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October 2014

Question of the Month: Discovering the Story

by Susan Henderson on October 6, 2014

How many of you know precisely what you’re writing about when you begin a novel?

Lantern Parade -- Thomas Cooper Gotch, ca. 1918

I love this painting, Lantern Parade by Thomas Cooper Gotch, because it reminds me of how my stories develop.

Say you’re driving or taking a shower or trying to fall asleep (these are the times most of my stories come to me), and suddenly you see an image in your mind that looks like this painting. Compelling but not quite in focus, much of it in shadow. You love the image, the mood it evokes. But mostly it engages your curiosity.

Where are they going? Is this festive or solemn? Are they silent or singing? You can’t quite see it all, but you slowly start to feel the ground under a patent leather shoe. Whose shoe? Is it broken-in or bought only for this occasion? Why are you drawn to this one girl? Will this be your narrator? Someone important to your narrator? Or simply someone who’s symbolic of… what? Sometimes images don’t hold your interest. They’re too straight forward. But this one has more and more lurking in the shadows. Who are those boys standing above it all? What are they standing on? Is it chilly or humid? What will I see in the daytime? What of this procession will be left on the ground. And where are we?

This is often how it starts… an image or scene, a voice or question comes to you, trembling and underdeveloped. You don’t even know what it is you’re holding in your mind, but it’s got you.

And from here, you are following characters and details, looking under blankets and stones. Where does this one go after the parade? What does she keep in her pockets? Who is she meeting or avoiding? You can do this for hours, weeks, okay, years. Sometimes you even think you’ve got the story figured out.

And then, aha, you bump into that one crucial object or put two unlikely characters together and something clicks. That initial image that had so entranced you has attached itself to something fierce and unsettled at your core. Your story has brought you to a question or conflict that nags at you, that lies tangled in the gut. It’s brought you to something you’re afraid to voice, something that makes you want to shut your eyes, but you are going to follow it anyway. Now you have urgency. Now you have a journey that’s not only for these characters you’ve come to know, but one you must follow to the end because there’s a stake in it for you, an answer you’ve been seeking.

Headlights of a car

This wandering in the dark, hands out, bumping into one thing and then another, is what I love about the work. It’s also what I find maddening. Because you don’t entirely know what you’re doing or where you’re going. E. L. Doctorow described it this way: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

To be honest here, if you have a profoundly bad sense of direction, a drive in the fog means there’s a good change you’ll lose your way or find yourself upside-down in a ditch. Sometimes there’s a lot of  backtracking, needed repairs, and intense searching to find the road again. Eventually, though, you arrive at your destination. Sometimes it’s a place that surprises you, and sometimes it’s a place that is as familiar as an old soul you lost touch with years ago.

Is your writing process anything like mine or something entirely different? Tell your stories! I always learn so much from them.

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If you have a minute, please head over to the Type Rope Walkers blog, where I was invited to share some thoughts on writing. My piece is called, Perseverance: 3 Tips to Help Writers Keep the Faith. Hope it offers help to some of you.

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Many thanks for the mentions in Soho Press, Tumblr, and HarperCollins. Many thanks, as always, to all of you who share your stories here and make our lives richer for it!

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