Cure Homesickness: Write a Novel

Two years ago I began writing a story.

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Photo by Negative Space on Pexels.com

We had moved from our home on the central California coast to Virginia, and I was homesick for the mountains, the cool coastal air, the golden evening light–the familiar beauty of our former home. For several months, I used my writing to capture memories of California, fearful that I would forget the sensory details that photographs could not capture. I wrote essays, poems, short stories, and scribbled a lot in my journal.

The plan was to write something longer than a short story, but shorter than a novella.

I even decided to try my hand at a middle-grade story for my children. Our former home with it’s three acres of old farm land, trees made for climbing, a creek, and fog rolling in from the bay each evening was the perfect setting for adventure. It would be a gift for them and a creative exercise for me.  The plan was to write something longer than a short story, but shorter than a novella.

Soon I had a collection of scenes and character sketches, but no vision for a unified story. I put away the pages and turned my attention to other work.

A year and a half later, while reviewing files of unfinished writing projects, I took another look at the patchwork pieces I had written for my kids. I edited a lot. I wrote some more. It was fun, so I continued, one scene at a time, not really sure where I was going.

Then, one day (which is how so many stories start, after all) everything changed.

I was doing something mundane like stirring a pot of chili and I  realized how the entire story would develop. There were plenty of details to fill in, but I understood enough to sketch additional characters and chapter summaries.

This was no longer just a fun story for my kids. I had a new novel to write.

Sixteen chapters later, I’m on track to finish my first draft by the end of June. I have pages of adventure for my kids and a wealth of sensory memories for me. Soon, I’ll have a complete novel for all of us.

Below is an excerpt from the current draft.

It’s one of the original scenes that I wrote two years ago involving a rather strange minor character. In it, four of the five children with whom the story is chiefly concerned meet this unusual woman–who turns out to be their neighbor–early one evening when they are on an urgent mission.


Mrs. Terry had turned her back on them and now faced the field. In the distance, a grey roll of fog crept toward them from the sea.  Birds fluttered in and out of the tall grasses, filling the evening air with their cries. Tiny finches darted, keeping away from the larger birds. Over all, three red-tail hawks circled, climbing, then gliding and banking. Mrs. Terry kept her left hand on her stick while raising her face and her right palm to the skies. In a voice that seemed far too loud and strong for her slight body, she cried out,

Draw a peace over this teeming field–

Wildlife calling, crawling, rising, taking flight.

Blanket this space in quiet, still life

Waiting on breathless wing for summoning.

Later they would all say that they had probably imagined it, but it seemed at that moment as if the noisy field before them did calm, soothed by the funny words of this strange new neighbor.

Kerith felt her face heat as she tried to think of what to say. She felt the weighty expectation of good manners, certain that she must say something polite in response to what this odd little woman had just done. At the very least, she must take charge before one of the younger children broke free of their bewilderment and said what they were thinking. Fortunately for her, Mrs. Terry was happy to continue.

“Well,” she said. She turned her back on the field and faced the low mountains that rimmed the far, western side of their property. There the sun seemed to hesitate on the mountain tops, bathing their house and the land below it in the last lingering rays of soft light.

“The whole world is a great cathedral, far more magnificent than anything man has ever created, don’t you think?” She sighed.  “It’s a wonder anyone bothers.”

She tapped her stick against the asphalt and Kerith expected to see sparks, or smoke, or something fly out from the point of contact. Mrs. Terry shrugged, and smiled at them.

“Well, thank goodness they did, yes? Create things, I mean. Great buildings, music, art. They’re so inspiring, don’t you think? I always want to create something great and beautiful to make other people feel the same way.” She shrugged. “Unfortunately, my creative talents are limited to mediocre knitting and decent cooking.”

But Kerith wanted to shout, “Yes, I know exactly what you mean!” The exquisite evening light made her want to capture something of its beauty. She wanted to run home, pull out a canvas, a sketchpad, paints, pencil–anything–and create.

As usual, though, round-eyed, freckle-faced Zelda was the first to speak. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

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How to Write a Novel in Ten Years

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If you’ve read it, you know. (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)

 

I recently read a Pulitzer Prize winner that took the writer about a decade to complete. What a coincidence!  My first novel took me nearly ten years to finish. Now, I doubt Anthony Doerr followed my process when he knocked together All the Light We Cannot See, but if you’re looking to write a novel and want to take as long as possible, here are a few tips.

  1. Spend a year or two (or more!) dreaming about writing a novel. It’s very important that you not actually write at this point, unless you write about how much you want to write a novel. Other important activities include fantasizing about any of the following: scoring the highest advance ever paid out to a debut novelist; holding a hardbound copy of your novel in your hand; winning a Nobel Prize; your hometown awarding you the key to the city; adoring fans trampling booksellers to acquire your latest release, etc. It may also help to spend time with other people who “have always wanted to write a book!”
  2. Procrastination by Preparation. There’s so much to do, it’s amazing that anyone ever actually writes a book. First, you should read about writing. Books on craft, genre-specific writing advice, industry magazines, and memoirs can keep you busy for years. Reading blogs about writing is also useful. Write short stories and blog posts to help you “develop your voice.” If you run out of ideas feel free to revisit the first step. Don’t start until you feel ready.
  3. Wait for Validation. Should you really try to write a novel? Isn’t that for real writers? If you hang in there long enough, a spouse, friend, coworker, or your mom may give you permission to call yourself a writer. Then you can start. If you feel ready. (Note: this never actually worked for me.)
  4. Begin without actually writing. Spend as much time as possible researching, world-building, creating character sketches, and plotting. Tell yourself that you’re a planner. Then spend at least a year planning to write.
  5. Allow life events to interfere as much as possible. Have five kids and decide to homeschool them. Obviously, your priorities will shift. Spare time to write will dwindle. Move three times in three years. (I’m having traumatic flashbacks, so I’ll just leave that there.)
  6. Look at the time! Realize that you have been “working” on your first novel for nearly eight years. Mid-life is not as far away as it used to be and you don’t want it to arrive before your novel does.
  7. It’s time to write. Recognize that you have planned, plotted, and sketched this thing to death. There’s nothing left to do but actually write. (Don’t panic. Keep reading.)
  8. Share your dream. Choose someone who doesn’t care if you’re really a writer or not. Choose someone who will cheer you on if you want to be a writer or a world-famous butter sculptor. They’re so supportive, they hold you accountable to your writing plan.
  9. Sit down and write. Oh. It’s hard. Wish you had started this eight years ago. Stop and write a detailed outline for the entire novel because your insecure, rickety train needs rails. This might take a month or two.
  10. Sit down again and write. It’s still hard. Do it anyway. Let your friend hold you accountable. Write some more. Repeat until you finish your first draft less than a year later. It’s pretty awful, but you read Bird by Bird when you were procrastinating six years ago, so you know this is okay.

I can’t guarantee a Pulitzer Prize, but if you follow my plan, you will certainly take many years to complete a novel. If you’re lucky, you’ll learn a few things along the way. Writing your second novel may just be a different story altogether.

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A Children’s Story (Excerpt)

I’m currently writing a children’s story. It’s a great deal of fun, primarily because I’m writing with my children in mind, thinking about what will interest and entertain them.  They really are the perfect audience:  endlessly forgiving and easily amused.

In this story, I’m just getting to know a particular character.   I know she walks every morning and evening with two small, ugly dogs, carrying a walking stick hand-carved from the trunk of a redwood tree cut on her own property.  I  have no inkling as to her name.   I know that when she’s walking, she often speaks out loud, and with great passion, as if she’s conversing with nature and they are intimate friends.

Four of the five children with whom the story is chiefly concerned meet this unusual woman–who turns out to be their neighbor–early one evening when they are on an urgent mission. The excerpt that follows finds them fidgety and awkward, having just encountered her for the first time.


Behind them, birds fluttered in and out of the tall dried grasses, filling the evening air with their calls and cries. Mice, rats, and gophers scampered and rustled home through the underbrush. Tiny finches darted, keeping away from the larger birds, and overall, the three red-tail hawks circled, climbing, then gliding and banking. The tiny old woman leaned heavily on her stick and pivoted to face the raucous field. She kept her left hand on the stick, raising her face and her right palm to the skies. In a voice that seemed far too loud and strong for her frail body, she cried out,

“Draw a peace over this teeming field–

wildlife calling, crawling, rising, taking flight.

Blanket this space in quiet, still life

waiting on breathless wing for summoning.”

Later they would all say that they had probably imagined it, but it seemed at that moment as if the noisy field before them did calm as if soothed by the funny words of this strange new neighbor.

Kerith felt her face heat as she tried to think of what to say. She felt the weighty expectation of good manners, certain that she was required to say something polite in response to what this odd little woman had just done. At the very least,  she must take charge before one of the younger children broke free of their bewilderment and said what they were thinking. Fortunately for her,  she was rescued by the little woman, who seemed to see no need for anyone else to speak.

“Well,” she said, with such force that all five of them fixed their eyes on her wrinkled face. She was not looking at them. She had turned around to face the low mountains that rimmed the far side of their property.  There the sun seemed to rest on the mountain tops, a hesitation that bathed the valley below them in soft, golden light. “The whole world is a great cathedral, far more magnificent than anything man has ever created, don’t you think? It’s a wonder anyone bothers.” She tapped her stick against the asphalt and Joshua expected to see sparks, or smoke, or something fly out from the point of contact. She shrugged and smiled at them. “Well, thank goodness they did, yes? Create things, I mean. The cathedrals, sculptures, paintings, magnificent compositions. They’re so inspiring, don’t you think?  When I see them or hear them, or when I’m outside on an exquisite evening like this, I always want to create something great and beautiful to make other people feel the same way.”  She smiled at them again, her large eyes glinting in the fading light.

Kerith wanted to shout, “Yes! Yes, I know exactly what you mean! She wanted to run home, pull out a canvas, a sketchpad, oils, acrylics, a pencil–anything–and create.  Heck, she was tempted to drop to one knee in the dirt and start tracing her finger in the dry brown earth.

As usual, though, round-eyed, freckle-faced Zelda was the first to speak, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”


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Short Stories

I have written two short stories solely for the purpose of exploring individual characters from a longer work. There were two benefits to this exercise. First, I got a firmer grasp on each character’s motivations. Second, I was able to procrastinate on the longer work and still claim to be writing.  The following excerpt is the first couple of pages from one of these exploratory shorts.

She drove from the east, and the sunrise glowed from behind her, softening the dry, ragged contours of her destination. For a moment, it seemed that the town regained its youthful flush and swagger when bulging cattle cars lumbered from its tiny depot to Chicago slaughterhouses, and tankers, swollen with oil, slid in from the west.  Ivy ignored the illusion. She knew that the mid-day sun would burn it away and return her hometown to its weary habit.

Minutes later she parked in front of her mother’s home on a street of neat one-story houses that were pounded together at the end of World War II. Once as bright and eager as the newlyweds crossing their porches, these homes now squatted comfortably, their faces faded and worn from years of raising families.

A sidewalk, cracked and uneven, led to her mother’s front yard where a courageous bit of garden welcomed visitors.  It was a lush patch in the small town where much of the landscaping looked as if the owners had left for vacation and forgot to pay the neighbor’s kid to water the yard. There were roses, lavender,ornamental grasses, and tough succulents. There were heavy blossoms reaching for the sun on stately stems, and shy shade-lovers creeping out from below the taller growth, anything her mother could keep alive in this reluctant earth.

In the kitchen, Ivy’s mother was just straightening up from the oven, and her hands, engulfed by quilted mitts, grasped the sides of a formidable roasting pan. The oven released its heat in a breath laden with roasted garlic, vegetables, and rich meat, the familiar Sunday afternoon fragrance of her mother’s kitchen.

“Sugar,” her mother exhaled the endearment as she set the pan onto waiting trivets, “Sugar, can you pop the casserole in there? I don’t think I can bend down again after that.”

“Sure Mama.”

After easing the oven door shut, Ivy straightened and turned to see her mother holding out a length of pressed red and white gingham. Tiny roosters strutted across the small checks.

“Don’t want you to splash anything on that pretty dress.” She gave the apron an impatient shake and then pressed it into Ivy’s hand.  “Would  you rather have mine? I think it’s longer–might even cover your whole skirt.”

“No, Mama, this is fine.” She ducked her head through the neck strap and fumbled with the ties before her mother stepped forward, and putting her arms around Ivy’s waist, secured the apron.

“Welcome home, baby girl.”

“Thanks Mama.” Ivy kissed her on the temple, right where her mother’s thick, blonde-white hair met the soft skin of her face, now reddened from her time in the cramped kitchen. “I don’t even wear these at home,” she admitted.

“Well. I know I always made you wear them in this kitchen.” Her mother paused in front of the refrigerator and stared for a moment at the faded red OKLAHOMA! magnet that memorialized her lone venture from her home state. “Remember the blue and white one with the eyelet lace?” She pulled the refrigerator door open, freeing a wisp of cool air to swirl at their legs, and began handing fruit to Ivy.

“I loved that apron!”She laid the fruit on the counter. Pineapple, banana, strawberry, kiwi. “Didn’t it have a rainbow on it?”

“No, no, no, that was your fourth-grade apron. You know, you loved to wear the blue one and pretend that you were Dorothy.” Her mother pulled a white paper napkin from her own apron pocket, folded it in half, and pressed it to her forehead  and above her upper lip.  “You would wear that apron all day and carry Stripey around in my wicker yarn basket calling him ‘Toto’. You made it to the grocery store once in that get-up and almost to church another time before we noticed.”

“That poor cat,” Ivy laid the pineapple across the cutting board and removed the top and bottom with quick, heavy strokes. “No wonder all his hair fell out before he died. I tortured him and Stanford medicated him.” She rubbed her thumb over the pineapple’s prickly surface and smiled, “I wonder what Stanford’s patients would think if they knew he started out on cats?”

Her mother frowned at the bowl she was cleaning, “Your brother’s patients adore him. Finish that fruit and toss it with the lime juice. Family will be here soon.”

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