I’m busy. I’m always busy. But busy before the pandemic began is a lot different from busy now.
Is that true for you, too?
I’ve been writing forever, and I’m fortunate to be traditionally published a lot. That means I generally have faced a lot of upcoming deadlines. That hasn’t changed, although at the moment there seem to be more than usual.
But my busy-ness before was enhanced a lot by get-togethers with other writers at meetings of local chapters of Romance Writers of America, Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America, and sometimes more. Then there were all the conferences I attended, which often included the Romance Writers of America National Conference, held annually in different locations. Then there were Malice Domestic, Left Coast Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and other mystery-related conferences. I attended at least one a year. And in addition, there were annual conferences locally, such as the California Crime Writers Conference.
And now? Well, some get-togethers are available virtually. I’ve attended some chapter meetings that way, but not annual conferences. I know Malice Domestic will be virtual this year and I keep receiving emails about it—but so far I haven’t decided to go.
That’s all certainly different from before. But things seem to be improving now, as far as the ability of people to meet in person, though in smaller groups, and the necessity of being vaccinated, and wearing masks, although that seems to be changing at least to some extent and in some locations.
So will I go back to the old ways as things open up again? I don’t know yet. Tempting, yes, but I want to feel more secure that I won’t get sick or bring the virus home to others. And maybe I’m getting into bad, more solitary habits this way.
I’ve been delighted, though, to meet some of my fellow Writers in Residence for our usual—formerly—monthly lunch recently!
And you? Do you attend conferences now, virtually or in person? Writing events? Reading events?
It was Virginia Wolfe who, in 1929, famously said, “A woman must have money and a room of her own, if she is to write fiction.”
I thought about that as I de-cluttered my office-space for the umpteenth time, trying to create more writing space. I’d even bought myself a new smaller office chair – petite, chrome with pale gray leather. Much prettier than the traditional tall black swivel chair I’ve had for years. You see, I don’t have an actual office – a separate room – but use the far corner of my living room, surrounded by bookshelves, for my office. It would be nice, I thought, to have a separate office with a door – that I could shut at the end of each work day, and ignore my mess of research papers and note pads.
Agatha Christie had a lovely, bright office in her sprawling country home, Greenway, on the River Dart in Devon. Now a National Trust property, the view from her office window is of green lawns and masses of colorful wild flowers. But she said she really did her thinking, about her plots and characters, in the huge claw-foot bath-tub in the upstairs Victorian bathroom.
Men who write fiction need a room of their own, too. I also visited Bateman’s estate: Rudyard Kipling’s Jacobean home in Burwash, Sussex. You can walk into his book-lined study and see his wide writing table covered with travel mementoes, his inkwell, pen and assorted hand-written pages. Next to the table is a daybed, where Kipling would spend part of his writing day reclining and thinking through his books before he committed his tales to paper. Tall windows overlooking rolling fields and farmlands, made the room surprisingly light.
Beatrix Potter began writing as a very young child, when her nursery was on the top floor of the family’s tall, Victorian London house. (At least she had a room of her own.) She would be brought downstairs to visit with her mother for an hour each afternoon. Her only companions were the household staff. When her lunch (delivered to her room daily on a tray) was late one day, a maid explained “Cook’s got mice in the kitchen!” Beatrix was intrigued: “What’s ‘mice in the kitchen’?” A houseman brought one of the mice in a cage for the little girl to see. The rest, as they say, is history. She asked to keep the caged mouse as company and began to draw the furry creature and write stories about it. Her literary work expanded when, as a teenager, they moved north into the countryside, where she found Mrs. Tiggywinkle and all the other characters she brought us.
In today’s world, most writers have a room of their own in which to write. Although Carol Higgins Clark started out writing on the corner of the kitchen table. She would retype her mother’s (Mary Higgins Clark) novels to send out to her agent. Carol said her mom explained everything she was doing, so that eventually Carol was able to write her own novels and found her own literary success, following her late mom’s very successful path. She now can afford her own office.
Jackie Collins wrote hugely successful novels set in glamorous Beverly Hills and Hollywood in her equally glamorous office, with big picture windows overlooking Beverly Hills. The furniture was light beige and luxurious, her desk semicircular with a high-back soft beige leather chair. Jackie wrote all her novels by hand on yellow legal pads. She wrote daily from nine to five, with a short lunch break.
Danielle Steel has not just one Room of Her Own – or office – but two: One is in Paris, where she grew up, and the other in San Francisco. She travels back and forth. The mother of nine now-grown children, Danielle has written almost two hundred books. Her passion for writing has led to an intense schedule. At her desk, built to resemble a stack of her books, Danielle begins at 8 am each day and does not leave until a draft is complete. Sometimes she just stops for four hours sleep and carries on until the book is finished. She wears her comfy cashmere nightgown and eats at her desk, with refills of de-caffeinated iced coffee and a stash of bittersweet chocolate. When she is in San Francisco, she writes on her 1946 Olympia standard typewriter. As I said, Danielle Steele has TWO rooms of her own in which to write her fiction.
I remember visiting fellow Brit-born writer, Jacqueline Winspear. She had a lovely, small home-office, where she wrote many Maisie Dobbs novels. The walls were lined with shelves of books, research, and jumbo post-it notes, with a large table under the window and a comfy chair. Jacqui said that when she shut the door and closed the blinds, she could lose herself back in the Maisie Dobbs world of England in the 1930s.
I was envious that Jacqui had a room of her own in which to write. A room with a door that she could shut. I remember thinking that if I had a cozy office with a door that I could shut, then I could easily write at least one novel a year – just as Jacquie has done.
But now, as I settle down again at my table in the corner of the living room and start scribbling another segment of my next Lottie Topaz novel, I look across the room to the patio and the pool outside. I realize that I can’t continue without another cup of tea. Kitchen here I come. Then I have an idea for a contemporary mystery I’m working on set in St. Tropez. You see how quickly I distract myself?
While other writer friends have churned out dozens of novels, I realize that I have allowed my life and time to be torn in different directions, sorting other people’s problems and dramas. But, hey, I’m getting better. At least I am writing a few times a week, for a couple of snatched hours. I just want to be totally dedicated to writing several hours, every single day, like the aforementioned writers. What’s wrong with me?
Aha! I have found the real reason behind my lack of focus. I don’t have a
proper office – with a door that I can shut on all those distractions. I need a room of my own.
That’s not a typo, it’s a play on words, inspired by a stream of advice I’ve gotten from many writing experts on a touchy subject. We’re told, write what you know. Does that include exploiting who we know?
How far are you willing to go to write a tantalizing mystery, an emotionally powerful drama, or a deeply moving character study? Would you base it on an actual incident or situation in someone’s life and its effect on them? I’m not talking about libel, but morality.
A piece in your news source of choice might inspire you to write a “ripped from the headlines” novel. Legitimate public information is fair play for adaptation, such as a criminal case or someone’s media appeal to raise attention to an issue. For example, some couples have had children in hopes of providing bone marrow or other vital tissue to save a stricken older child. In addition to non-fictional accounts and memoirs written by family members, many authors, including Jodi Picoult, opted that storyline for novels. Dramatic, yes. Is it exploitive?
What if something noteworthy happened in your own life? You might write a memoir detailing the experience and how it changed you. Or you could draw on the event to fashion a scene, and more importantly, for the emotions it evoked, whether it’s the pain of loss, the thrill of first love, the shock of violence or post-traumatic stress inflicted by a drastic incident. When I write about grieving or passion, feeling afraid or distraught, it comes from my own experience, but I do so voluntarily.
We base our characters, at least in part, on people we’ve known. We imbue them with that person’s physical characteristics or personality traits. Say you’ve given your sleuth, a Vietnam vet, the same war wound as your brother, and his nemesis flashes the pasty-faced smirk of your loathsome ex-boss. Those qualities illustrate the characters, but don’t define them.
Great writers incorporate their lives into their stories. They tend to base some characters on family members and people closest to them, portraits which are often unflattering and unkind. Writers also mine tales from family and friends for source material. My own series of historical fiction novels began with a rumor about my grandmother. Stories about transformation, triumph over tragedy, and overcoming loss are rich with potential. As an example, a brilliant, successful woman marries a man who never divorced his first wife – and his family knows that when he walks down the aisle – makes a great storyline. What if she was your best friend? Or if a couple in your family, grappling with an intellectually disabled son who’s growing stronger and more aggressive, are agonizing over whether to institutionalize him?
In Betsy Lerner‘s excellent book, “A Forest For The Trees”, she urges writers to use whatever they can in their own lives to enrich their story, including incidents in the lives of the people closest to them. “If you are going to be honest and write about all the untidy emotions, the hideous envy, and disturbing fantasies that make us human, how can you not offend your loved ones, your neighbors and community?” A New York Times piece by James Parker, contributing editor at The Atlantic, endorses the practice of “invading” other people’s lives, but only if you can elevate it above exploitation; the purpose must be empathy.
For me the issue goes deeper than adapting an external experience. We can take plotlines from personal sources and show how one might feel in that situation, but what about someone far removed from ourselves? Each day I’m exposed to people whose experiences, based on their race, religion, ethnicity or sexuality, shape their world view, which differs vastly from mine. Are there places within a person that are too intimate to go, too unreachable to know?
In 1990 I worked on a conference sponsored by an organization of scientists who explore the repercussions of technological advancement. They chose as their conference theme: Can We Do It? How Do We Do It? Ought We Do It? As a writer, I ask myself the same questions in understanding the social implications of storytelling, crafting diverse, authentic characters and emotionally compelling plots. Characters and plots that ring true to those outside the world I create as well as to those within.
A fiction writer’s goal is to produce a logical and believable manuscript, populated with characters, many who’ll be familiar to us and a few who thankfully bear no resemblance to anyone we know. We can borrow from their histories or instead, as Parker says, “invade” other people’s lives; strive for realistic portrayals or take Lerner’s advice to “be honest” enough to “offend”. That leaves me wondering: Is it proper to take the experiences of those we know best for the sake of a good plot? Is it possible to mine the depths of emotions, or the most intimate thoughts, of someone so dissimilar from us?
Can we? How? Ought we?
Miko Johnston, a founding member of The Writers in Residence, is the author of three novels in the A Petal In The Wind saga, as well as a contributor to anthologies including LAst Exit to Murder. She is currently pages from competing her fourth novel in the series. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington (the big one) with her rocket scientist husband, who graciously helped her revise this post. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org