13th Century Bohemia. I wonder what the writers of the Codex Gigas would have replied, if asked, "So, what is your writing process?" To the question, "Why do you write what you do?" - what could authors of this mysterious manuscript, which features a portrait of the Devil on page 290, have possibly said?
In future centuries, I wish my books could inspire as much curiosity as the Codex Gigas does now, but one can only dream.
Still, it is an honor to be tagged in a blog hop by author, Marie Macpherson. In this post, I will be answering four questions about my writing process and will tag three authors. Look out for posts by Andrea Zuvich, Wendy Dunn and Sarah Kennedy on 28 April.
I want to take this opportunity to share a little about Marie Macpherson. Marie was born in Edinburgh, Scotland. She is a fan of Leo Tolstoy and holds an Honors degree in Russian and English. Marie’s PhD thesis research saw her spend a year in Russia. Her first novel is based on the early life of the Scottish reformer, John Knox. Marie has won prizes and awards for her writing, including the Martha Hamilton Prize for Creative Writing from Edinburgh University, and 'Writer of the Year 2011' title awarded by Tyne & Esk Writers.
Question 1 - What am I working on?
The Mascherari is my first attempt at the historical mystery / supernatural genre. I began research two years ago and completed writing in about a year. Last month I worked with designer, Caryn Gillespie, on the paperback cover design, which has since been retouched for digital publishing. Here it is (again!)
Ok, it doesn't quite compare with that Devil's portrait. But one does one's best.
I am also working on my third book, a speculative history novel featuring mermaids. The story's underlying influence is a tale that has touched me as a child - The Little Mermaid. It is titled, The Pearl Slaves. I promise it will be a mermaid tale with a dark edge.
My current writing phase is a blend of dreaming, musing and historical research. It's nebulous territory, but one with enormous potential because it is my subconscious which is hard at work. I see writing as part-technique and part-art, and to encourage the art, I feed my subconscious daily.
It is also the phase where I am creating characters, their background and their role in the story. During this time, I absorb everything: history books, historical and cultural articles, music and costumes. I think back to movie scenes I liked, and try to extract what it was - either in the dialogue, setting or mood - that worked for me. They say you should only write what you want to read. I will only write what I would accept in a film. If it isn't visual enough, it is no good.
Question 2 - How does my work differ from others of its genre?
As a novel set in China, The Ming Storytellers is unusual because it avoids homogenization of foreign cultures and peoples. It recognizes the diverse cultural landscape that was and is China. For example, it features characters from two important ethnic minorities: the Hui and the Nakhi. That makes perfect sense, considering that the author has a personal experience with plurality. I think it is important to transcend certain cultural portraits and to a degree, I think The Ming Storytellers achieves that. Years ago I toyed with applying the genre, "Ming Gothic", to it. I still think it is the best categorization, even though it sounds pretentious. I mean, if we can have "Victorian Gothic", then why not "Ming Gothic".
I wish I could pitch The Mascherari by saying it's The Name of the Rose meets Le Club Dumas (or The Ninth Gate, for those who know the movie). These two tales combine all that I adore about mystery and occult themes. Along the way however, I found that The Mascherari acquired a surrealistic quality that differentiated it from those novels. I think the surreal is unusual in historical fiction.
More unusual, are novels set in 15th century Venice, or those that prominently feature the secretive Council of Ten (What's The Council of Ten? Think: NSA, but from the Late Medieval to the Renaissance period).
The Mascherari also differs from novels set in Venice through its epistolary form. It consists of letters, depositions and diary entries from various characters.
Question 3 - Why do I write what I do?
Self-indulgence. I can be utterly selfish while writing. I write about subjects that I want to research with a passion, and that stir me to the point of obsession. I have an affinity for all history that is forbidden and /or shunned, and that has not yet found its place in popular cultural psyche. Like many writers, I also love uncovering secrets and revealing them. I seek to break preconceived notions and to present history with all its ugliness.
It is not all selfishness. There is duty. I feel in me a duty to tell an honest story, a duty to inform, or to reveal parallels between past and present. Often a glimpse into the past can be an avenue for reckoning with our present condition and evaluating it critically. This reckoning is all the more important when dangerous prejudices exist today which I feel must be overcome in the interest of humanity. Humanity! It is a big word, yet I feel that a conscientious writer ought to be writing for humanity. With The Ming Storytellers, I found myself incorporating an environmental sensitivity into the narrative. I liked that.
An ambitious task for any writer is to stir emotion in their reader. I try to do that, too. I love writing scenes that inspire awe. I want to become better at moving my reader.
Question 4 - How does my writing process work?
At any time, a writer may be musing about many ideas. A project truly begins, for me at least, when an idea is so entangled with my obsessions, that I would deprive myself of pleasure if I did not convert these obsessions into a story.
I then enter a state of research, a state of yet more dreaming and plotting from which I derive all the more pleasure. (See Question 1 above.)
After considerable integration between dreams and research material, a thin plot outline will be born, together with several compelling characters. That’s where the hard work begins.
1. I will write a story outline. Always.
2. In a spreadsheet, I will then list those chapters that are needed to complete the full story. Each chapter is conceived as a movie scene. The chapter will be listed beside the research material that needs to be refined, or further developed, before I am confident about writing it.
3. Over a period of months, I attack each chapter, one by one, alternating between research and writing. I commit to a number of words per day and stick to that. Fifty percent of my time is spent typing out material and fifty percent is entirely research.
Halfway through, something happens: I completely ditch my story outline and let the story take me for a ride.
When do I write? I write any time when I am feeling positive. I have written when ill and drunk (red wine is fabulous for liberating ideas and overcoming fear) but – I never write when I feel down. For me writing should be about pleasure, and I never associate a negative emotional state with my creations. Never.
So there you have it - a quick glimpse into my writing process. My books will never fascinate as much as the Codex Gigas, but I love them and I love writing. I am curious to know what other writers do and this is why this blog hop is a wonderful idea. Next week, three talented writers will take part, sharing their writing process with us. Here’s a little bit about them.
Andrea Zuvich, aka The Seventeenth Century Lady, lives in a small town in England. She is a full-time historian and often gives lectures about the Late Stuart period, in which she specialises. Zuvich is a historical fiction authoress of the best-selling "His Last Mistress" about the Duke of Monmouth's last days. She was one of the original developers of and guides on the Garden History Tours at Kensington Palace.
Website - www.andreazuvich.com
Wendy has been obsessed with Tudor History from childhood. Her novel about Anne Boleyn, the award-winning novel Dear Heart, How Like You This? (published in 2002), has been described as, “Seriously one of the best books ever written about Anne Boleyn”.
Wendy is currently a PhD candidate at Swinburne University, where she also tutors in the Master of Arts (Writing) program.
Unsurprisingly, her PhD artefact, The Light in the Labyrinth, is another Tudor novel, a novel that revisits Anne Boleyn in the last months of her life. A young adult novel, The Light in the Labyrinth will be published soon with Endtable Books.
Sarah Kennedy is the author of the historical mystery The Altarpiece, Book One of The Cross and the Crown series from Knox Robinson Publishers. Book Two, City of Ladies, will be released on October 20, 2014.
Sarah has also written seven books of poems, including The Gold Thread, Home Remedies, A Witch’s Dictionary, Consider the Lilies, Double Exposure, and Flow Blue. A professor of English with at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Virginia, Sarah Kennedy holds a PhD in Renaissance Literature and an MFA in Creative Writing. She has received grants from both the National Endowment for the Arts and the Virginia Commission for the Arts and is currently a contributing editor for Shenandoah.
Website - sarahkennedybooks.wordpress.com
Make sure you hop along to visit these three authors next week, 28 April, for more insights into the writing process.