Monday Musings: How a Book Springs to Life

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Ask a beginning novelist how she writes a book and you’ll get an explanation about process. She’ll tell you about the sequentially numbered index cards denoting scenes and chapters, and the way she strings them together. Perhaps she’ll regale you with the latest tricks she learned at a writer’s conference, something about goal, motivation and conflict, or how use of the hero’s journey makes the step-by-step creation of her book all the more easy.

Or instead, she may give a careless shrug then explain about her daily dash to Starbucks and the leather chair she always chooses because it overlooks the bay. The breaking whitecaps on the sea swept beach mingle with the scents of the coffeehouse to provide a catalyst sure to send her fingers flying across her iPad.

Process, all of it.

What our fresh-faced scribe doesn’t know yet is that each novel is as different as each child in the brood you might raise. Some works are built from the architecture of a hundred visits to the library for research and a dozen interviews conducted with painstaking precision. Other stories strike in a thunderbolt of inspiration that carry the writer from one chapter to the next without a clear understanding of how it will all pan out.

I can’t tell you how many novels I’ve written. I wrote my first in college and, like most of those early attempts, it sits dusty and unloved in the corner of a forgotten closet. The novels I now publish gain sinew and muscle from those years of practice, yet each arrives in its own unique way. Treasure Me is the book I think of as the thunderbolt.

In 2007, I had just come through the twin tragedies of divorce and my mother’s death after her long battle with cancer. One night I thought, “If I don’t write something to make myself laugh, I’ll never stop crying.” The next morning Birdie appeared, dangling from a window, trying to escape from the man whose pocket she’d picked. That first scene in Treasure Me wasn’t plotted out. It rose from my subconscious in a mad flurry of typing.

As the book progressed, I enjoyed the challenge of making Birdie sympathetic to readers. Why should any of us care about a thief? By mid-story, it becomes clear why she’s led her chosen life, and why she wants to change. I’m an adoptive mother of four children, and some of Birdie’s characterization undoubtedly arises from the experience. Whether you’re talking about my kids or a character like Birdie, the facts are clear: children who have suffered abuse and neglect do not always reach adulthood as model citizens. It takes time to heal their wounds and get them to trust in a mother’s forever-love—something Birdie experiences when she meets Liberty’s town matriarch, the fiery Theodora.

Here’s a secret, or two: When I penned Treasure Me, I had no idea I’d end up living in Charleston, South Carolina. And Birdie’s ancestors, the Postells, are also drawn from fact: my French ancestors arrived in Charleston in 1681. Folks here may think of me as just another Northerner invading their beautiful city, but I’m probably related to half the Postells in the proud state of South Carolina.

 

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Comments

  1. So glad you were able to use your writing to help you through a difficult time. My biggest advice I got from my editor about flawed characters is “we don’t have to like your character, but we do have to empathize with them.” I always think now about how the reader interprets my characters and I find that really helps. Nice post.

  2. Enjoyed reading this post. Thanks.

  3. Great post, Christine. You put so much into your writing and it shows.