the page is the most important action I take in order to actually start writing. I set a goal for myself – usually 3-5 pages a day – and I make myself sit down and write something, make some progress in the draft, even if it’s ultimately terrible and will all be changed in revision. Most of the time the first line that appears in the final draft of the book is not at all what I started with. I keep thinking on that first line, even as I keep writing the first draft. Usually I don’t understand enough about the story myself until I finish or get most of the way through a first draft. So I start writing at the beginning, but 9 times out of 10 that beginning changes by the time I make it to the end! Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking? I always write at home, and I need quiet to write. I negotiate my writing schedule around my kids’ schedules so I usually write while my kids are at school during weekdays, or very early in the mornings on the weekends or during the summer when my kids are home – really, whenever I can find uninterrupted quiet each day. I have an office in my house where I can shut the door, and I do write there, but when no one else is home I also write at my kitchen table. I like to drink coffee while I write, and that always helps to get me thinking. Or when I get stuck, I’ll exercise. Taking a long walk, run, or hike, often helps me work through a plot a point I was stuck on or figure out a problem in my story. What’s the best piece of advice you have received? The best advice, and I got this from a writing professor in grad school, is simply, “butt in chair.” As in, just sit down and force yourself to write something, no matter what it is or how terrible you think it is. The hardest part is making yourself sit down to do it. So I don’t let myself make excuses – I put my butt in the chair every morning and write something. What are three or four books that influenced your writing, or had a profound effect on you? I read Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott in the first fiction writing class I took, and I still have a copy on the shelf in my office. I love what she writes about first drafts and I feel like it’s still important to give myself permission to write something terrible the first time around as long as I write something. I’m a big believer in the importance of revision! Black and Blue by Anna Quindlen is one of my favorite novels, and the first I read by her. I come back to it, and her novels, again and again, because I feel like I learn so much about sympathetic character development from her. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, which I first read in college, always makes me think about writing characters in a world different from our own today (which is applicable for writing historical fiction as well) and the fact that characters still need to first be inherently human and relatable, no matter how different their world is from the one we know.

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Listen: Catherine Banner talks small-town Italy, forgotten folk stories, and inspiration drawn from economic crisis

Catherine Banner joins Amy to talk about her new novel, The House at the Edge of Night.  They cover character development, researching different time periods, and the culture of small towns. Learn about the book here: