The Writing Process Blog Hop
I’ve been tagged! Many thanks to Laura Rahme, whose blog you can see at http://teranga-and-sun.blogspot.com.au/. Laura’s the author of The Ming Storytellers, a historical novel set in China during the Ming dynasty and belongs to what she calls the “newly coined Ming gothic genre.” She’s currently getting ready for the release of her new novel, The Mascherari, a historical mystery set in fifteenth-century Venice. Fascinating!
And here are the questions about my writing process–
Question One: What am I working on?
I’m wrestling with Book Three of The Cross and the Crown Series. Tentatively titled The Sins of the Mothers, this book follows Catherine Havens (now Catherine Overton) as she navigates the troubled waters of Henry VIII’s post-Catherine-Howard England. The Reformation is not exactly old news, but it’s well-established, and Henry has a healthy male heir: Edward. What could possibly go wrong? For an English woman, particularly a woman who’d been in a convent, things could be very dangerous indeed. And Catherine’s no ordinary woman. She wants to use her mind—and she doesn’t want to ignore the desires of her body!
Question Two: How does my work differ from others of its genre?
The Cross and the Crown series differs from other historical novel series in a few ways. First, I avoid paranormal and fantastic elements altogether. Certainly people in this era themselves believed in such phenomena—ghosts and magical objects and visitations of various divine and demonic sorts. For me, those elements have taken over too much current fiction in general, and too often I find that the spooky stuff is too formulaic and so lacking the seriousness with which my characters (and I, for that matter!) take the non-human world. Second, I keep the famous characters on the margins; the royals appear, to be sure, but they are not the main characters. Nor are their siblings, cousins, distant aunts and uncles . . . you get the idea. My focus is on the everyday folks who make up a culture. Third, my notion of genre is very loose beyond “historical.” My novels contain mystery, romance, political strife, and religion—but I wouldn’t call them mysteries, romances, or political thrillers. They’re focused on character.
Question Three: Why do I write what I do?
I’ve always loved the Renaissance—all that cultural rediscovery, religious questioning, art, and literature! The European world was reborn, and our modern ideas about nationhood—and selfhood—grew out of that new infancy. My scholarly background is in Tudor-Stuart England . . . but my imagination has always been more narrative than argumentative, so I guess it was inevitable that my reading and teaching in Medieval and Renaissance England would eventually inform my creative writing. Once it did, the novel was my natural outlet.
Question Four: How does my writing process work?
The way I write has changed massively since I moved from poetry to fiction. As a poet, I was the most fitful of writers, working in fifteen- or twenty-minute stretches, then getting exhausted (as though I had been lifting stones!) and having to distract myself. Sometimes a word would hit my ear—often in the middle of a class—and I would tear back to my office to work in a fury for ten minutes on a phrase or line.
When I began to write fiction, I became an evening writer. I now teach, grade papers, do departmental work (I am currently the chair of my English Department), and advise students during the day. I have dinner and a glass of wine with my husband, rest a bit, then begin my evening work. I can write sitting in the living room with the TV on right in front of me, if my husband happens to be watching something, but I won’t hear anything but the voices in my head. I write until I’m spent.
When I’m drafting, I do not allow myself to stop until I’ve got 1,500 new words down. Good, bad, or indifferent—I must keep going until I’ve hit that goal. Sometimes those words seem to come quickly and fluidly; sometimes it feels like drawing my own blood. But when I open the laptop, my muse knows I mean business . . . and she knows where she can find me.
Revising is a different story. When I was revising The Altarpiece, the first time, I revised like a poet—word by word, image by image. I lost track of plot and character development, and it took me a long time (and some good lectures by fiction writers) to make myself see the plot and how character reveals itself through action and movement. Once this became visible to me, I rewrote that novel in a white heat, working hours every day as I tore the manuscript apart and reassembled it with a more linear plotline.
Book Two, City of Ladies, felt somewhat easier. I thought, “Now I know what I’m doing,” and I did have a better grasp of plotting a story. I revised that book at a steady clip of ten to twenty pages per night . . . though I revised it several times and then had to go back through a few times to edit and proofread for surface errors.
Book Three has kicked me up and down the block. I suppose I was due for a comeuppance, because I began drafting Sins of the Mothers thinking I would write a more traditional crime story . . . but the plot seemed like a rehash of The Altarpiece. Boring. Then I thought I would work in a controlling metaphor, like war or a Jungian journey, but the language began to weigh down the characters and I felt as though I was dragging them through mud. I couldn’t get to the end of a draft. I stopped at about 80,000 words—four times—and thought, “Now I have no idea what I’m doing.”
So what did I do? I sat and looked at Catherine, sitting there quietly on the draft pages, and asked her, “What do you want? What’s your problem?” (I didn’t ask this very politely!) And eventually, she told me her secret . . . and then I knew to stop trying to take her where I thought she might want to go and let her go where she needed to go. I’m still revising this novel, so I’m sure I’m not done listening yet . . . but I am done thinking that I am in control of my characters!