While preparing for bed one evening, I flipped through our very small offering of cable channels. The remote landed on a documentary about the Spanish Influenza epidemic. At the time I knew almost nothing about this devastating piece of history and watched the program with rapt attention. The following day I began doing some research of my own and before long I’d stepped back in time to 1918; its pain, its kindness, its hardships, and its hope.
Category: A Time of Angels
That’s a difficult question to answer. Perhaps the most surprising thing I learned is that even after researching for a full year, after reading thousands of pages of material, both primary and secondary sources, I could never recreate an historical period with absolute confidence. I needed to make so many leaps of faith and asked the reader to leap with me. My respect for historians and journalists rocketed over the years as I realized how precise they have to be. At least, in writing fiction, the bar is not set quite so high for factual responsibility. I did my best in understanding the sensibilities of the time period and representing time and place with reasonable accuracy, but I fear I never rose as completely to the challenge in my two year writing process as a good journalist does in a week.
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While researching a book I am insatiable. I want to know everything about my subject. I read thousands and thousands of pages. My brain crunches all of that research into a single story; details gleaned from my research rise up at just the right moment to illustrate the text. Of course, less than 2 percent of what I’ve read actually makes it into the finished book, but probably 80 percent of what I’ve learned is subtly woven into the story. When the book is finished I have no desire to return to that subject again. I feel as if I have exhausted the topic and the topic has exhausted me. And, therefore, I have little or no interest in writing sequels.
As a reader, I find certain books linger with me for months, for years, and occasionally for decades. Books have kept me afloat when I wondered how much longer I could hold on. They have taught me about decency and integrity. Books have shown me how survival is possible even when the odds suggest otherwise. Books have also taught me the elegance and beauty and power of language, not just for the message it contains but for the simple way it rolls off the tongue, the way it delights and excites every sense. Do I expect to have the same impact on my readers that certain writers have had on me? No. But I am grateful for every reader and for each opportunity to communicate and to share. If the reader feels less alone as he or she spends time inside one of my books, that’s enough for me.
If we study and learn from the way birds flock, or fish school, we glean so much about connection and instinct, direction and evolution, individual and group behavior. Life is filled with repeating patterns. Our brains are naturally drawn to them. If we study and learn from the way mankind has flocked and schooled in the past, we better our chances of survival into the distant future. That’s what draws me to historical fiction.
Ideas come from so many places. Sometimes, when I’m reading the work of other writers, I feel a finger of inspiration tickle my brain. I’ve transformed magazine and newspaper articles into novels and picture books. Concerts, lectures, documentaries, television and radio interviews can also become story catalysts. Occasionally a fan letter will open up a possible avenue to a story, or an overheard conversation in the doctor’s office, or someone sitting across the aisle from me in the theater. I trawl my own life, both my childhood and my adult years, for story ideas, too. Not every experience leads directly to a book, but every experience holds that potential within it.
Every experience has an impact on my writing. From hours and hours of play with my childhood friends (see COME ON, RAIN! and LESTER’S DOG), to my fascination with Captain James Cook following a talk I attended at my local library (see STOWAWAY), from a documentary on the Spanish Influenza pandemic and my hospice volunteer work and walks in the snowy woods (see A TIME OF ANGELS), to an extended road trip through the heartland of the U.S. with my dear friend Liza Ketchum (see OUT OF THE DUST), I never know which experience I’ll draw on as I’m sitting at my desk. I simply search for a way to bring the story to life for my reader by going very still inside and sifting through a lifetime of experiences until I light on just the right memory to mold and weave into the story I’m telling.
I often take two years to complete a novel. OUT OF THE DUST took two years. PHOENIX RISING, two years. BROOKLYN BRIDGE, two years, too.
THE MUSIC OF DOLPHINS is also in the “two year” club.
I spend about a year doing research, another year writing and revising.
And no, I do not do the work on a deserted island under a palm tree. Most of the time I labor away in a tiny office in Vermont.