Tag Archives: research

Sailing Oceans with Padma Venkatraman

How’s this for serendipity? When I met conference keynoter Padma Venkatraman at the James River Writers conference in October 2016, she recognized my book. She’d read it! Turns out her book had also received the NCSS Notable Trade Book Award. We were award-sisters! And right then, I knew I had to interview Padma for my blog.

I’ve just read her multiple-award-winning novel A Time to Dance about a girl who dreams of dancing again after losing a leg in a bus accident. It’s intense, at times funny and sad, soul-touching, heart-warming—all in all, a great read.

A.B. Westrick: Welcome, Padma!

Padma Venkatrama: Hello! Thanks for having me.

ABW: Your keynote address was inspirational, and I’d love for you to repeat a bit of what I heard you say at the James River Writers conference. Would you please talk about “going method”—the way you approached the task of writing about a character who’d lost a leg? It was so interesting. What did you do, and how did it influence your writing process?

PV: I’d like to begin by sharing with your readers the incident that inspired A Time to DanceOn a trip to India in my late teens, I was bitten by a viper, one of the most poisonous Indian snakes.

ABW: Oh, no!

PV: Oh, yes! It’s a miracle I survived without having to have my leg amputated. That experience—of nearly losing life and limb—solidified my sense of spirituality (which isn’t necessarily bound to any religion). Continue reading

So This is Voice

 

 

I’m big on beginning novels in media res (in the middle of things), meaning jumping into a scene before explaining who’s who or what’s what, no back-story.

But if you insist on starting with a character who talks to the reader, do it well. Make it fresh. Aspire to do it the way Lamar Giles does in Endangered. He’s mastered this sort of opening. Here are some of the lines in his first chapter:

 

 

      I’ve haunted my school for the last three years.
      I’m not a real ghost; this isn’t one of  those stories. At Portside High I’m a Hall Ghost. A person who’s there, but isn’t…
      Jocks don’t bump into me, and mean girls don’t tease me, and teachers don’t call on me because I don’t want them to. Hiding in plain sight is a skill, one I’ve honed. My best friend, Ocie, calls me a Jedi ninja, which is maybe a mixed metaphor and redundant. But it’s also kind of true…
      We’re all something we don’t know we are…
     

      My target is stationary, in a parked car, one hundred yards away. A quick lens adjustment turns her face from fuzzy to sharp despite the darkness. An easy shot. Which I take.
      Keachin Myer’s head snaps forward, whiplash quick.
      I shoot again.
      Her head snaps back this time, she’s laughing so hard. Odd, I was under the impression the soulless skank had no sense of humor…
      I rub my tired eyes, and switch my Nikon D800 to display mode… Keachin—rendered in stark monochrome thanks to the night-vision adaptor fitted between my lens and my camera’s body—belly-laughing at whatever joke the current guy trying to get in her pants is telling. Basically, Keachin being what everyone in Portside knows she is. Rich, spoiled, and popular. Nothing the world hasn’t already gleaned about this girl. Nothing real.
      I intend to fix that. If she ever gives me something good.
      Keachin Myer is as clueless about what she is as anyone else. And being unfortunately named is not the part she’s unaware of. If you let her tell it, her parents strapped her with such an ugly handle because, well, she couldn’t be perfect, right?

 

Maybe a mixed metaphor and redundant… An ugly handle. This is smart writing—tight, engaging, real. And I’m thrilled that the author is here to share his process in crafting such a compelling voice.

Lamar Giles burst onto the YA fiction scene last year with Fake ID, a finalist for the Edgar Award. He’s a founding member of the We Need Diverse Books campaign, and now has multiple contracts with HarperCollins and Scholastic for forthcoming books. The guy is so busy writing, he couldn’t do this interview when I first asked. I had to wait a few months.

A.B. Westrick: Lamar, welcome! And thank you for taking time away from fiction-writing to tell us a little about your process. I read Endangered in two days—it’s the classic can’t-put-it-down.

Lamar Giles: Thank you for having me! I’m glad you found ENDANGERED unputdownable.

ABW: So let’s start with that voice. Would you talk a little about where it came from? What was your inspiration for this character, who goes by Lauren… or Panda… or Gray, depending on circumstances?

LG: I had a couple of things in mind as I refined her voice. As we know, writing is re-writing, and some of the best, most-nuanced stuff tends to come out in the 2nd or 3rd drafts for me. While doing those drafts, I reminded myself that Panda/Gray believes she is doing good, and she does not know that she’s wrong. That helped me craft a more haughty voice that is at times indignant. That mindset allowed for some very specific things in the passages you quoted. I wanted to romanticize what is, essentially, an extremely creepy peeping tom/stalker exercise. I wanted the reader to co-sign on this massive invasion of privacy. By alluding to popular supernatural tales (“I’ve haunted my school…”) and revered pop culture imagery (Jedi Ninja), I’m working to get readers on board, so they too are romanticizing with her. But I couldn’t have gotten there without that simple thesis…SHE doesn’t know better.

In terms of inspiration, Panda came from another story I was working on (and may return to in the near future). It was an urban fantasy, and she was a supporting character. The story wasn’t working, and when my agent (who is an awesome friend and collaborator) read it, she immediately keyed on Panda because of the backstory of her nickname, and asked “Can you do anything with her?”

It was an interesting challenge because her character probably took up a total of only 10 pages in a 300+ page manuscript. She was a yearbook photographer, so I decided photography should remain a part of the story, but how? The breakthrough came when I recalled an experience I had with a photographer years ago. I was getting some head shots for my website. During the shoot, the photographer mentioned his former occupation: Army Sniper. I asked what made him go into photography after such a career, and he said, “The skills are transferrable.”

Whoa!

I can’t always explain how I get to my final writing product, but Panda’s one I can summarize neatly: she’s a sniper without a rifle.

ABW: Whoa is right. I could feel the sniper element in her scenes, and now I get where it comes from. Excellent.

Now tell me about confidence. On page 85, Panda says, “Really, the key is confidence… Be bold. Belong.” Nice. On every page in Endangered, not only do I feel Panda’s confidence, but I feel your confidence as a writer, which is another way of saying that as a reader, I sense I’m in the hands of a master storyteller. So tell me—where does that confidence come from? Tentative writing doesn’t hook readers, but yours does. Do you have any advice for aspiring writers who need a bit of that confidence?

LG:  You wanna know the truth? I rarely feel confident when I’m writing a first draft.

ABW: No way! You totally fooled me.

LG: Yes, really. There inevitably comes a point—usually in the middle—where I’m like, “THIS. IS. STUPID!” Or boring, or trite. I gain confidence from knowing the world will never see that draft. More confidence comes when my trusted readers tell me what parts are actually stupid, boring, and trite (not in those terms, my reader/colleagues are much more tactful) so I know what to fix.

Each subsequent draft builds confidence. So my message is revise your ass off. You should feel fairly confident once you’re sick of reading your own story. Notice I said fairly, though. If you don’t feel totally confident at the end of your revision process, it’s not necessarily a bad sign. As Panda alludes to, you must at least act like you belong. And if you can persevere through multiple drafts, then allow your work into the world, you’re not really acting at all.

ABW: Yes, persevering. That is huge.

Now, a recurring sentence in Endangered is this: “We’re all something we don’t know we are.” Oooohhh—I love that line. At what point in drafting Endangered did that line emerge as significant? I guess I’m assuming it emerged, but maybe it was there from the very beginning. Tell us about it, and about your decision to have the character repeat it a few times.

LG: Actually, that line was there from the start. In an early draft it was the FIRST line of the novel. I always knew I was dealing with a character who was not as observant as she wanted to believe. I repeated the line to press home the irony of Panda’s situation; this person, who’s made a sport of observing deplorable behavior from a distance, can not see the flaws in herself.  Each time it comes up, Panda’s inching closer to valuable (albeit painful) introspection, culminating with ultimate introspection when the story concludes. That line is my thesis statement, so to speak, and it guided character, story, and voice the entire time I was working on Endangered.

ABW: Well done. Panda’s voice is genuine (perhaps that’s the essence of voice—the honesty) and she’s funny precisely at times when the reader needs a break from the tension. For example, on page 108, Panda narrates: “I wonder if the Portside PD is made up entirely of men who look like fire hydrants. The new cop has two shades of walrus whiskers—gray and grayer.” Hahaha, So tell us—is there a little bit of Lamar inside this character named Panda? Is this your sense of humor? Where do you get your laugh lines?

LG: Yes, there’s a bit of humor in me that comes from a combination of being shy/awkward growing up, and discovering that if I said something funny when I felt most awkward, it made socializing a bit easier. There was some painful trial and error involved here, particularly during high school, when I hadn’t quite learned to filter, and wasn’t great at judging the most appropriate times to crack a joke. Frankly, I learned that too many jokes, or badly timed jokes, rubbed people the wrong way. No one wants to go to a 24/7 Kevin Hart show.

However, the humor reflex is extremely useful when I’m in a room by myself staring at a blank page. I can take months to consider the value of a setup and punchline, then get a ton of feedback on what works and what doesn’t. I feel like there’s a recurring theme in all of my answers now. Revise. Revise. Revise. Make every line fight for its life. If doesn’t do what was intended, it’s gotta go. It’s not dissimilar to what stand up comedians do when trying new material: test it with a small crowd and make sure everyone’s laughing before selling tickets to the arena.

ABW: Making every line fight for its life—that is key. No wonder your books read so well.

While I’ve wanted to focus on voice in this interview, I just have to ask about Panda driving into that hurricane. How much of that scene was your imagination, and how much did you have to research in order to nail that scene? In general, how much research did this novel require?

LG: For the hurricane scene I didn’t do any research. Growing up in Virginia, and living in Hampton Roads for nearly 20 years, I’ve seen some rough storms come through. Mostly, there’s warning, and we’ve ridden the worst ones out at home. But I’ve been caught driving when a sudden, powerful storm hit, and know all too well how scary it is to pull over and wait because your wipers can’t keep up with intense downpour, and the wind’s bouncing your car’s suspension. So, Panda and Ocie’s excursion is probably more an amalgam memory than fiction.

Other parts of the book did require research: the photography stuff (special thanks to one of the best wildlife photographers in the world, C.S. Ling, for being so generous with her time and answering my questions there), and Panda’s use of social engineering and infiltration to get close to people and inside buildings.

There’s a book called Access all Areas: A User’s Guide to the Art of Urban Exploration by a writer/urban explorer named Ninjalicious (this is not a joke) that I found particularly helpful. For those who don’t know about urban explorers, they are people who explore cities the way a spelunker might explore caves. It involves going inside deserted buildings, or, in some cases, buildings that are in use, and exploring the lesser known areas. Basements. Ventilation. I’ve heard mention of explorers finding rooms with no doors or windows that can only be accessed through a vent, which is weird, and makes me want to write a story just about THAT. Most urban explorers do this with the intent of never disturbing the sites. They’re not vandals, and they don’t steal (though this hobby is still illegal for obvious reasons, not to mention dangerous…think of stumbling around in the dark and not noticing the empty elevator shaft you’re walking toward).

Anyhow, it occurred to me that Panda would find such skills useful, so I brushed up. I guess the next question would be: have I ever tried any of the urban explore stuff I wrote about? I’ll never tell.

ABW: Hahaha. I think we could go on for hours, but we should wrap this up. Do you have any other thoughts for writers who want to nail that sense of voice in their manuscripts?

LG: Consider the direction in which your character’s moral compass is pointing, and decide if they’re being honest with themselves and others about it. That will guide much of the decision-making about how they speak and interact with the world around them.

Also, if it comes down to over- or under-explaining something, go under. You’ll be amazed how powerful a few key lines can be in distinguishing your character’s voice from all the others out there.

ABW: Well said. Thank you so much, Lamar, for your insights here, for taking time away from writing fiction in order to do this interview, and for writing such great books. I’m looking forward to reading your next release!

Don’t Shy Away from Conflict

If you read only one book this summer, make it Something Must Be Done about Prince Edward County. Part memoir, part journalistic exposé, this sensitive and compelling book explores the history of a Southern town where local history wasn’t taught even though a suit filed on behalf of black students in the county was one of the five consolidated into Brown vs. Board of Education. Author Kristen Green alternates between memories of growing up there, enjoying time with her family’s black housekeeper, extensive research and interviews, and dreams for her own children, who are multi-racial.

I couldn’t put it down.

It struck me that in terms of craft, journalists can teach novelists a lot. So I caught up with Kristen (she lives in Richmond, VA—lucky me!) to get her insights into writing about tough topics.

 

A.B. Westrick: Kristen, welcome! And thank you for doing this blog interview. Your book has so many layers—such complexity distilled down to about 300 pages—that we can’t do it justice here. But we sure can talk craft…

You tell us how University of Mary Washington professor Steve Watkins (who happens to be a novelist now, just sayin’) helped you hone your journalistic grit. After you got “worked over” by a “nice” administrator, “‘The hell with nice!’ Watkins snapped. ‘Nice doesn’t mean good!’” (pg. 90). In another anecdote, you tell us that your former history teacher shut down your interview with the message “loud and clear: She’s done talking about this, and she thinks [you] should stop, too” (pg. 198).

So let’s discuss the born-to-be-nice problem. How do you handle tough moments like that? When an interview gets uncomfortable, what do you do?

Kristen Green: I think it’s like writing. Don’t give up too quickly. It’s tempting, when things start getting interesting, to pack up and say you’ve got enough information. But that is the time to push a little bit harder. I’ve been a journalist for a long time and confrontation is just part of who I am. I do not shy away from conflict.

I tend to keep asking questions, to follow a natural succession, to want to go deeper with each question. People expect writers to ask the hard questions, so my advice is just go for it. Assume that whomever you’re interviewing wants to talk about the tough stuff or is at least expecting you to ask about it. If you do it respectfully, and if you’re patient, you can get really good information you never expected to get. But don’t be in a hurry. And keep going back to the person over and over to ask follow up questions. New information will be revealed. One really great trick is to just be quiet at various points in the interview. Leave some space for the person you’re interviewing to fill—sometimes the interviewee will be so uncomfortable that they just talk to avoid silence.

ABW: Oh, yes—those uncomfortable silences. Been there. And as for going deeper and not hurrying—fiction-writers need to remember that, too. Great points.

While we’re on the topic of tough stuff, let’s talk about shame. On page 70, you recount the moment you realized your grandfather had been a key player in the decision to close the schools. Your sense of shame permeates the book, bringing authenticity to the page. Can you reflect a little bit about shame as a motivating force in writing?

KG: I think shame is what kept this book idea alive for me. When I got to college, I was ashamed to realize that I didn’t know what had happened in my hometown before I was born, and I felt like that was a story I needed to learn. As I began telling other people’s and other communities’ stories as a journalist, shame popped up again. I was confronting my white privilege. And then, when I met my future husband Jason, a multiracial man, I knew I wanted to marry him and have kids, and I was ashamed to be from a place that might reject our love—and that historically had done everything in its power to prevent white and black kids from going to school together.

When the book project became more serious and I realized my grandfather had played a bigger role in the school closures than I had imagined, the sense of shame became more pervasive. I couldn’t just blame my town—my family was at fault, too. I was wrestling with what to do about this information because I loved my grandfather desperately, and I wanted to be a loyal granddaughter. In the world I grew up in, talking about these topics—shame and privilege and oppression and intermarriage—was a big no-no. It was something swept under the rug. And I was confronting not just my own shame, but this sort of community shame that was so deeply ingrained that some people, both black and white, couldn’t access it. Confronting shame—and sitting with it—was an important part of writing this book for me.

Read Glenn Frankel's July 1, 2015, article on SOMETHING MUST BE DONE

Read Glenn Frankel’s July 1, 2015, article on SOMETHING MUST BE DONE

ABW: I appreciate your honesty, and I can definitely relate to the challenge of confronting white privilege. (In 2014 I did a guest-post on racism, privilege, and shame at School Library Journal’s Teen Librarian Toolbox.”) Before we wrap this up, I want to ask about your writing process. In your Acknowledgments, you thank your husband for “his constant faith that I could write this book, even when I lost my way…” I’d love to hear more about losing your way, and particularly how you found your way again, once you’d lost it.

KG: I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just feeling around in the dark, trying to figure out how to build a book. I had all the information I needed—and if I didn’t have it I could easily get it—but I hadn’t the foggiest idea how to stitch it all together. I knew how to interview people and how to write up those interviews in lovely little scenes. I knew how to write snippets of my own life. But doing deep historical research and then boiling down what I learned for readers, to create something that explained my hometown’s complicated history? I had no idea how to do that. And how to weave reportage and history and memoir all together into a cohesive book? I didn’t have the first clue. There were many days, weeks even, when I was consumed by self-doubt, and it felt like I would never be able to pull a book out of the disparate material I had amassed.

I have always worked in a newsroom with layers upon layers of managers. This was the first time in my writing life where no one else had the final say about a piece I wrote. I would have to remind myself daily that no one else could solve my writing problems. It was up to me. And sometimes that pressure was too heavy.

But I just kept showing up. I took my husband and close friend’s advice and got up at 5:00 a.m. to write before I looked at email or social media or dealt with my kids. I kept trying different ways to structure the book, mapping it out on notecards on my dining room table. I sought feedback from my editor and from writers I trusted and admired. When I got really frustrated, I took a break or did another book task. I made sure to read at night, so that good writing—and the structure of really great books—would sink into my brain. But mostly I just showed up each day and wrote the pieces that, when combined with other pieces, would come together to create a book.

ABW: Just showing up at the page—so true. I’ve learned a lot here, not only from your answers, but from reading Something Must Be Done about Prince Edward County. Long after turning the final page, I’m still thinking about your book. Thank you again for a great interview, Kristen, and for writing such a heartfelt book.

Crafting Nonfiction for Young Readers

I met Winifred Conkling in 2009 when we were students in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and today I’m thrilled to feature her reflections on the craft of writing. Winifred is the award-winning author of numerous books and articles for adults and children, and her newest book, Passenger on the Pearl: The True Story of Emily Edmonson’s Flight from Slavery, comes out today from Algonquin Young Readers.

A.B. Westrick: Winifred, welcome!

Winifred Conkling: Thank you for inviting me, Anne.

ABW: Passenger on the Pearl is a heart-wrenching story that hooked me on page one. I can tell from the sidebars and source notes that you researched the life of Emily Edmonson and her contemporaries extensively. So my first question is how you distilled down what must have been a mountain of primary sources, and decided to begin the story where you did (with Emily’s mother’s fears about bringing children into the world)?

WC: I always struggle with where to start a story. You’re right, I started the process by reading piles of source material. I finally decided that the most natural way to frame the story was to focus on Emily’s birth into slavery and to end with her marriage and the promise that her children would be born free. In my background reading, I was devastated by the quote from Emily’s mother, Amelia, who had fallen in love but refused to marry, saying: “I loved Paul very much, but I thought it wasn’t right to bring children into the world to be slaves.” I am the mother of three, and I can’t imagine what it would feel like to know that my children would be destined to face the horrors of slavery. I know that young readers are familiar with the idea of slavery, but I wanted to make the suffering personal.

ABW: Well, you certainly did make it personal. Her suffering drew me in—it’s an excellent opening. Now let me ask some more about those primary sources, and about research in general. Research can be mesmerizing, and at the same time overwhelming. Do you have any advice to help writers recognize which sorts of historical nuggets make for great stories, and which to leave behind? In so many words, I guess I’m asking: why this story? Why Emily Edmondson? What was it about Emily that made you decide to tell her story rather than, say, the story of one of her brothers? Or the captain’s story?

WC: My first draft of Passenger framed the story around Emily and her sister Mary—the Edmonson sisters—who remained together throughout much of their journey. The problem with this approach is that Mary died as a young woman and I wanted the narrative to continue to Emily’s work as a teacher in Washington, D.C., as well as her later marriage. By focusing on a single character, Emily, I was able to more naturally complete the story and end with the birth of the next generation.

We struggled with Emily vs. Emily-and-Mary when designing the cover art. The front cover of the book shows Emily in the moonlight with the Pearl in the background. The art wraps around to the back where we see Mary and others who were also making their way to the ship. The intent was to emphasize that this is Emily’s story, but she was not alone.

Also, the choice to feature Emily was based on the primary sources available. Because of the family’s association with Harriet Beecher Stowe, the lives of the Edmonsons are well documented; Stowe had much to say about them in A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

I’m glad you asked about the captain’s story. I loved his contributions, and we are fortunate that we have his autobiography available. (It was released by Project Gutenberg, e-book #10401-8.) His story is fascinating in its own right, but I had to resist the temptation to tell too much because this project was Emily’s story. I tried to share the relevant highlights and to let readers know what happened to him; he spent four years in prison as a result of his efforts to help seventy-seven enslaved people find freedom.

ABW: Through the first half of Passenger, I felt genuinely worried for Emily, and turned pages to find out what happened to her. I was totally caught up in her plight, and to be honest, I found the sidebars distracting. But somewhere along the line, a shift happened, and by the time I was well into the second half, I was lingering on each sidebar. So let’s talk about those sidebars! What went through your mind in crafting them? Were they part of your idea for this book from the start?

WC: I love sidebars. There are so many interesting bits of history and things to explore and explain that would slow down the plot but remain important for the reader to know. The main narrative tells the story—what happened to Emily—while the sidebars give the reader the background that deepens their understanding of context and history. Some readers will no doubt blow right past the sidebars to follow the story, and that’s okay. Others will stop and read them in order, which does slow the narrative flow, but helps to answer questions the reader may have along the way.

It’s not the just sidebars: The photos also interrupt the text, but I love them! The photos convey information and they remind the reader that this is nonfiction—these are real people and this is part of our shared American history.

I know some readers find sidebars distracting, but I think they serve an important function in nonfiction text. I didn’t set out to write a book with lots of sidebars, but as I wrote, they seemed inevitable.

ABW: Yes, and I admit that once I knew Emily’s story, I went back through the book and read the sidebars that I’d blown past on the first read-through. You have a lot of interesting tidbits there.

Now a question about proposals because I hear nonfiction writers talk about them: Did Passenger begin with a book proposal, and if so, what did that proposal look like? How long was it? Were the sidebars part of the first draft that your editor saw?

WC: I did not write a book proposal for Passenger. I knew I wanted to write about Emily—or Emily and Mary—and then I went to work. The structure changed several times in the process of writing and rewriting. The first draft I sent the editor did have sidebars, and we added some and deleted others along the way.

ABW: Was Passenger on the Pearl always the title, and if not, what were other titles under consideration?

WC: My original title was Ransomed: Emily Edmonson’s Escape from Slavery, but my editor didn’t like the word “ransomed.” (I liked it because to me it conveyed the idea that money was paid for the freedom of someone who was unjustly held captive.) We also played around with the title Forever Free, but we dropped that one, too. Titling books is tricky business, and I trust that the editors and publishers (and their marketing teams) have a better handle on it than I do.

ABW: Your 2011 book Sylvia & Aki (Tricycle Press) won the Jane Addams Book Award for Older Readers. Congratulations! It was also historical, but on the advice of your editor at that time, you wrote it as “fictionalized history,” explaining that your editor “thought it would be more engaging to tell the story in a novelized format.” Now that you’ve written Passenger as nonfiction, would you reflect on the differences? I’m particularly interested in your reflections on the craft of writing. How is writing fiction different from writing nonfiction? Did you prefer the process of writing one more than the other?

WC: Thank you — and congratulations to you, too [on Brotherhood receiving the Jane Addams honor]!

If I could do it over again, I would write Sylvia & Aki as nonfiction. The story is true; the only fictionalized parts involved the creation of dialogue. For that book, I interviewed Sylvia Mendez and Aki Munemitsu, the subjects of the book, and they both reviewed the text for accuracy before publication. The editor for that project believed that young readers would find it easier to relate to the story by presenting it as fiction with created dialogue.

Frankly, I struggle with this issue, and I think it’s an important question for authors to consider when writing stories that can be told as either nonfiction or fictionalized history (which isn’t the same thing as historical fiction, which I think of as a work of fiction set in the past). I don’t believe an author has the right to make up quotes. To me, quotation marks in nonfiction mean that the words—the exact words—can be traced back to a legitimate, contemporaneous source. That’s one of the main things that differentiates fiction and nonfiction; in nonfiction we don’t get to make up what was said or what happened.

When there are rich primary sources, I prefer writing nonfiction. It is an honor to be able to report and tell the story of history. That said, I also love historical fiction, especially when the historical period deepens and defines the character (like you did in Brotherhood). I don’t think one format is better than another; I think what is important is to be true to the format you have chosen as an author. Don’t leave the reader questioning whether a story is fiction or nonfiction.

ABW: Any final comments or words of wisdom for aspiring authors?

WC: Write the stories that haunt you. Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, focus on the stories that captivate you. Those are the ones you’re supposed to tell.

ABW: Oooohhh, that’s just what I need to hear because my current work-in-progress is frustrating me, but I do feel called to write it—the story haunts me. So thank you for reminding me of that! And thank you so much for your insights today.

Kelly O’Connor McNees on Writing

When James River Writers (JRW) invited me to interview some 2014 conference speakers, I looked over the impressive list of who’s coming and jumped at the chance to interview Kelly O’Connor McNees. I love the fact that she’d founded Word Bird Editorial Services. When she’s not writing her own fiction, she’s editing other people’s novels, so I figured she’d be perfect for my blog—as much in love with the process of writing as I am. And I was right!

Kelly will be speaking on panels during the JRW conference, October 18-19, 2014, in Richmond, VA, and on Friday, October 17, will lead a master class on “Point of View: Who’s Telling and Who’s Listening?” You can find more information on the JRW website.

Kelly’s third novel, The Island of Doves, came out earlier this year from Berkley/Penguin. She’s also the author of The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, and In Need of a Good Wife, which was a finalist for the WILLA Literary Award. I’m thrilled to share with you her wisdom on the writing process…

A.B. Westrick: Welcome, Kelly! I’ve just finished reading The Island of Doves, a beautiful novel set in Buffalo, Detroit, and the wilds of the Michigan Territory in the early 1800s, and I’d love to hear your comments on a few craft points.

Kelly McNees: Thank you for that very kind introduction! I am thrilled to be coming to Richmond for the conference and look forward to meeting lots of new friends and fellow writing geeks.

ABW: And they’re looking forward to meeting you! So let’s talk craft. I want to start at the beginning; usually I hate prologues, but yours drew me right in. You wrote it in scene, and I didn’t even notice that it was a prologue until five pages later when I hit the words, chapter one. At that point, the story had already hooked me. Very nice. Can you say a little about your decision to make that opening a prologue, rather than calling it a chapter?

KM: I think of a prologue as a snapshot of an event that came before the main action of the story, which is why it works to set it apart that way rather than write it as a chapter. But I agree with youtypically I do not like prologues. They can feel tacked on and melodramatic. Sometimes they make a big promise that the novel can’t live up to. I added this one in a later draft, after I had tried and failed many times to communicate the events it describes (in much more elaborate ways) through flashback in other parts of the novel. Eventually I realized that we didn’t need to know the entire history of this family up front. We just needed to know about this one very important event, the death of the youngest sister, Josette, because it sets everything else into motion.

ABW: Good point. I can see how it sets up the action. Now tell me a bit about your approach to backstory. I was impressed by the way you wove backstory through the novel. For example, on page 77, I hit this line: “And of course, then there was the matter of her sisters.” Then you dropped the thread about sisters and returned readers to the scene, leaving us curious. Perfect! How conscious were you that you were doing this? Were the early drafts of the manuscript more backstory-laden than the final? How do you develop your characters’ backstory and decide which parts of it to feed the reader when?

KM: I am glad to hear that those transitions worked for you because I spent a lot of time thinking about them! This book had a lot of backstory and in earlier drafts felt very much weighed down by it all. A big challenge was that the bulk of the action that motivates one character, Magdelaine, happened decades before the story begins, and it’s difficult to create a sense of urgency around that. But even though so much time had passed, Magdelaine’s pain was very fresh, and I tried to evoke that by showing how much she was living in her mind, living in her memories, and that those things were just as real as what was happening in the present. Still, the reader must always feel anchored in the time of the story, and that’s why I worked to break that rumination up with interactions with characters in the present, and construct the story so that those present relationships helped her deal with the unresolved pain of the past.

Another thing I learned while writing this novel is that while it’s important to know your characters’ backstories in detail, not all of that information will make it into the novel. And that’s okay. You need to generate a lot of material, a lot of experiences from the character’s life, before you can select the emblematic experiences that will be most useful. One carefully chosen detail can communicate more about who a character is than five more generic flashbacks that attempt to get at the same thing.

ABW: These are great answers. Thank you! I know that dealing with backstory is always a tough issue for novelists. What about research? This book clearly required you to learn a lot about the Michigan Territory. When I got to your Author’s Note, I found your extensive list of sources. Could you say a bit about your process in researching? Got any tips for writers working on historical fiction?

KM: I learned a lot about research in writing this novel. I didn’t have much of an outline when I began, and because of that, I spent a lot of time letting the research shape the plot. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is time-consuming. Basically, there is an infinite number of things about the history of Michigan, 19th-century greenhouses, nuns, steamboat travel, etc. that interest me, and at a certain point I had to cut myself off from learning about new things that would potentially take the plot in a yet another direction. The book was marooned for a long time while I tried to figure out what it was actually ABOUT. In fact, I put it aside for a couple years while I wrote In Need of a Good Wife, and then came back to it. When I did, I could see more clearly that everything has to start with the characterswho they are, what they want. Their desires have to drive the story.

So the first thing I would say about research is that the best way to use it, and not let it overwhelm you, is to envision the scope of your story (even if you don’t necessary have an outline) and then try to stick to researching within those boundaries. In historical fiction, there is a necessary tension between historical fact and story, but the story must always win. The information you gather about the past must be used in service of the story. Otherwise it will burden the reader. I spent six hours at the Harold Washington Library in Chicago reading about how native people built birch bark canoes, and there is maybe one sentence about that in the book. The details are interesting to me, but they are not, it turns out, very important to the story. Bad historical fiction happens when a writer wants to prove how much she knows, or “teach” the reader about events of the past. Snore!

ABW: I love your sentiment that “the story must always win.” Agreed! Also, I found your themes interesting. Your characters voiced some compelling views, and I wondered if you resonated with their ideas, personally (were they part of your thinking before you began the story), or did they emerge in the course of writing? Did you set out with a particular theme in mind? Some of the ideas that captivated me were: (1) victims of domestic violence may seek both freedom and safety, but in this world generally, safety is illusive; (2) more than fear, loneliness does people in; and (3) the earth accepts everything with complete indifference.

KM: You ask whether these are my views or whether they emerged as I wrote the story, and I think the answer is probably a little bit of both. I think I had these ideas, but I hadn’t examined them much until they came to the surface in this story. I have been fortunate not to experience firsthand the violence that Susannah did; my hope there was to put myself in her shoes and try to imagine what it would be like to be trapped in that house, in the wealth that so many people envied, and yet be miserable and afraid.

But, more broadly, the safety/freedom dichotomy has always been interesting to me. Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, right? I think sometimes when we want to be free (not so much in Susannah’s caseliteral freedom from violencebut in Magdelaine’s, who wants freedom from sadness), what we really want is to be safe and invulnerable, floating blissfully on some plane where we cannot be hurt. But the price for that safety is lonelinesstotal disengagement with others—because caring about someone makes you vulnerable. And I do think that loneliness is the greatest suffering of all.

Though this story does deal with some spiritual questions, I find much comfort, and I think Susannah and Magdelaine do, too, in nature’s indifference. The lake was there long before they were born, and it will be there long after they are gone.

ABW: Nice. I really enjoyed the depth in your novel, and your answer reminds me of its many layers.

Okay, now would you reflect for a moment on writing what you know? I happen to be Presbyterian, so I enjoyed phrases like the “clenched Calvinist jaw.” I felt both ownership and shame in scenes where Protestants slighted Roman Catholics (the historical authenticity rang true). Jerry Seinfeld might say you have to be a Jew to tell Jewish jokes; group-membership affords license to criticize or ridicule. My guess is that your background is Protestant, not Roman Catholic, because you portrayed the Protestants more critically than the Catholics. Care to comment? What are the challenges in writing as an insider versus as an outsider?

KM: In fact, I have much more experience with Catholicism! But it really was the historical facts of missionary work in the Northwest Territory that led me to depict the two groups as I did. The Catholics had been there since 1673, so about 150 years before the Protestants came. And while they influenced native communities in lots of ways, many of them negative, they did achieve a kind of coexistence. The Presbyterian approach was much more direct and interventionist, I guess you would say, and that was fueled by the ways their theology differed from Catholics’ (salvation through faith alone, rather than through good worksin other words, they could only save souls through conversionand often that was forced upon native people).

So there was tension on that level. But also there was class tension masquerading as religious difference. In the UK, at least, where Edward’s family had come from, Protestants were wealthy landowners who controlled all political and economic power, and they saw Catholics as inferior in every way. So those tensions of course carried over into settlements in America, like Buffalo and Detroit and Mackinac, where Protestants continued to enjoy economic privilege, and Catholics occupied a working-class position and were beholden to them. I am oversimplifying a very complicated relationship, but those are a few of the issues that underlie their uneasiness with each other.

ABW: Interesting! I’d like to hear more, but we’ve gone on for a while already, so we’d better wrap it up here. I’d love to hear your reflections on working as a freelance editor. What are the most common mistakes that you see new/aspiring writers making? When clients have disagreed with your editorial comments, how have they handled those issues, and how have you responded?

KM: I think many writers spend a lot of time researching how to find an agent or researching options for self-publishing, but maybe not as much time working to develop their craft. Learning how to identify your strengths and weaknesses as a writer, and then doing the hard work of developing your skills, can be a slow, difficult process, and there’s a temptation to rush through it. This is something all writers have to push against, and I certainly see it in the writers I work with.

I also urge clients to read as if their lives depend on itand they do! (Well, their writing lives, anyway). Writers must read, read, read, and read some more.

As for giving feedback, I have lots of experience being on the receiving end of tough editorial comments, and I know how difficult it can be. I talk with my clients about how, to a certain extent, this kind of feedback is subjective, and as the author of the book, they of course must decide about which suggestions to take and which to disregard. And as much as possible I strive to make all feedback specific and actionable, and by that I mean that if I tell them something isn’t working, I have to be able to tell them why and how to fix the problem. But overall, things never get contentious because this isn’t about me, and it isn’t about being right. We are on the same team, both invested in making the book as strong as it can possibly be. And good writers can disagree about how to accomplish that. My role is to make suggestions and offer support as the author navigates the revision process.

ABW: Thank you so much for giving everyone at JRW a glimpse into your writing style and your work as an editor. We look forward to meeting you in Richmond later this month!

KM: I can’t wait! Thank you!