I understand that people out there want to know about the creative process, and that I'm supposed to know how it works. To date I have published twenty-nine books and I don't have a clue.
Books, like children, get conceived in the oddest places. A taxidermists' convention, a writers' conference, forty feet below the ocean's surface, sitting in a prayer meeting listening to people gripe before they pray. Like with babies, conception is usually a surprise.
Also like babies, a book develops in stillness and darkness. I know it is down there. Sometimes I feel it stirring. I may even get a name for it or an idea about what kind of personality a character's going to have. I jot down notes like I wrote letters to my sons before they were born. Just as I stored baby clothes in a dresser, I store notes in one of a set of plastic boxes I keep on my shelf, each labeled with the name of a book awaiting the birthing process.
When a book feels ready to birth, I sit down at the computer and get exactly the same utter conviction I faced each time I entered a delivery room: I cannot do this!
Then, like the crowning of a baby, a scene breaks through, or a plot ending, and I start to jot down real notes. That can take two days, as in the case of WHO LET THAT KILLER IN THE HOUSE?, or twenty-three years, as in the current novel I'm writing, HOLD UP THE SKY. That novel has gone through two titles, two themes, and several revisions, and now only faintly resembles the book I intended to write, the one I scribbled notes for on somebody else's telephone paper. Since the paper was on a roll, long and skinny, I wrote the notes from the bottom up. I should have taken that as symbolic of the writing process for this one.
I don't have a writing schedule. When I'm working on a book, writing for me is like studying at college: what I am supposed to be doing whenever I'm doing something else. But just as I tried to order my children's lives to some extent, I order my plots. I was once on a panel with a poet who said anybody who outlines has an anal personality. I was next on the panel, so I started with, "Now that we know what kind of personality I am . . ." I do outline. I hate to waste time rambling through chapters I'll throw away. I don't always stick to the outline, but it gives structure to the book. And if I don't feel like writing the next chapter in order, I can skip ahead and write a scene that comes later.
Like any new mom, I also spend time getting to know my characters. I ask them questions like "What teacher do you best remember, and why?" "What do you treasure from the past?" "What do you keep in the trunk of the car?" I may not tell a reader any of those things, but I like to know.
Also like motherhood, authorhood has joys and parts nobody mentions. Once in a while a book moves so well I forget I'm alive until my feet fall asleep. Other times I slog through mud up to my chest, dragging a character after me. Sometimes I watch the characters do their own things. Sometimes I rein them in and insist they do it my way. I talk to people who are not there. I wake up in the morning muttering, "But she wouldn't use that word." I once read a chapter one to a writer's group two days before deadline and half-way through announced, "This chapter is awful. I have to rewrite it." They panicked, but I knew it was simply a matter of reversing the action. Writers begin to get a feel for those things.
So how does the creative process happen? Differently for every writer. Why do I keep doing it? Because it's unpredictable, often impossible, and fun.
Two of my Sheila Travis mysteries, MURDER ON PEACHTREE STREET and SOMEBODY'S DEAD IN SNELLVILLE ought to be reissued this fall. I hope you'll check them out.