writing process

My Writing Process

If there’s any TV show I get a kick out of, it’s Castle. Nathan Fillion plays a bestselling novelist, and to watch him you’d think a writer’s life is all red-carpet events, research trips to exotic and dangerous places, and the occasional hour or two of staring pensively at a spiral-bound notebook. No writer I know has ever worked that way–just take a look through this cyclical blog tour “My Writing Process.” Christy English tagged Stephanie Dray with the four questions below, and Stephanie in turn tagged me–and among all our answers, you won’t find a single a red-carpet event or a spiral-bound notebook!

1) What am I working on?
I’m working on the long-awaited sequel to “Empress of the Seven Hills,” which is titled “Lady of the Eternal City” and will be released March 2015. This has been the book from hell, but it’s also been hugely rewarding. I’m revisiting my rough-edged Roman legionary Vix, who is caught in a tangled triangle with Hadrian, the brilliant and sinister Emperor of Rome, and Hadrian’s elegant wife Sabina who is both the love and the bane of Vix’s life. Throw in poison, plotting, rebellion, a trip down the Nile and the building of Hadrian’s wall, and you have yourself a wild ride!

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?
My books will make you laugh. A lot of historical fiction has gotten very serious lately–all these moody princesses and grim battlefield epics! And I love books like that, but history can be zany, absurd, and wonderfully whacky as well as deadly serious. And I like showing my readers the fun side.

3) Why do I write what I do?
Search me–I’m not sure we can ever figure out exactly why we are fascinated by the things that grip us body and soul. For me, it’s always been the past. Maybe because of my mother’s degree in ancient and medieval history, which had me watching “I, Claudius” instead of Disney cartoons, and listening agog to bedtime stories of Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon rather than the Billy Goats Gruff crossing the troll bridge. But historical fiction is always where I gravitated.

4) How does your writing process work?
The two key ingredients for me are black coffee and a black dog. The coffee keeps me alert through the seven hours or so I’m sitting at my laptop (I work longer hours at this than I ever did at an office cubicle). And the little black dog at my side gets me off the laptop, insisting not so gently that I take him for his morning stroll–and that’s where I do some of my best thinking. It’s good for a writer to unplug, get away from the Facebook updates and the editor emails and online researching. And somehow, my mind always manages to wander usefully while my feet are moving–I can come back from an hour of romping with the dog in the snow, and I’ll have solved that plotting problem that was giving me headaches an hour ago.

My friend Sophie Perinot has agreed to answer the same questions for me–I love hearing how other writers work (and I’m betting no red-carpet events or spiral-bound notebooks for her, either!) Check back here next Monday March 31st, and I’ll link to her site so you can see what her answers are.

Inspiration Or Compulsion?

My father was a jazz musician. When he wasn’t actively occupied by something else–eating dinner, mowing the lawn, reading out loud to me as a little girl–he wandered into his studio and started tinkering away on the piano or the saxophone. It was like a computer going to screen-saver if unused–music was his default mode.

I mention this because I’m always at a loss when asked why I am a writer. It’s not really a choice on my part, or even a conscious action. Writing is my default mode. When not actively occupied by something else–cooking dinner, reading a book, working out–I am tinkering with a new book idea or musing on some plotting difficulty. It’s just what I do.

Writing appears deceptively simple. Unlike most hobbies, it requires almost no accessories. You do not have to invest in expensive tools (painting). You do not need a certain body type (dancing). You do not have to trek to a specific place to practice it (golf). It does not require feeding (horses), cleanup (pottery), or an expensive instrument (music). All you need to write is either pen and paper or access to a computer, and in this era anybody can manage that. Moreover, writing isn’t specialized–relatively few people learn ballet or oil painting, but we all learn how to put sentences together at some point during our dreary trek through the school system. Therefore, at least theoretically, anybody can write.

But not everybody really wants to. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard someone say, “Oh, I’d write a book if only I had the time” and I always want to smile. If you really have a compulsion to write a book, you find the time. I have a friend, holder of two day jobs and mother of several young children, who rises every morning at five a.m. to get in an undisturbed hour in on her book. I have another friend who writes around the duties of running a farm and a family of five. Most people do have the time to write books, but they would rather kick back and watch “Lost”–and why shouldn’t they? Watching “Lost” is much easier than writing a book.

Writing is a compulsion. People who have caught the sickness usually don’t get to watch “Westworld,” or get quite as much sleep as they would like. They are too busy hunched over their laptops, demanding in frenzied tones why the damn book has stayed three chapters from the end for five chapters running. (Spouses of writers know better than to try to answer questions like this.) Writing isn’t a matter of inspiration or choice. It’s a disease. Sometimes quite a pleasurable disease–there are few feelings of accomplishment like the feeling of writing “The End” at the bottom of a novel’s last page. But that feeling comes with a lot of baggage. You don’t even know if this compulsion to put words on paper is accompanied by any talent. Plenty of people write their whole lives and will never publish anything, but they keep filling up drawers in their desks and gigabytes of memory on their laptops anyway, because they have to.

So if you happen to live with a writer or be good friends with a writer, be kind when they respond to “How was your day?” with “Do you think readers will notice if I move the Field of the Cloth of Gold up by six weeks?” Just remember, they didn’t choose this gig. It chose them.

And if you’re a writer, unpublished or not–well, join the club; we have cookies. And ask a friend to fill you in on “Westworld,” because you’re going to be too busy to watch it yourself.