Monday, September 20, 2010

How my books develop (lately)

Step One: The Twinkle
You know, not really a solid idea yet...just the hint of one. In the case of my current book it was this: Huh. I'd love to write a novel that deals with violin making. How many other writers get to watch something this amazing every day? (For those of you who don't know, my husband Mark is a professional violin maker.) And Stradivari did have three daughters...I wonder what their lives would have been like there...

One of Mark's recent violins
Step Two: The Research
This step is often repeated, but for me, an idea will never become more than that if I don't pin down some facts first. For the first time, I plundered my husband's “Stradivari shelf” and read hundreds of pages about the man's life, family, town, and instruments. I found travel books and sites on Cremona, Italy, that helped flesh out my view and understanding of the setting. And I had one really good sign: the further I delved, the more excited I became.


Step Three: The Character
When the idea stops being an idea and becomes a person, that's when I know for sure I have a book up my sleeves. I became obsessed with Antonio Stradivari's youngest daughter, Francesca, with her family life, her world, her personality. I continued Step Two (Research) and found books on the history of Italian food, so I would know what she ate, and European dress, so I would know what she wore. 
I thought and thought about what she was like, then ironed out some wrinkles and created some interesting pleats and ruffles by deciding on a Myers-Briggs personality for ease and consistency. (If you're familiar with the code, Francesca is an INFJ, and her father is an ISFP.) I wrote journal entries in my character's POV, about the best and worst moments of her life, her daydreams, her life dreams, her hopes and fears. I made sure I knew exactly what she looked like, even if it would only be that clear in my head and in my notebook. (I once had an embarrassing situation where my hero went from having brown eyes to blue eyes by the end of a book and I didn't notice until my critique group got their hands on it...)

Edgar Bundy's portrayal of "El Stradmeister." Who IS that girl?

Step Four: The Title.
I know, this is so miniscule. But I need a title to feel that a story is growing into something concrete. And boy, do I hate coming up with titles. Sometimes, I go through several, but there always has to be one by this point. Francesca's story is called AMBER AND FLAME.

Step Five: Remember Why You're Writing
This is a step new to this story, which has already helped incredibly. I wrote a list of all the twinkles and glimmers and ideas that made me want to write the story in the first place. I jotted down ideas for scenes that had been coming to life in my head. It's so easy to get caught up in the writing that you forget these things...but it always ends up coming back to them. I hope by having this road map of sorts that I can avoid losing my way.

Step Six: Try It.
I write a first chapter. That always seems to end up as an abandoned file titled, “Deleted stuff.” But I get an idea for the voice and style I'm after, without which I would never be able to proceed to...

Step Seven: The Skeleton

Yes, I'm a neurotic outliner. I'm always amazed to hear of people like Louis Sachar who can just write and have a story come (though he did go through an awful lot of complete drafts...), but I will never be among them. I don't outline every moment and feeling, but I do need a general idea of scenes and conflicts and arch or I will just give up in despair. In this story, I started with a one-sentence description and moved onto an outline of little sticky notes in my notebook, one for each general scene. As my sister said, “Whoa, somebody has a thing for sticky notes.”
Step Eight: Find a Good Source of Chocolate, Set Your Alarm for an Indecent Hour of the Morning, and Get Down to It.

This is where I am now. Why I have been very bad at blogging, but not too bad at writing. I have been meeting my page-a-day goal, which for me is quite a lot.
Someday I will add: “Step Nine: Hire a Wonderful Babysitter for an hour a day” to this list. But I might need an advance first.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Filling in my literary gaps

I'm sure you can't help but notice that tremendously long list over to the right. (Come back next week when you're done reading it!) I was recently asked what authors influenced me...and discovered that was quite a difficult question, the answer to which could likely fill a book. So one side of my blog isn't too bad when you think about it! (The sad thing is, as I type I'm thinking of authors I forgot...)
Influenced by that question and other factors, I have realized that while I may be fairly well-read for the average housewife, I have gaping, gaping holes in the literary fabric of my background.
Confession #1: I have never read the Little House books.
Confession #2: I have never fulfilled my seventh grade promise to myself to read every Newbery winner.
Confession #3: I have lots of author-gaps, too. For example, I loved The Westing Game, but never read any other of the author's books. Same with The Scarlet Pimpernel, and so many others.
So...I intend to right past wrongs.
Beginning with Little House. :) I've begun reading Little House in the Big Woods to my daughter, and have been so struck by Laura Ingalls Wilder's command of the English language, her solid grasp on what interests children, and her plain intuition for what words to use to convey that. (Another confession: at least in this book, I have yet to figure out what the plot is. Or conflict really, other than: don't die out in those big woods. But it is quite the writer who can keep me reading despite that.)
On my own shelf is The Witch of Blackbird Pond, a start at filling in those Newberys. It is really beyond pathetic that I have not read it, because 1) It's historical fiction, my genre of choice; 2) It is set in Connecticut, where I live, and written by a CT author; and 3) I can't tell you how many people have recommended it to me, and I still never managed to start it until now.
I always love  a new reading challenge, so this one to myself to fill those gaps has me quite excited. Do you have any recommendations? What books should I absolutely read to make my life complete? ;)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A Book's Gestation

Forgive the "Mom-talk," but I suppose I can't help but see parallels to writing in things I experience...
Last week my baby turned one...and I was amazed to realize what an independent person she is now. How she is not much like I imagined she would be when I first found out I was expecting--she is so much better. I had a flash of remembrance to the weeks of morning sickness, to the constant shoving of (healthful) food into my mouth so I would gain weight, to the intensity of delivery. And as real/difficult/intense as those things were at the time, they pale in comparison to the present reality of my beautiful little girl who can always make me smile--and who can reach out beyond me to make others smile, too.
Now, I would never say that a book can compare to a person. Really. I mean, we writers like to think of them that way, but every so often we do need to step back and realize that fiction's fiction. However, I think it is also our obligation to make that fiction as meaningful, as life-touching, and as true as possible.
So just remember, during the sick mornings of outlining and developing; during the weeks and months where it seems as if all your time is going into feeding something which seems so tiny; during the hours of distraction when you can't think about anything else; during the pain of bringing that idea into the world....it is so worth it. Someday the world may forget you were behind it, or think it was easy for you...and that won't even matter.
I'll probably be writing some more about how my stories develop (in a rather more concrete way) later this week... In the meantime, I'm back to writing. I'm still at the morning sickness stage of this book, and as every wise mother knows, the best way to get through that is to be vigilant. :)