How Many Firsts?

My Many Firsts,


How Many Firsts Does It Take to Write a Novel?

(Answer: Many)

This essay first appeared on The Quivering Pen, edited by David Abrams

The first creative writing class I attended was in college.  Susan Neville at Butler University was the professor, and I was scared mute.  She was already a well-known fiction writer—that was enough to intimidate me!—and I was sure that I was a poet.  Dialogue?  Forget it!  I was all about image and compression.  (I was taking a course in Modernism, too, and that didn’t help.)

Our first assignment was to write a scene, and I thought I could handle that.  A couple of pages, if I remember rightly, of description.  Well, description . . . that was right my strength.  Or so I thought.  I think I described a dilapidated house, but it was so overwritten and so sappy with personification that I was mortified when I got it back.  Tender-ego me.  I asked if I could write poetry, and Susan, being the terrific person that she is, said yes.

I did still try now and then to write prose, but my stories always sounded forced, unnatural.  And dialogue continued to haunt me.  All that talk.  Who needed it?

Apparently, at some point in my writing life, I did.  I graduated and went on to become a teacher myself.  I also continued to write poems.  And after three published books, something happened. The first turn occurred during a research trip to Aberystwyth, Wales, where the National Library had several old recipe manuscripts.  I was teaching eighteenth century literature and wanted to investigate what women actually wrote about.  They wrote recipes, to be sure.  But they also wrote about their lives:  their children, their friends, their love affairs and marriages, their favorite songs and books, and even their gambling debts.  My understanding of the eighteenth century increased . . . but I started to hear their voices in my head.  Talking to me.  To each other.  To people I didn’t know.

At seven books of poetry, I turned to prose.  I had a character knocking at my imagination—a young nun at the start of the Reformation in England, who is about to be evicted from her convent.  She’s intelligent, and she’s educated, and she doesn’t know what’s going to happen to her.  She also doesn’t know who her parents are.

That nun called herself Catherine Havens, and she is the main character in my first novel, The Altarpiece.  Apparently her story wasn’t done, though, because Books Two and Three of her series, The Cross and the Crown, are coming out in October 2014 and August 2015.  She’s not done talking yet, and I guess I’m not either!