If you have seen The Man Who Invented Christmas, starring Dan Stevens as Charles Dickens, busy writing “The Christmas Carol,” you will have observed an accurate portrayal of how the writing process works.
The characters really do move in with…or move in on… the author, interrupting his/her thoughts, appearing at the most inconvenient…or fortunate…times.
The author indeed does find inspiration in ordinary happenings, snatch names he finds fitting (Charles Dickens kept an entire notebook of made-up names ready to assign the characters he had not yet created), struggles to keep the plot moving forward, and at the most unpredictable times is inspired, sometimes “out of nowhere,” with the most unexpected ideas.
And says to himself, “Why didn’t I think of that before?”
To which he answers, “You just did.”
Once you make the decision to put your fingers on the keyboard and start making up a story…writing of necessity becomes a 24/7 proposition. Your characters become real to you, so real that when you’re “driving them up a tree and throwing rocks at them”—the slogan about keeping “conflict” interesting—you begin to have sympathy for them.
That’s when you look in the mirror and say, “You know they’re not real, right?”
The idea for my first book, Trevorode the Defender, came to me in 1998. The name Hawthorne Ultima came to my mind sometime during the night. It had the makings of a good penname.
Hawthorne Ultima was “in reality” Trevor Rhodes, a writer, would-be historian, who wanted to write scholarly historical fiction. But the poor fellow couldn’t break into print. To get his name “out there,” he decided to bow to the whims of the reading public and create a super hero named after himself, “Trevorode.” Adding Defender.
But a funny thing happened. Trevor’s hero became an unexpected hit. And in an entirely unlikely scenario, the real Trevor was not satisfied with being a household name. He wanted to be a scholar. I supposed that was possible. Eventually, Arthur Conan Doyle wanted to write something other than Sherlock Holmes stories.
For various reasons, the dawn of the 21st century found me too busy and preoccupied to keep writing. Then in 2010 I retired to become a stay-at-home grandmother. That summer I attended my first writers’ conference.
Quite frankly, I felt like an impostor, always entertaining the nagging feeling—my official name badge notwithstanding—someone would eventually approach me and say, “Excuse me. What are you doing here? You’re not a writer.”
I chose to submit ten pages of my manuscript in order to join a critique group. The experience was so positive, that many of us decided to stay together after the conference ended. Five of us continued to meet once a month.
We would write ten pages, and send them to everyone in the group. Then we would critique each other’s work, meet, and hand over the manuscripts we had edited and proofread. Eventually, this group narrowed down to three and stayed together, losing, and adding members, for ten years.
Without that critique group, I am not certain I would have continued. The idea that people were waiting for me to produce the pages kept me moving forward. On top of that, they offered honest and helpful evaluation and steered me in the right direction.
As for Trevorode, it took a completely different direction.
A fellow writer advised my main character (and narrator) should be female, so Agnes Quinn—my constant companion for the last decade—came to life.
It was she who was writing Trevorode the Defender, and doing so while still in college. She named her main character after the man she loved.
Eventually, she learns about the Magnolia Arms and longs to go there, believing the house, “romantic” that she was, to be her destiny.
And indeed it was. Mine, too.
I had chosen the name Magnolia as homage to my final performance in a full-length play: Southern Fried Murder. I played the main character, Magnolia, who is the victim of the aforementioned murder. It was a comedy, by the way, and absolutely hilarious…populated as it was by zany performers.
I resurrected the name “Hawthorne,” giving it to Margaret, Jonas Grinstead’s lost love. It was he who built the Magnolia Arms and then abandoned it to take a job teaching math at the community college where Agnes would eventually be employed.
Next week: the story of the story continues.