Inside a writer’s mind

A few years back, a blog called ‘Universal Historicals’ interviewed me and asked some of the most interesting questions I’ve ever been asked. Some excerpts:

What’s the one thing that keeps you going back and writing?

Well, there are stories to be told. If I have been procrastinating too long, they shake me by the shoulders and tell me to get on with things. My stories are in a way my muses – I keep going back to them and talking to them and cajoling them and yelling at them and threatening dire action if they don’t do exactly as I say. They rarely do.

The stories are my friends, and a collective nemesis, and they demand that I tell them. What can I do but obey? They need my mind and my hand to release themselves out into the world. So I lend them. Willingly. Often. Again and again.

 

Why did you base your novel “The Secrets of Jin-shei” on a fictional China instead of making it a pure fantasy setting, as you did in, say, “Changer of Days”?China photo

The first inkling I had of the story which became “The Secrets of Jin-shei” was a page of ten character sketches, each a short paragraph long – the characters were nameless and faceless at that point.

I knew that they were going to be Oriental but not that they were to be specifically Chinese-inspired. Then I received a newspaper clipping about a dying language, a written women’s language taught from mother to daughter in China – and of how the last woman who had learned it organically in this way was dying and would take the living language with her. My ten character sketches sat up and became people, and after that China was inevitable.

With the fantasy duology, “Hidden Queen”/”Changer of Days”, it was more of a pure joyous storytelling, something that came from absolutely nowhere but my own imagination. It was tied to nothing and nobody in the “real”, our world.

Every book is different. Look at just these two examples – one purely imaginary, the other researched and rooted in an actual historical and geographical setting but still fantasy, a China-that-never-was. Another of my novels “Midnight at Spanish Gardens”, is set in a cafe called Spanish Gardens, a place which existed once, exactly as I described it.

A story chooses its context – at least, my stories do. Stories are like semi-sentient jewels, seeking for the setting that best shows them off. And they know best.

What are some of your favorite resources for research? Do you purchase the books you need, or find them at the library?

I buy them, I borrow them, I cadge them from friends if they have what I need, I use whatever means necessary.

And let me put in a plug here for used bookstores. The used books stores in the town in which I live are fantastic. They are stuffed with treasures, some which you never knew you needed until you tripped over them in a bottom shelf somewhere. I’ve found gems of obscure biographies in these stores, books long out of print, which contained precisely the context I needed for a scene or a chapter or a character. I’ve found coffee table books full of pictures, some of which gave birth to spectacular settings in my novels.

Old outdated encyclopedias can be invaluable resources (as in, “Good GRIEF – they actually believed THAT?”)

Memoirs, letters, even old creaky out of print novels by writers you’ve never heard of which happen to be set in the world which you are researching. As always, caveat emptor – you have to do ENOUGH research to know what’s true and what’s pure malarkey – you have to know the real rules before you are allowed to break them. But anything can be grist to the mill.

Research can be intoxicating and dizzying and it may be difficult to know just when to STOP. But while you’re doing it, it’s amazing, it’s like riding a wild horse without tack, and you never quite know where you’re going to end up. And sometimes that final destination is quite, quite different from the one you thought you were aiming at. Good research will do that – redirect you to Wonderful, instead of just This Will Do.

What scene do you like the most? Is there anything a character did that surprised you? 

I’m going to answer this one as pertains to “Midnight at Spanish Gardens”.

There are a dozen scenes in this book which I love. The scenes that bookend the book – my narrator Olivia’s thoughts on the café as she first approaches it, after so many years have passed since her last visit, and her thoughts about the place in the aftermath of the whole story that takes place between the covers of this book. The scene where another character finds out about… but that would be a spoiler… but it is one of the most powerful scenes in the book. The scene where another character meets her partner’s family at their wedding. Almost every scene with Ariel, the bartender around whom strange things happen.

The thing about scenes, for me, is that they have never been something that stands out as and of themselves. I know some writers literally use them as building blocks for a novel, working scene by scene, building up a story that way – whereas I tend to tell the story and then be surprised when it breaks up into discrete scenes afterwards. I am a most organic writer, and to me the value is in the whole, not the scenes. That said… YOU, the reader, might find individual scenes, which matter more than others. If anyone out there wants to let me know which, I would be fascinated to hear it.

And as for my characters doing things to surprise me… EVERYTHING my characters do surprises me. My best characters are very much in charge of their own stories. I have learned the hard way that my characters are not TAME characters – they are not hawks trained to jesses and hood. I set them free, and then I follow where they lead me. Everyone is happier that way.

My characters, my lovely ever surprising characters, are real people who live and breathe, they are someone you just haven’t met yet, but they exist. And if they walked out of the book, off the page, and stuck out their hand for you to shake it, you’d recognise them even if you have never formally met. Yes, they surprise me. I’ve been known to weep at some of the things my characters have chosen to do. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

There was a lot more to this Q&A and if you would like to read the rest, you can find it HERE

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Wired asked writers to create 6-word SF stories.

The baby’s blood type? Human, mostly.
– Orson Scott Card

More from Wired HERE

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Should we give disturbing books to kids?

My new YA due out in the spring could arguably be called ‘disturbing.’ But I subscribe to the definition of art which says that it should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.

Christina Chant Sullivan has some thoughts about disturbing books for kids. “People often cringe when I tell them I teach middle school boys, a population that seems to be considered the pits of the education world. But I feel grateful to experience ‘disturbing’ books with these boys in the middle.

“Perhaps it is their very nature as middle schoolers that gives my students this ability to recognize some stories as made-up, not real, thus not really disturbing. Very young children blur the lines between real and make-believe; they pretend for a living. Teenagers are beginning to be mired in the truths of the ‘real world’. But the tweeners … can see both sides. They intrinsically know what is pretend and what is not.”

Disturbing books for kids

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The Books We’ve Lost

The very first thing that caught my attention in Bellingham was a used bookstore that had shelves that went on forever. When I discovered it was only one of many such bookstores, I fell in love with the town and moved here shortly after.

But used-book stores are disappearing, Charles Simic believes, and he laments their loss.

“What made these stores attractive to someone like me is that they were more indiscriminate and chaotic than public libraries and thus made browsing more of an adventure … one’s interest was aroused by the title or the appearance of a book. Then came the suspense of opening it, checking out the table of contents, thumbing the pages … looking for underlined passages and notes in the margins. How delightful to find some unknown reader commenting in pencil on a Victorian love poem: ‘Shit.'”

Losing the used bookstore

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The Readers of Goodreads

There are a lot of good sites on the web for readers. One of my favorite is Goodreads, a place I originally went in the hope of getting my library organized by listing all my 5,000 or so books. That never happened, but as a writer I kept coming back because of the readers who love books and love talking about them.

I was browsing through some the comments, on my own books recently and found some delightful remarks about The Secrets of Jin-Shei, one of my book that is now 10 years old.

Venus Smurf noted that “It’s been a few years since I’ve read this one, but it’ll always be one of my favorite books of all time. The language is absolutely lovely, the characters alive and complicated and compelling, and the story itself completely fascinating.”

Escheresque called it “one of the most moving novels I have ever read.

Annie Galloza wrote that the novel “reads like a beautiful, haunting, heart-searing song. … I fell in love with each character & found a little bit of myself in each of these beautiful, independent women.”

The last line of Dorri’s review is enough to lift the spirits of any author: “If you do not come away a changed person, you are not human.”

Thanks, guys. I needed that.
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