Mark’s Musings #2: My Writing Process


History did not record what was going through the mind of Fanny Osbourne, an American art student, when she drew this affectionate sketch of young Robert Louis Stevenson.  We do know that the sketch was made while the two were in a romantic setting, the Fontainebleau forest in France, and that Fanny eventually divorced her husband to marry “Louis.”  I’ll say more about this sketch as I answer four questions posed to me by historical novelist Tinney Heath, who tagged me in a “blog-hop.”  (Her novel, A Thing Done, is a wonderful tale of Florence told through the eyes of a 13th Century jester; check out Tinney Heath’s beautifully illustrated blog about her research and writing process!)

 The four questions are:

1.  What are you working on?

After six years of writing Stevenson’s Treasure, I got to know and love the main characters so much that it was hard to say goodbye.  But a few months ago I began poking around for a fresh story to tell.  I hatched ideas for three different stories, did preliminary research and started writing all three.  Within a month, first one idea and then a second fell off the landscape; I just didn’t like them enough to spend the kind of time needed to write a novel.  I am excited about the story that survived my trial-month!  Its characters will be rich company for the coming year or more.  At this early stage I don’t want to describe the story for fear someone will try to talk me out of it, but will just say that the novel will be about another famous writer of the past, his personal life and loves, and how the dramas playing in his personal life intersect his writing-life.

 2.  How does your work differ from others of its genre?

 I’ll give a specific example.  About a month before Stevenson’s Treasure was released, Ballantine Books published Nancy Horan’s Under the Wide and Starry Sky, also a novel about Robert Louis Stevenson and Fanny Osbourne’s relationship.  Horan’s book is a twenty-year novelized history of the pair, from when they met in France to the time of Louis’s death in Samoa.  My focus is much narrower, covering only the first few years of their relationship and detailing the year Louis spent in California trying to make Fanny his wife.  To me, the audaciousness of the trip, the physical danger, the romance, and even the absurd humor in Stevenson’s quest made this an irresistible year on which to focus.  With a relatively short time-frame, I could afford to spend several pages or a whole chapter on just one day, if it fascinated me enough.  An example is the day Louis and Fanny were married in a tiny ceremony in San Francisco, in a Presbyterian parsonage in May, 1880.  Horan’s novel spends only a few chapters on the entire year Louis spent in California, but her briefer treatment of that time-period gave her space to touch on many events the couple faced in subsequent years that my novel does not even mention.  I believe that with novels as well as photography, both narrow and wide-frame views through a lens can make fascinating pictures.

 3.  Why do you write what you do?

After several years of writing reports for government agencies (a special genre, I think, within the fiction category), I started writing screenplays at night for the fun of it.  The first few were comedies, and I thought they were dynamite.  Each of them drew a stack of rejection letters, a few of them at least vaguely friendly in tone.  One agent suggested I take a look at how great dramatists create interesting characters who fight tooth and nail for what they want.  I could think of none better than Shakespeare, so I immersed myself in reading and watching his plays.  I’m not sure that this helped my writing, but in the gift shop at the Shakespeare festival in Ashland, Oregon, I stumbled on Charles Hamilton’s book, In Search of Shakespeare, about the poet’s handwriting.  Contained in it were detailed speculations, some of them sinister, about Shakespeare’s Last Will, and the changes he made shortly before his death that restricted the share given his youngest daughter.  From this stimulus I concocted a plot, pitting father against daughter (although he loves her the entire time).  The resulting screenplay did well in a big writing competition, and I got an agent.  For a few years I cranked out thrillers, historical epics, and disaster movies, all of which failed to thrill Hollywood.  So,  I decided to try writing novels.  After starting and abandoning two learning-efforts, I “found” the story of Robert Louis Stevenson and Fanny Osbourne (a discovery described elsewhere on my website), and loved the writing of it.  Finally I had found my niche!

 4.  How does your writing process work?

Slowly.  I envy writers who can quickly and without much conscious effort churn out good stories.  I have to mull things over, mumble words endlessly to myself to find just the right one for a sentence, plod forward for a few hundred words, put the piece away for the night, then look at it in the light of a new day and tinker a little bit more before writing a few hundred more words.  And after all that, I ask friends for critiques of the scenes I have written, and try to fix mistakes.  Although most of my process is slow and deliberate, at some point – with Stevenson’s Treasure, probably somewhere during the fifth year of the process – intuition and the unconscious took over and contributed some of those “Wow, where did that come from?” lines and scenes that I like the best.

From Sands Hall’s wonderful book, Tools of the Writer’s Craft, and her workshops I learned to plan each scene before writing it.  How will the scene move the plot forward?  How will it reveal character?  What characters will be onstage, and what does each one of them want?  Who will they have to fight (figuratively, at least) to get it?  Does each achieve his/her goal?  What is the setting, and might there be a more interesting place to set the scene than the first one that comes to mind?  What objects will be in the setting, and what will characters be doing with the objects that might, as in an onstage drama, give them good visual actions that reveal what they are thinking and feeling?

When I am stuck for a way to get into a scene or chapter, an image often helps.  I love old photographs, paintings, and objects that were cherished by the historical characters I am writing about.  Fanny’s sketch of Louis, above, is a case in point.  In early drafts of Stevenson’s Treasure, I tried several ways of opening the story, none of which seemed to set up the problems facing its characters very well.  Doing some filing one day, I came across Fanny’s sketch of Louis in a stack of old photographs I had enlarged to make a presentation.  I found myself trying to imagine what Fanny might have been thinking, staring at every physical detail of Louis while trying to draw him.  The idea – fictional – that she sketched him at the very point of telling him she was leaving France to rejoin her husband in California dawned on me.  I had my beginning!

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