On the Process of Writing

I’ve been interested in doing different things with chronology in my own writing and would like to hear about your choices in handling time, particularly in Time Stamp and Clare, Loving in which you do reverse chronologies and chronologies that move in different directions toward each other.

—Alvin Greenberg, Boise, Idaho

The meaning of time for a story and how we choose to order events always feel like a work’s underpinning. Read more…

As a nonfiction writer, I’m interested in how a novelist goes about research, and the decisions one makes about how to use such material. Do you have to limit or control the ways in which you use research-generated material, and is there ever a risk of that material coming across as too academic?
—Peter Hessler, Ridgway, Colorado 

Pete, I’m going to cheat a little and start with a quote from Shelby Foote, the wonderful chronicler of the Civil War, who also wrote fiction. Read more…

I am curious as to how visual, auditory, or olfactory your imagination is when composing scenes and whether your sensory experience of a scene can inspire a new narrative twist or enhance some nuance of character.
—Bernie Latham, Portland, Oregon

Bernie, this is one of those questions that makes me think about writing in a more specific way than I have since it means trying to nail down what the actual experience of writing fiction is, to think about what’s going on in my brain aside from constantly scanning for information and for understanding and connections and the right words. Read more…

Where do you get your ideas for a story?  If the story needs research to develop them, do you do it before you start writing or while you are writing?
—Diane Craig, Lakeville, Minnesota

The simplest answer to your first question, Diane, is that story ideas often seem just to arrive. I suddenly have a first line for something. Read more…

How much do you know about your characters when you sit down to begin a draft? Do you draft out biographies for them? Or do their histories, quirks and preoccupations become clearer to you as you write?
—Bonnie West, St. Paul, Minnesota

….Update: In thinking more about this question, I wanted to add some specific examples of characters whom I felt I needed to revisit and learn more about when I was writing or re-writing them. Read more…

As a nonfiction writer, I’m interested in how a novelist goes about research, and the decisions one makes about how to use such material. Do you have to limit or control the ways in which you use research-generated material, and is there ever a risk of that material coming across as too academic?
—Peter Hessler, Ridgway, Colorado 

Pete, I’m going to cheat a little and start with a quote from Shelby Foote, the wonderful chronicler of the Civil War, who also wrote fiction. Read more…

I am curious as to how visual, auditory, or olfactory your imagination is when composing scenes and whether your sensory experience of a scene can inspire a new narrative twist or enhance some nuance of character.
—Bernie Latham, Portland, Oregon

Bernie, this is one of those questions that makes me think about writing in a more specific way than I have since it means trying to nail down what the actual experience of writing fiction is, to think about what’s going on in my brain aside from constantly scanning for information and for understanding and connections and the right words. Read more…

You are a remarkable stylist. Every sentence has a brilliant clarity that also has a conversational element. How do you achieve this? How did you learn to write like that?
—Susan Thurin, Menomonie, WI

Thanks for the props, Susan. Of course I had to respond to this question! It has actually had me thinking a lot. How is it we learn to write in a certain way? Read more…

 What do you avoid doing when you write a novel?
 —Ann Hobbie, St. Paul, Minnesota

This is a pretty intriguing question, Ann. It first made me think of various superstitions and mantras from childhood: Don’t walk under a ladder. Step on a crack and break your mother’s back. Break a mirror and you’ll have seven years of bad luck. I’m not sure there’s anything analogous for a novel writer such as maybe not writing between two and three a.m. or not writing on an empty stomach or on a bottle of gin. Read more…

I want to be a scientist when I grow up. Do you ever write about science in your stories?
—JaQuise Stewart, St. Paul, Minnesota

I’m happy you’re still planning on becoming a scientist, JaQuise. I like thinking about the man you’ll be when you enter the field you choose. Probably what I like best about scientists is that they’re serious problem solvers who like to figure things out and put their ideas to work. Read more…

Many, if not most, writers draw on their personal journals when writing. Do you and, if so, how often and how much?
—Jesmia Avery, Minneapolis, Minnesota

I’m glad you have a journal question, Jesmia, because I think it’s relevant for a lot of writers and would-be writers. I don’t know if I’m an anomaly but I don’t actually keep a journal unless I’m traveling and even that is something I make myself do so I have a record of the new or unexpected things I see or experience. Read more…

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