About Me

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I write well researched but readable historical and contemporary novels and some non-fiction. I live in a Scottish country cottage with my artist husband. I love gardening and I also collect the fascinating antique textiles that often find their way into my fiction. This blog is about all these things and more!

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Writing Historical Fiction - First Drafts, Editing, More Drafts, Crucial Dates.

Jean by John Moir, Rozelle House Galleries
I'm deep into a new novel about the life and times of Jean Armour, Robert Burns's wife, so my blog posts may be few and far between for the next few months although I'll post whenever I can. I'm at that stage where I've done masses of research - a whole year of it - and am now getting the first draft down and it's probably my least favourite part of the whole process. It's when I'm doing it that I always wonder why I chose this profession in the first place. ( Obsession, that's why. Can't not do it.)

I write my first drafts very quickly indeed, but they are awful. I almost never let anyone see them and if I do let somebody see short extracts, I do a certain amount of editing first. Getting to the end is the main aim of the first draft. I type very quickly, often with a complicated timeline beside me on my desk - not quite a plan, more of a skeleton, bones upon which the flesh of the novel must be hung -  and my aim is to tell the story, and let it assume the shape it wants to be. Let it tell me what it wants and needs to be. Let my characters speak.

My first draft is invariably shorter than the final draft because I skip over some bits or shorten them, knowing that if there are questions, the answers will become obvious later on. So a novel that may finish up at about 90,000 words will, in first draft, be more like 70,000 words. In fact it's in writing this first draft that I often find answers to questions, find out why some parts of the novel seem tricky, why something might have happened the way it did.

I'm deeply absorbed. The room can grow cold and dark and I don't notice it. I curse those recorded phone messages about eco friendly boilers or new kitchens, even though I don't answer the phone at all, I just leave the answering machine on. But it's still an interruption that pulls me out of the world of the book. The word count stacks up and I just forge on. Enjoying some of it but disliking quite a lot of the process whenever I become aware of it.

Editing though. Oh I love editing. That first draft is only the beginning. I'll finish it, leave it for a short while, no more than a week, go back to it and work my way through it, adding, extending, deepening all kinds of elements of it. This is a huge pleasure and I can't wait to tackle it. I can't let it alone. I work far into the night and sometimes get up and start early.

The book will now, almost certainly, be much too long. Maybe 10,000 words too long. Maybe more. So I leave it for another little while and then go over it again, pruning and polishing and tightening up and sometimes moving stuff around. Then I print it out. That's when I go through the whole thing with a fine tooth comb in the shape of a pen, and scribble all over it and sometimes even cut the pages up and paste them together elsewhere. That also tends to be when I see where things have gone wrong, and when I pick up lots of typos and infelicities.

Jean Burns's letter to Maria Riddell.

The next job is to type up all those corrections. In prospect I always think it will take forever, but in practice, it doesn't and I can usually do it within a day, two at the most.Then I'll read through it all over again making corrections here and there  - and at that point, it will be sent to my publisher if it's a traditional book and/or editor. If I'm self publishing, I'll set it aside for quite a long time. A couple of months. However it is, there will be a breathing space. And when I go back to it, I'll see everything else I got wrong.

For me, this is an intense process, but once I get going, I tackle each stage quite quickly with gaps in between. Oh, and I read lots of it out loud. Most of it, by the end of the project, but especially the dialogue.

One thing that has fascinated me about this particular novel has been the importance of dates. There is something really intriguing about sorting out a timeline for various people and events in a piece of historical fiction and then realising why some things happened the way they did - purely because of the order in which certain things happened, and the way in which two events occurring at the same time, or within a few months of each other, suddenly make complete sense of why something else might have happened the way it did. I don't want to give anything away at this point, because everything in the novel is still in a state of first draft flux, but this is exactly what has happened with Jean's story - the sudden realisation of something that might have happened in a particular way, just because of what else may well have been going on at the same time.

Of course I'm writing a novel and not an academic text, so to some extent I'm free to make things up. It's just that when the known facts (in some cases little known facts, but facts all the same) back up your wild speculations as an author, there's something deeply satisfying about it all.

If you want to see one or two I did earlier, have a look at The Physic Garden or The Curiosity Cabinet or The Amber Heart - all historical novels where the research and the meticulous working out of certain timelines was important in - to some extent at least - shaping both plot and characters.

You notice I stress that this is the way I do it. Not all writers are the same. This is only one way of tackling it. I have friends who write meticulous first drafts and hate editing. Beware of anyone who tells you this is how it must be done. The only real way to learn how to write - or to learn what suits you - is to wade in there and do it. Several times over.



2 comments:

Susan Price said...

No, not all writers work the same way, Catherine - but your account is certainly pretty close to the way I work. I recognise so much. The 'twenty minutes' that you discover was actually three hours - the working all night - the working on despite dropping temperatures, hunger, headache...

I agree, too, that first draft is a slog and editing is fun. I'm editing my Sterkarm book at the moment with a terrific American editor, who's keeping me on my toes with all sorts of shrewd questions. Apart from the challenge, it's a pleasure to have another person read your work with such close attention and consideration.

Good luck with the WIP. I have read your other books, and loved them, so looking forward to this one.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Yes - a good editor is a pearl of great price! (Although a bad one can be a nightmare...) When it's positive, that experience of having somebody take the work seriously can be such a pleasure. It's the same with stage plays too - I still remember that first feeling of working with a director and a group of actors who were paying close attentiont to something I'd written.