I wrote this as a pep talk for 2014 NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) West Kootenay participants. We had just experienced a massive dump of snow when I sat down at the keyboard to offer editing advice to a group of brave scribes who had attempted to write 50,000 words during the month of November, and were now working on first edit.
First Draft is the vague piling of snow on snow as you try to create some sort of humanoid form from a bunch of ice crystals that may or may not want to stick together. While you’re doing it your hands go numb and your feet turn to blocks of ice. Inside, there’s something hot, possibly alcoholic, waiting for you and while you know this to be your reward its call becomes increasingly urgent until you begin to forget the point of this thing you are doing. What was it you were making again? And why did you think it was important?
Revision, on the other hand, happens when the snow-thing has form and shape and some semblance of continuity and suddenly its potential to go from thing-hood to full-fledged creature-hood is clear as the suddenly-thawing nose on your face. All at once blood rushes to your extremities and in a tingling you know: a little sculpting here, perhaps some coal-like embellishments there, and you’ve got way more than a metaphor for creative process: you have a recognizable work of potential merit. With legs.
As someone with a chronic fear of First Draft, I know well the thrill of revision that comes when you read a sentence or a paragraph that’s damn good and you say to yourself: I wrote that. Which is what makes the next sentence—a little off-kilter, a little un-moulded—easier to shape. Apply that to a scene that works (say it out loud with me: “Wow, I wrote that”) and let the strength and success of it carry you into the scene that’s still a little wobbly.
Think of every revision as reinforcement: you’re packing snow into the weak spots, shaping, smoothing. Celebrate the fact that you’re already through the hardest part, which was when you were piling up the parts that might someday be your creature while freezing your fanny in the cold wind of first-draft terror. Now you’ve triumphed. You’ve earned your warm and possibly alcoholic drink, thawed your various body parts and you’re back at it with gusto (and possibly a carrot) towards a sort of Frosticus Literatus that will one day run on its own two feet yelling “catch me if you can!”
And as you move forward in the knowledge that you beat the odds of indoor alcoholic stupor in favour of creative victory in this cold and frosty world called being a WRITER, you can take solace in the knowledge that there is no metaphor you could have possibly constructed worse than this one.
When I step onto the metaphorical page, my characters step with me. They are people I know in the way I know someone I’ve had a nodding acquaintance with for years, and who live with me in the same small town. I know some, but not all of their business, some of it only by hearsay. I know a little of their history; we may or may not have friends in common. And then one day we’re in the lineup together at the coffee shop; a conversation ensues, and I realize I didn’t know this person at all. From there, anything’s possible.
None of my characters are modelled on anyone entirely–acquaintance or old friend—but an amalgam of many, making the character on the page even less predictable than that coffee lineup acquaintance. To me, it’s the perfect situation, because I know just enough to get the character on the page but not too much that it colours the developing relationship. I love taking the little I know about a character and plunking him or her in a moment in history or an odd situation. I love taking voice and altering it to fit an era or circumstance.
While I never do character studies, in the back of my mind I am always considering the character’s sensory response to experiences, reactions, quirks of dialogue. It’s an intuitive thing rather than a calculated thing, and I love the uncertainty and the malleability of this approach.
Occasionally, this non-method fails me. When it does, I’m usually writing in a third person point of view, and then my methodology is simple: I write a couple of pages in first person, the voice comes, and the character is revealed. After that, it’s usually clear sailing.
Only once has a character walked into a scene unbidden: in Sounding Line I had my protagonist sitting in a club car on a train heading for Halifax, and a woman walked in—eccentric, a little flaky, strangely self-assured—who took me completely by surprise and then went on to become a major player in the narrative. I can’t explain it, and I’m way too practical to speak about muses or channeling, too sure of my sanity to suspect hallucinations. I’m just hugely grateful, and secretly hopeful it will happen again.
My favourite kind of book to write is a book in which there are lots of voices. Flying with Ameila was fun to write because of the scope of time—150 years—and the variety of voices, from age 11 through 95, and from myriad cultures and backgrounds. In the midst of writing that book I would close my eyes at night and let whoever had been closest to my keyboard that day whisper me to sleep.
This essay originally appeared in Open Book Ontario
In our episodic day-to-day lives we don’t get to see how the convergence of outside events influences our unfolding stories. We might have a pretty good idea where things are headed, but like a novel, we don’t get to know how it all turns out until the end.
I guess that’s why I love to write stories that allow me to look at things through an omniscient lens. I get to see how historical events—things beyond individual control—might shape lives in ways that can’t possibly be known at the time. It gives me an edge on empathy, because I can see where things are headed.
My characters aren’t the movers and shakers of history but instead those carried along its current. The trick for me, when writing these stories, is to let the narrative unfold as it might in life, so the reader is surprised by turns of events as they affect the characters just as we are, when we can’t see what’s coming around the corner.
And sometimes, as the writer, I’m surprised too. Because I do know what happened in history: I know that the stock market crashed in October 1929, I know what happened to Pierre Laporte during the FLQ crisis of 1970, and I remember how people prepared for the perceived threat of Y2K (and what didn’t happen in that case). But I don’t always know how my characters will behave, or what twists and turns their stories may take, and that’s where the magic comes in for me.
Writing Flying with Amelia involved a lot of research—the things I came to know—and a great deal of trust. I loved immersing myself in details of German PoW camps in Canada or learning about the climate and culture of Herschel Island. Research takes me places in time, space, and geography far beyond the writing studio, until I emerge, blinking, hours later with the fire out in the woodstove. Trust takes me into situations in the narrative where I have to believe in the characters I’ve created and have faith that they know best. It’s an alchemy that seems to work for me, and I admit I’ve become a little addicted to it all.
If I can pull it off, then my characters will be just the sorts of people who, at the end of the story, would love to go back—knowing what they know now.
This essay originally appeared as a Chapters/Indigo author blog
It would be lovely to say I dream them, or they come from some sort of divine inspiration. The truth is (and I try to be truthful, even in the midst of writing fiction which is, after all, lies) the seed for Wind Tails (Far from Home in the U.S.) first germinated in a bar.
It was my birthday, and a full moon, and several friends and I had been out cross-country night skiing in the mountains where I live. Our favorite bar has a fireplace and a cozy atmosphere, and it was just the thing to warm toes, never mind imaginations. I’m not sure how the conversation came around to hitchhiking tales, but somehow it did, and everyone had one.
Stephanie talked about the hitchhiker she loaned money to one New Year’s Eve in Germany, with a plan to meet on the same night, a year later, in an Irish pub. She showed up, he didn’t, but the nice thing about fiction is you can make a story end any way you want. Perhaps it was the mention of an Irish pub, or perhaps it was just another hitchhiker story in a night of tales of the road, but it was Ross’s story that came next, and to which I really owe everything. Ross had been sitting in a pub with a mug of Guinness in hand when a traveler collapsed onto the bar stool beside him. His only rule of the road, this fellow told my friend, was to hitchhike in the direction of the wind. He was relieved to be sitting there at last, he said. Because the wind kept changing, he’d been circling Dublin for three days.
What a notion, to let the wind take you! What freedom! Unless you find yourself going in circles, and we’ve all been there in life. And of course, sooner or later decisions must be made, because, as the Vietnam vet Buddy tells Pink, freedom isn’t ever really free. Ultimately, we all have to face those things that bind us to the earth: our loved ones, our pasts, the choices we make.
Most of the stories told that night, as well as the stories related to me subsequently—like Helen’s story about the person who collected both hitchhikers and their postcards—found their way into the manuscript. I’m quite the story vulture, and I keep a notebook of anecdotes people relate to me, after first asking: “can I have that?” They almost always say yes. Evelyn’s weakness for stealing flowers, Eunice’s story, the distribution of fancy desserts to street people, and the story of Melissa when she opened the windows to let out the spirits of the dead, were all collected this way.
Fiction is really truth with lies, because anything we make up has to, by necessity, come from somewhere. So while no characters in Far from Home, or their stories, are based on real people or events, all of them pull something from personal encounter or experience. You don’t need to be an expert in something to write about it, either: if you’re a living, breathing human being with empathy, it’s not hard to put yourself in the shoes of a water witcher, a business tycoon on the lam, or an octogenarian with an attitude. It was great fun to research things I knew nothing about, sitting at some coffee shop while the local dowser opened up, or a truck driver waxed on.
There is plenty of my childhood in anything I write, all of it a mixture of truth with fabrication so that it’s impossible to know what is, and what isn’t—sometimes even for me, once the novel gets into my bones. Memories take on a different glow when you hand them to a character and let them run with it. Embellishments happen. Endings change.
That said, my siblings take pleasure in picking out the familyisms—things from our childhood that we all remember—that make their way into my novels. Perhaps it’s a turn of phrase, or the long-dead family dog resurrected. Chocolate marshmallow cookies like the ones Howie loved will always be derflops in our family, thanks to a kid in an Oregon campground around 1952 who was sent by his mother over to my parents’ campsite with a welcome gift of cookies. He probably said “deer-flops,” because in truth they look a little like that; my mother heard “derflops,” and so derflops they became.
I really did have an imaginary friend named Linda, and a real friend who died at six years old, and left me her Easy Bake Oven. When I do write about real things, it’s important to me that these memories are treated with reverence, and of course, humanity. Because we’ve all lost people we love, I know that a point of connection will be there for the reader, and in that way memory becomes story becomes the touch of one heart to another.
Points of connection, points of departure, finding direction: these are the stuff of human experience, yearnings that find their way easily into almost any story. And so I often think I’m writing some sort of revelation, only to find it’s a root of a universal theme: love, loss, joy, sadness, challenge, triumph.
And therein lies the metaphor: in the root of a theme or the seed of an idea, and from these miracles grow the story, a mountaintop pine that moves and dances in the wind.
Research can be a seductive thing for a writer. Fact-finding opens endless possibilities for story-spinning, and is never fraught with the paralyzing indecision that sometimes occurs when faced with the all-to-common cliché of the blank page.
Wind Tails was originally to be set in 1977—as it is now. I thought that, by setting the story of a seventeen-year-old girl in the year I was seventeen, I’d avoid a lot of research, because I was there. The truth is, Wind Tails could be set at any time, because its themes of journey and points of departure are pretty timeless. Write what you know, they say, and although I’ve never been a waitress, I was pretty sure I could guess at the emotions of a seventeen-year-old having been one myself, especially when set in my era.
What happened was that, in spite of my plan, I became seduced by the research, and ended up on a journey of my own.
I knew I had a hitchhiker, but I wasn’t entirely sure what he was doing there; neither did he, as it turned out, which was the point. The summer after I began writing Wind Tails, a group of draft dodgers from the Vietnam War decided to hold a reunion of those war-resisters who had settled in Canada. The influx of young, disillusioned Americans into our valleys had changed our rural society forever; I was fascinated. There was also a part of me that felt I’d been born ten years too late, anyway: the social and political activism, never mind the music, set the stage for time less shallow, it seemed to me, than the disco-era seventies and eighties. I became smitten with the idea, and began rewriting the story to be set seven years earlier.
I went to the Our Way Home reunion in the summer of 2006. I interviewed draft-dodgers and Vietnam vets, both at the conference and in my home-town, where I was delighted to discover the colourful backgrounds many of my friends and neighbours. I immersed myself in music: David Crosby’s Chicago; CSNY’s Woodstock. I watched videos about the 1960s and 70s; I leaned about the Chicago Seven, the Weather Underground, the Diggers. And then I set to write the backstory of my draft-dodger, the one who was hitchhiking with the wind.
It’s one thing to write about an event taking place in 1905. Conjecture is expected; few are still around who actually lived at that time, so it safer. Writing about a trapper in a remote corner of B.C. required research, to be sure. I read a great deal, and I talked to former Renata residents who trapped as youngsters; I even saw the bear trap that hung in the cabin of the character on which Gus Sanders was (loosely) based. Even writing about the 1960s, at the end of Treading Water, was not so hard: I do remember the words to Last Train to Clarksville, thanks to my older sister’s collection of 45s, and former Renata residents filled in the rest.
The Vietnam War and its domestic fallout was a heady time, an era of social change, of the rewriting of a worldview through the eyes of the young. Crosby wrote: “we can change the world”, and people believed it. In fact, they did change the world, from the Black Panthers to the Students for a Democratic Society. It’s a seductive era to research.
But the bottom line, after a year of research and first, second, and third drafts, was that I didn’t live it. For me, it was too big to write about. I had talked to so many people, and read so many books, listened to so much music and saw so many films, what emerged on the page was an oversimplified, clichéd distillation of too much research. Somebody in my writing group asked me: “what is the point you’re trying to make?” and to my horror, I could no longer say.
There is the temptation to include all of the facts you have gleaned from your exhaustive research, because they all become equally important. The sacrifice when this happens can be the human element, those feelings that motivate and inform us, and that exist independent of the times. When I worked as a newspaper reporter for a short stint several years ago, I quickly learned when to stop the interview: too much information, and the thrust of the story gets lost. I remember asking Canadian novelist Timothy Taylor, at a Q & A session after a reading, how much research he does for his stories, which seem so wonderfully informed on everything from horseracing to art. “Just enough,” was the answer, “and no more.”
I pulled the book back to 1977 after a full year of immersion in the Vietnam war era. To this day it strikes me as ironic that the book was about direction, and I became so hopelessly lost in the process. I re-read my first outline and came back to the original point of departure. And all that research? Not for this book, but no knowledge is ever without value. I learned from the material, and I learned from the process; it’s all valuable, and all part of the journey.
This is not to say that historical research isn’t essential for people writing historical fiction, or that some research isn’t necessary for pretty much anything outside the writer’s personal experience. Short of memoir, we are all going to find ourselves in unfamiliar territory as writers, and there’s the thrill of the challenge.
I loved interviewing people for Treading Water and for Wind Tails, because primary research is, in my opinion, the very best. In this way, you don’t just find out how the bear-trap works, you find out how it feels in your hands, and what emotions the sight of those malicious teeth might invoke. As a librarian, I am enamoured with book research, and vastly indebted to the inter-library loan system, and could spend many happy days curled up with a cup of tea and a stack of books. And Google is definitely my friend.
But the secret is knowing when to stop; of knowing what, as Timothy Taylor put it, is “just enough.” You don’t want your truck driver picking up a cell phone when it should be a CB, or your waitress making a decaf latte when she should be pouring percolated coffee at least three hours old from an urn the size of a fire hydrant. But you don’t need to know the social history of coffee, or how a CB actually works, either.
You need to know just enough so that your characters can get on with their journey, and your readers can travel with them.