Friday, November 30, 2007

The Way In

By Nina Wright

For three years I was glued to my chair writing one book after another on deadline. Six books, six sales. Very satisfying.

In recent months, however, my goals and my pace have changed. I’ve researched, contemplated, and started a half-dozen fiction projects unrelated to anything I’ve done before. Since I write for younger readers as well as adults, I’m continuously monitoring trends in several markets at the same time that I audition new ideas. Although the “market mindset” is necessary, I find it also potentially distracting and, worse, discouraging. Thus I’ve concluded that it’s time to stop obsessing over what sells and simply write from my heart.

Finding "the way in" is different every time. I vividly recall walking through a cemetery in Tecumseh, Michigan five years ago when I imagined a girl who saved a key from every apartment she lived in with her troubled, itinerant mother. At the time I was facing a move that seemed both inevitable and ill-advised. Notes for Homefree traveled with me and found their way into a draft that endured many revisions and submissions before it was published in 2006. The notion of the saved key survived but ended up a sidebar rather than the center of the story.

When I wrote Whiskey on the Rocks, the book that launched the Whiskey Mattimoe series, I was sharing my rural home with Lucille, a dog rescued in late pregnancy by my then-husband and me. Not remotely an Afghan hound, Lucille was a mutt with fast legs, a scary snarl and bafflingly high self-esteem. Like Abra, she had no apparent maternal instincts and a libido that wouldn't quit. She also had a propensity for chasing anything that promised misadventure. Given the slightest opening, Lucille would take off running full-tilt toward the nearest tavern, which lay on the other side of a vast soybean field. She'd ignore our calls for at least 24 hours before—I swear—she came home stinking of whiskey and cigarettes. I could never figure out what the bitch was up to. So my creativity kicked in. An old friend from college had an energetic Afghan hound; mentally I morphed the two dogs into one and added a healthy dash of imagination. The result was Abra.

What inspires me these days? Mostly, things that go wrong. Or could go wrong, or at least madly off course. Example: While I was grooming my father's cat, the feline kicked a wadded up paper toward me. It contained a confusing partial message written in a cramped hand; my father claimed he'd never seen the note before. Who wrote it, and why did the cat have it? That incident went straight into my notebook of potential story ideas. Since I’m inclined to use the most recent notions, I periodically review older entries to see whether any of those ignite sparks. When they do, it’s the lonely writer’s equivalent of Christmas.

Other ways in: Because I favor visual stimulation, once I get an idea working, I look for photos to feed it. Dozens of pictures of St. Augustine, Florida (for my teen books) and Afghan hounds (for the Whiskey books) fill my walls and computer files. My screensaver is always a slideshow related to my current projects.

Music provides another access point. Whiskey and Water, the fourth Whiskey Mattimoe mystery, was fueled by a Barenaked Ladies soundtrack. Imagining Whiskey’s first marriage set to those tunes made the writing not only easier but a helluva lot of fun. My close friends benefited, too; they got copies of BNL’s Greatest Hits.

Now and then I track my dreams, and whenever I do, something intriguing shows up. A Southern woman named Picket Pie came to me in my sleep. She explained that her name was short for Elizabeth Bye and promised she’d be back. Months later she appeared on the page as a leading character in my play Cherchez Dave Robicheaux.

All writers know that the way in is both simpler and more complicated than I make it sound here. I eavesdrop shamelessly; free-associate wildly; take lots of photos; go for long walks, swims, and bike rides; brainstorm exhaustive lists and alternate scenarios; and draft interviews, monologues, dialogues, and character bios. Sometimes I bounce ideas off friends.

What’s your way in? The key, I think, is to get out there and in there and turn off your mental critic. Put another way: “Travel boldly, listen closely, and carry a bright light.”


Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Great post, Nina!

I have a lot of paths "in" but the most common is sleep. I seem to wake up full of new ideas or solutions to existing plot problems. I can go to bed confused about how a twist or turn will work and wake up going "Ah ha! By jove, I've got it."

Nina Wright said...

Thanks, Sue Ann.

I'm in complete agreement. In fact, that's how I know when a story has legs: it follows me into sleep, or at least into deep relaxation. Such a deal! I see how to fix it when I'm not working, or maybe not even awake.

Sweet dreams, kiddo!

Felicia Donovan said...

Good one, Nina, and loved the photo. I'm very visual, as well. Some images can evoke an entire storyline.

As for sleep as a "way in," like Sue Ann, when I'm confused about a stumbling point in a book, I oftentimes wake up with it resolved. Unfortunately, this usually happens around 3AM. Why it doesn't happen at 5AM when the alarm goes off is beyond me.

Keith Raffel said...

If sleep is the key to inspiration, to be as prolific as you, Nina, I'd never be awake!

Mark Terry said...

I did a TV interview yesterday and it was pretty routine, but the interviewer asked me how I came up with the character of Derek Stillwater, what went into my creating him.


It threw me a bit, but I launched into some talk about the prologue in The Devil's Pitchfork, noting that that prologue had been rattling around for a number of years trying to find a home.

In case you haven't read the book (hmmm), in the prologue, two characters, Derek and another, are Special Forces soldiers in the first Gulf War, behind enemy lines, trying to set a laser-targeting device so a Stealth bomber can fly in and bomb an Iraqi munitions dump. Just as they're doing so, they're caught by Iraqi soldiers. They know their mission and they tell the bomber to go ahead.

When the bombs go off--they're quite near by--the Iraqis are distracted enough that Derek and his partner kill their captors and get the hell out of Dodge, but not before Derek's partner is exposed to biological warfare fallout from the explosion.

End prologue.

I tried this as a prologue (Derek's name was different) for an adventure novel that never took off (twice, which sucks) and another thriller, which didn't take off. And by not take off I don't mean they didn't get published--they didn't get written. They died somewhere between page 100 and 150 (perhaps a topic for my post next week).

But I really thought that prologue was good. I thought it was filled with adventure and danger and intrigue and most importantly, in a very exciting way, it showed the personalities of the two characters: brave, reckless adrenaline junkies, dedicated to their mission even if it killed them, fast-thinking, action-oriented. It also showed Coffee as even more reckless than Derek with a wild, taunting side.

All in the space of a handful of pages.

So I'm pretty glad that it eventually found a home, that I found the story that went perfectly with the prologue, and two characters deserving of the story.

Sometimes you just have to go hunting for things.

Bill Cameron said...

The shower. Or while driving when I DON'T have my micro-recorder with me. Any circumstance in which I don't have access to note-taking tools seems to be my way in.

Good post, Nina!

Nina Wright said...

Thanks, guys.

Keith, I'd recommend power-sleeping if there is such a thing. Maybe I'm blessed not to need a whole lot of hours with Morpheus, just enough to let the brain waves settle a little.

Mark, you're so right about The Hunt. I'm on it. And I for one would like to read the blog post you hinted at.

Like you, Bill, I'm sometimes caught without a means for jotting the notions down. And I don't mean in the shower. Kind of embarrassing when a writer has to borrow a pen. Yet it happens....

jbstanley said...

Thanks for sharing your ways in, Nina. I'd loved this post. I need motion, personally. A walk, a drive, an airplane trip. My body is moving forward and eventually, drags my mind with it.

G.M. Malliet said...

JB - This is exactly why I love trains. Forward motion PLUS a kind of enforced stillness that allows your mind to drift.