When I first began to write I saw it as a ‘solitary’ activity. Just me, my word processor and my fluffy pink bathrobe. Oh, and my tea, obviously. But what I’ve learned is that readers are an enormous part of the equation. I am so thankful to readers who reach across the void to send me notes through my website contact (keep those coming!) whether critical or appreciative, and to those who post comments on my social media and especially to those who come out to the events I’ve been involved with. Recently I’ve had the opportunity to tour Alberta, Quebec and Ontario and have spoken to great full house audiences here in Vancouver, and I have been thrilled with the reception Lane Winslow is receiving. Meeting readers personally has meant being able to interact with people who have questions and thoughts about the books, that in turn, have made me think about the whole business of writing.
I have discovered recently how these interactions have helped me to understand both my own process and my characters. I get amazingly challenging questions after my readings. Recently a girl of 10 or 11 asked me the most common question of all, "how do you think of your ideas?" and it struck me forcefully, that I'm not awfully sure about the answer to that. I've also had ‘how do you balance putting in historical detail with telling a story?’ (Or a recent favourite: 'do you have anyone you're dying to kill off in the books?')
It is fair to say that the process of writing has an instinctive quality. I typically do not second-guess myself as I’m going along. I just write. The questions readers ask about the process make me think on my feet, which is inherently exciting, (in that invigorating dangling-off-the-edge-off-a-precipice way), but I often end up thinking about these questions long afterwards, and I’ve realized how they have helped me to understand and clarify what that instinctive process is when I write.
Take the question about including historical detail. I majored in history in college, so it is tempting to want to include a lot of detail with the idea that it is important for the reader to get a strong sense of the times. But too much detail can alienate readers from the story. My solution, I realized, is to write a scene ‘showing’ instead of ‘telling’. (The central advice of all writing instructors everywhere!) A critical feature of A Sorrowful Sanctuary is the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Nazis, and instead of ‘telling’ the reader about it, I wrote in a scene where one of my characters wakes up on the morning of the invasion and must flee. Until I had that question, I had never really thought about how I integrate history, and thanks to feedback I get, I can think more deeply about how I might continue to improve the inclusion of historical detail in a seamless and convincing way.
I often taught my students that reading a book is the building of a relationship between the story and each reader’s knowledge and point of view, and thus a book is new every time a new reader picks it up. I see now that that the interchange between reader and writer is just as critical a relationship. (and I'm hoping that I'll find the proper answer to that little girl's question before she's in her twenties!)
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