In the last month, I’ve been to see three best-selling authors at our local independent bookseller: Lisa See, Sue Monk Kidd, and Deborah Harkness. Each provided a unique view of their writing process, and how and where they get inspiration.
Lisa See is the author of – among others – Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Peony in Love, On Gold Mountain, and her latest, China Dolls. She talked about her family’s history – she herself is the descendant of Chinese immigrants, something she has been researching and discovering her entire life. This has greatly influenced the books she’s written. Her discussion of her family’s history, and the things she discovered while researching her books, was fascinating! She’s read newspaper archives and talked with people who lived through that time – in fact, her most fascinating story was about the time she was able to meet with the woman who actually gave the Mai Tai its name. 🙂
She starts with an idea about the relationship she wants to write about. Then, she chooses the best setting and era, and starts the research. She’s traveled across the world for her research, and made it clear that no matter where you think the story’s going, or what you think it will contain, the research is really the thing that dictates that! She often finds things that absolutely MUST go into the story – either because they’re too interesting to leave out, or because they will actually influence the plot or the characters in some way. Since she writes historical fiction, this is absolutely necessary. She also said she researches right up through the copyediting phase, just in case.
The takeaway quote from Lisa See: Art is the heartbeat of the artist.
Sue Monk Kidd probably needs no introduction: The Mermaid Chair, Traveling with Pomegranates, The Secret Life of Bees, and her latest, The Invention of Wings, a historical novel set during the early- to mid-19th century. Like many authors, Kidd takes inspiration from all kinds of places: for Wings, it was a museum display of women who were historically significant.
One thing she discussed was her love of Joseph Campbell and his ‘hero’s quest.’ Your hero starts in the normal, everyday world – and then Something Happens. The call to action comes. Whether it’s Gandalf coming to find Frodo, or a girl realizing her life’s work is to help end slavery, there is a call to action. The hero’s journey is then about how they finish that quest, and whether or not they are successful.
For Kidd, it’s clear that being an author is still almost something of a novelty, despite numerous best-sellers. She told a story about when one of her novels was published, and at the bookstore, someone came up to her and said, “I think this is the best book of the year! But hey, it’s only February.” Kidd laughed, and said, “Having written a book is all about perspective, and you get a lot of help keeping that perspective!”
When someone asked her why she returned to certain topics, like race and civil rights, in her novels, Kidd said, “Gender and race matter in my life.” Since she grew up in the pre-civil rights South; “This is the stuff of MY history. I feel a responsibility to be a witness to it.”
Most surprising to me, though, was her candor about her characters. She said that when she started trying to write Hetty (Handful, the slave girl in Wings), she started in the third person. “But Hetty kept breaking in with ‘I.’ Sarah was actually more difficult – Hetty talked so fast I could barely keep up!” So she switched to first person, and that was that.
Deborah Harkness is the New York Times bestselling author of the All Souls Trilogy. The latest, The Book of Life, is out now in paperback. This was her second appearance at Watermark – I went to see her four years ago, when A Discovery of Witches was released in paperback. That was a totally random thing, I must admit – a friend called and said, “Hey, this author’s going to be at Watermark and she’s written a book set at Oxford – do you want to go?” So I did.
Unlike either See or Kidd, Harkness doesn’t write straight historical fiction: her books are primarily paranormal, with a healthy dose of history. Also unlike either See or Kidd, Harkness has a doctorate in history, and her primary area of research covers pretty much the same ground as her books do. In fact, as she told us, “Who I am as a historian informs everything I do as a novelist. I try to bring what I love about history to people through my fiction.”
Harkness still teaches full-time; as she’s fond of saying, she only wrote Discovery because the characters came to her. In an airport bookshop, she saw all the paranormal books and wondered, if vampires and werewolves were real, what kind of lives would they be able to lead? What would they do for a living? From that, she began to wonder some more . .. and eventually, Matthew and Diana came to her.
“I always knew where it would end up,” she said, about the conclusion of her trilogy. “But I didn’t always know how I would get there.” Since she doesn’t outline, there are always surprises: twists and turns in the plot she didn’t foresee; characters who appeared out of the blue and made themselves at home; things she wrote in the beginning, unsure how they would resolve themselves but trusting that they would.
Three authors. Three different views of the writing process. But the one thing they all said is this: the ideas can come from anywhere, and the research is the most important thing.
Here’s a few links to the Joseph Campbell Hero’s Quest:
http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=9&ved=0CE0QFjAIahUKEwij05SE5Y3GAhUEQpIKHYM3AF8&url=http%3A%2F%2Fmythologyteacher.com%2Fdocuments%2FTheHeroJourney.pdf&ei=H7h8VePHOISEyQSD74D4BQ&usg=AFQjCNFH6Jj1Rw1G63IOqtEzMFwQpo8j_Q&bvm=bv.95515949,d.cWc (This is a PDF that seems to automatically download when you click the link.)