The trouble with plotting a novel in which your protagonist encounters challenge and change is that you have to experience her losses with her. Eliza Harris, protagonist of my long-labored mystery novel, is going to end up moving into a “senior community” of highly eccentric academics. When I thought this up, it seemed full of promise. That was before I invented Fallowfields, the house she is going to leave.
Near my own real home (I am, unfortunately, a real person) is a short stretch of country road where, around 1800, six New Hampshire tycoons built their mansions, one right next to the other. Remember the old ads for Dewar’s Scotch that had a rich guy trotting across the yard to his neighbor’s palatial home from his own, to borrow a cup of Dewar’s? It’s like that. Without realizing I was doing it, I created Fallowfields from bits and pieces of the three houses I’ve visited.
Externally, Fallowfields is unlike the Ridge houses. It’s a Victorian brick monstrosity, rather like the house of the Addams family. Inside, though, it’s a dream. In fact, imagined houses are like dreams. Bits and pieces of places we’ve known are plugged in or detached as needed, logic not included. As in Terry Pratchett’s Empirical Crescent (built, you will recall, by Bloody Stupid Johnson), the door of Number 3 can open into the back bedroom of Number 14, entirely without consequence.
Once you import these mysteriously significant spaces into a story, though, the pieces need to fit. The staircase and the fireplace in Fallowfields’ living room have changed places three times. In the end, the fireplace settled on an outside wall – less likely than a central position in a house of its vintage, but I needed a staircase open to the living room, so one character can overhear a remark not meant for her ears. Of course, she could simply have been walking in from another room on the same floor. But by that time, I had the stage set in my mind, and her descent from above pleased the director in me.
The layout of Fallowfields has reached the point of proprioception for me. I can feel the living room on my right as I stand in the dining room looking down the corridor to the front door. This south side of the house has been grafted onto the layout of the local mansions – it is an apartment that my mother lived in for only one year while I was mostly away at college. So although Fallowfields is a very large house, with big rooms, when my mind is absorbed in the action of the story, the walls shrink in around me. When space is needed for, say, a large party or for a character to be far enough away from another for a whisper not to be heard, the walls ease out again. These contortions warn me to be careful; they’ll be fertile breeding ground for howlers in the logistics of the story.
The furnishings are much to my taste. Eliza’s desk is huge and heavy, made of the same mahogany as the pieces brought into our household by my English great-grandmother. It sits beside a tall window with six-over-six panes of glass. Outside is an ancient maple, huge and close enough for Eliza to watch lines of snow fall from individual twigs on a sunny February day. There is a liquor cabinet well-stocked with Scotch, bourbon and, at the back, an old bottle of rye that comes in handy for a rough-and-tumble visitor. The kitchen has a soapstone sink, hewn from the (perfectly real) soapstone quarry near my home on the side of Cottonstone Mountain.
Fallowfields has outbuildings linked together in the big-house-little-house-back-house-barn configuration of early New England farms. These, unmagicked, are cobbled together from the back house and barn of the original farmhouse on our property plus my grandmother’s chicken house in Peacham, Vermont.
My mystery plot requires that the back house have a loft, the barn’s tack room be turned into a laboratory and its hay loft into an apartment. They lost none of their reality in these renovations. The horse stalls in the far end of Eliza’s barn still bear the faded names of Shetland ponies who lived, long ago, in ours: Jennifer, Princess, Duchess.
So it will be very hard for me to force Eliza out of Fallowfields. I console myself with the thought that it will remain enshrined in the story, holding in place a lifetime of memories.
What about you, readers and fellow writers? As a story streams through your brain, what parts of your world does it clothe itself in?
I started keeping a commonplace book in college. I started trying to write fiction in my sixties. Why, then, is the book sprinkled with comments on writers and writing from the very beginning?
It’s a bit discouraging to find that so many of the writing quotations, early and late, concern the difficulties that plague me still: it isn’t good enough, it’s taking too long, and isn’t being a writer an excuse to sit around instead of doing something?
On the plus side, all the quotations point forward. “Pull up your socks,” they say, “pick up your pen and put it down on paper even if ‘it’ is the fact that you can’t get anything down on paper. Just do it.”
Here is some of my collection. I’m on the second volume of the commonplace book, with plenty of blank white pages. Please, send me you own favorites. There might be a book in this!
Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.
— Henry James
On the other hand, I knew that my mother was constantly worried by my not having a proper job – “But what does your son do, Mrs. Clark?” To say, “He is a writer,” was like the old police court description of “Giving her profession as an actress.”
— Sir Kenneth Clark
Nothing would be done at all, if a man waited until he could do it so well that no one could find fault with it.
— Cardinal Newman
The artist must go at his own speed. His whole life is a painful effort to turn himself inside out, and if he gives too much away at the shallow level of social intercourse he may lose the will to attempt a deeper excavation.
— Sir Kenneth Clark
Do the best one can. Do it over again. Then still improve, even if ever so slightly, those retouches. “It is myself that I remake,” said the poet Yeats in speaking of his revisions.
— Margaret Yourcenar
The imagination is like the drunk man who has lost his watch, and must get drunk again to find it.
— Guy Davenport
It is in order to shine sooner that authors refuse to rewrite. Despicable. Begin again.
— Albert Camus
A poet is a penguin. His wings are to swim with.
— e. e. cummings
“The lyfe so short, the crafte so longe to lerne” is not an exhortation to hurry.
— Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch
On writing: First, it’s a set of muscles. Exercise them. Second, don’t talk about writing. It takes the passion away and it angers The Word Fairy. And always, always remember: Writers and messiahs are generally self-appointed. No one else wants you to be a writer. They want you to get a job.
— author unknown
The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.
— George Orwell
There’s a very thin line between fiction and non-fiction, and I do my damnedest to erase it.
— Richard “Kinky” Friedman
Founder (inter alia) of the
Texas Jewboys country band
Art is made from fear, like a vaccine.
— an NPR commentator
At one point, Dr. Bustle turned up, with his reedy, self-satisfied voice, and gave her a lecture on the Lesser Elements and how, indeed, humans were made up of nearly all of them but also contained a lot of narrativium, the basic element of stories, which you could detect only by watching the way all the others behaved.
— Terry Pratchett
The consolation of imaginary things is not an imaginary consolation.
— Roger Scruton
Sometimes it’s necessary to make the leap and grow your wings on the way down.
— Yoji Yamada
Writing a book is like building a house, if you don’t know how to build a house, and you’re not very smart.
— Andrea Barrett
That is really the power of genius – the force of will to make all the mistakes necessary to get the right answer.
— Michio Kaku
It’s only imaginary, anyway. That’s why it’s important.
— Neil Gaiman
A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them.
— William Stafford