I’ve had a lovely time recently going to speak to groups about my books, and I especially enjoy groups whose main interest is in writing. There is always a question period, and what I’ve learned lately is that the questions I get actually require a level of self awareness about my process that is quite demanding. I would love to be a glamorous writer, suave, elegantly attired, lounging with a cocktail in one hand and a computer in the other, in complete command of her craft. But the truth is it’s usually just me, dressed in old ratty pyjamas and a deplorable ex-fluffy pink bathrobe, floundering about wondering how I made the whole thing work last time.
In fact…if you move the cocktail over you have a complete picture of me exercising my craft. So I’ve actually begun to think very hard about how I write, because I know more and more that I will be asked quite specific questions about it and these are truly interesting questions, because I suspect that how people approach the whole business is as individual as the condition of their bathrobes.
I’m starting on my sixth book in the Lane Winslow series at the moment, and I can still only really identify two ‘rules’ I follow without fail: 1) Don’t erase anything, ever, on the first write and 2) You don’t know where it’s going until you write it. So I come in to these meetings quite prepared to expound on theses two rules and so far, I’ve never been asked, “What are your two-iron clad rules about writing?” Only this week I was at a school, and a student asked instead, “How do you keep from boring yourself when you have to write a whole book?” This is a real, meaty question and it turns out it is at the very heart of how I write, so I’m going to take a stab at it.
How DO I keep from boring myself? I will admit it now, there are some times when I’m writing a segment and I’m actually yawning as I write. This does not bode well for the readers. (readers will be happy to learn I usually chuck those bits in the bin, but not right away, obviously; Rule 1) The best answer I can give is this: I do not pre-plot the whole thing, because if I did, the whole exercise of writing would be one of trying to infill the sections between these pre-determined plot points. I would bore myself rigid.
Writing is for me a real process of exploration and discovery, and most importantly, it centers on my characters. I never know where my characters, or the situations I’ve created, will take me when I sit down to do my day’s 700-2000 words, but I will always be looking at what they might be about to say and do, and how it moves the story along. Because of that I fondly imagine that my brain is up top beavering away throwing down ideas, and saying things like “Oo! Oo! How about this?” I listen to my brain when it’s doing that, and I am often quite delighted with some clever idea I’d never have thought of if I’d tried to work the whole story out ahead of time.
If I knew before I sat down to work where I was supposed to be going, I’m absolutely certain that my brain would take one look at the pre-worked plot and say “obviously you don’t need me around for whatever this is supposed to be..”, and go off to the spa for the day, leaving me desperately trying to fill in the spaces in an artificial construct I’d pre-made.
Every one of my books start with nothing but a single image, and the general idea that probably someone will have to die, and Lane Winslow, Inspector Darling and Ames are going to have to figure it out. Everything else bubbles up as I’m actually writing and thinking about the people in the story. And that is why I don’t get bored. It is quite literally something new and unexpected for me every day.
I received a lovely note from a reader in Ontario the other day who made the observation that her own immigrant grand parents and others she knew did not talk much about the ‘old country’. This rang true for me. I grew up among people who had immigrated from somewhere, England, Scotland, Russia, China, Germany, and I really don’t recall people talking much about their old countries.
Of course everyone seems to share everything nowadays, but when I was young, reserve was the norm. Yet I wondered about what older people I knew left behind, who they were before. I would sometimes ask, and would get answers like, ‘oh, that’s all in the past’, or even ‘I never talk about that.’ On my happiest days I would get to hear stories, often from people’s childhoods, and almost always about times that were innocent or happy for them, and were preserved, accurately or not, as lovely memories. But it often wasn’t just that they were avoiding discussing, say wartime experiences, but a genuine desire to leave things in the past and focus on the ‘new life.’
Perhaps many of that generation believed as my mother did, that the past was rubbish, and had no effect on who one is at this very moment. Like many of her generation, psychology was an anathema with its insistence on experiences in youth being a determining factor on behaviour as an adult. I was a typical child of the therapeutic sixties, and was a lover of the link between early experience and the lives we live. Jung, Maslow, Erickson, and Bettelheim were my heroes with their trips through childhood, the mind and mythology. “That explains everything!” was my constant victorious refrain. My mother had a genuine horror of being ‘explained’. She felt, and I am not unsympathetic, that it robs people of their individuality and their heroism.
And mostly she was able to live as though no past existed. I did not write books before she died, but I think my experience of being with her in her last moments was where the Lane Winslow series began to take root. I was profoundly moved and saddened to hear her confess on her deathbed that experiences of rejection by her father had caused her to spend her life trying to prove him wrong. In that moment I was struck by her heroism in living her remarkable life as she wanted, and at the same time by the forceful truth that everyone has a past, and it matters.
I see people as having entire lifetimes they have packed up into suitcases and pushed into the attic, both literally and figuratively. Those are the stories I want to understand more, and I try to tease out some elements of these previous lives my characters might have lived, (even if they’d rather I didn’t) because I think they throw light on the present, and for my books, on the events in the stories.
The remark made by the reader made me realize that a key feature in my books, hopping back and forth in time, comes precisely from my desire to understand the pasts that people tuck away. I believe that these experiences matter and reach into the present, and do inform how we respond and what we believe. Past experiences are fundamental to the ability to overcome and thrive. But sometimes, (especially for the purposes of my books!) they plant the seeds of disaster.
Meet Lane Winslow!