When someone asks why write? My answer — writing is like making love. When they ask how to write? Same answer. For each writer the act of writing is as individual as his/her own personality.
I write because I have to. I have to because I want to. I want to because I love it. When I was a journalist for the Hollywood Reporter magazine and Capital Style, I wrote my pieces in a smart-sassy magazine journalists voice. In my head, I was a cross between Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday and Dorothy Parker. But when I started to write my first novel — historical fiction set in Paris in the time of the Impressionists, I discovered I had to develop a new way of writing, a new voice. This voice was more lyrical, even poetic. I did read poetry to develop a capacity for metaphor. I read or re-visited classic novels written decades, even centuries ago to understand why they endure.
I feel presumptuous giving advice to writers on how to write. There are far better sources for that: E.M. Foresters Aspects of the Novel is a classic and as useful today as when it was written in 1927. There are dozens of excellent how-to books for writers that outline the craft. Creating Unforgettable Characters by Linda Seger is helpful. Is writing a craft or an art? Its both. To learn the mechanics of the craft, consult those manuals. To learn the art, consult your heart. I would like to share my experience writing my first novel and hope it resonates with other writers.
Inspiration. I believe the inspiration, the idea, for a book comes from the Universe. In my experience, my novel came to me as I was studying for an exam on the Impressionists for my class at Christies Education graduate program. For me, reading that art history textbook was as fascinating as reading a novel. Were there any novels about these people I wondered? In the year 2000, I didnt know of any. I had seen clips of a film about Vincent Van Gogh starring Kirk Douglas. And of course, the musical Gigi loosely based on a story by Colette. But these were both Hollywoodized and set after the truly important years of 1860-1870.
Characters. My novel began with the characters. I knew it was important for my main characters to change as they experienced their lives. I wanted the heroine, in particular, to become a changed person at the end of the story from who she was in the beginning because that is true to real life. I wrote concise back-stories on index cards for each character so I would know where/when they were born, their parentage, their childhoods — all the factors that shaped them to become who they were in the novel. I didnt use the back-story in the narrative, but the footprint was there between the lines.
Place and time. The more hours I spent at the library researching the history, the art, the politics, the changes in technology and social relations, the more at home I felt in that setting and knew I could transport others there with me. The number of reference books I read is prodigious. But Im a nerd and love that aspect of writing. I worked as a library assistant in college and still feel in a safety cocoon in the musty stacks of a library.
Plot. Plot unfolds as life does — as a consequence of characters choices, actions and reactions. In my case, plot was also guided by history because historical fiction must be accurate at all costs on the history side. The fiction side can be pure fun. Writers are all a bit mad, I think, and I am no exception. I remember waking up in the middle of the night, hearing in my head the perfect dialogue between two of my characters for a scene. Of course, I got up and scribbled down some notes before falling back asleep.
Music true to the time period was helpful for me at some points in the narrative process. I deduced that listening to the music that my characters would have listened to in 1867 would help put me in their world. It was transgressive and I credit the verisimilitude of some emotional passages in the book to those waltzes of Strauss and Offenbach.
Polishing. Finally, the most enjoyable part of writing for me is rewriting. It feels like putting the final touches on a painting, adding highlights and correcting mistakes. I remember spending three hours changing the wording on just one paragraph. But what a paragraph it turned out to be!
Writers Block. For me, it doesnt exist. If you have something to say, then write. If you dont, go do something else. Come back when you do. Then you can write a heartbreakingly beautiful novel and experience the joy of those two little words . . .
© 2007 Debra Finerman