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The Making of a Novel

March 9, 2014

I’m delighted to have Sandra Parshall as a guest this week.  Sandra is an active member of Sisters in Crime, an outspoken defender of animals, an amateur photographer, and, probably most important to the readers of this blog, the author of the Rachel Goddard mysteries. The first book in the series, The Heat of the Moon, won an Agatha. The sixth, Poisoned Ground, was released earlier this month. Not surprising, given Sandra’s love of animals, her protagonist, Rachel Goddard, is a veterinarian. One of the things I like best about the series is the way Rachel has grown over the course of the six books.

By Sandra Parshallweb photo

Whenever a new book comes out, I have to fumble for a coherent answer to the inevitable questions: What inspired you to write this novel? Did you base this or that character on a real person?

I make jokes likening the creation of a novel to making sausage: it’s best that the customer not look too closely at how it’s done and what goes into it. Surely all the reader cares about is the finished product and whether it’s entertaining and satisfying. Right?

But I’m constantly amazed at how many readers do want to know exactly how it’s done and are curious about the inspiration for this character or that plot line. So I struggle to make sense of my chaotic “process” and describe it in terms that make it sound like logical, intelligent work and less like voodoo.

I know I’m not alone in this. Many writers say they have no idea where some of their best characters and plot developments come from. The stuff they wrestle onto the page with brute force turns wooden, the characters lie inert, refusing to get up and breathe. But if something comes to a writer out of the blue, or in a dream, often it’s golden. The characters who walk unbidden into an author’s head and take up permanent residence are the ones who seem to write their own dialog while the writer rushes to record it.

All this sounds a little crazy, and non-writers don’t always understand it.

Now researchers have confirmed that creativity is a kind of voodoo. Furthermore, it works the same way in all humans, whether they spend their time dreaming up fictional stories or solving mechanical problems or baking pastries. All of us depend on our unconscious minds to guide and inspire us.

The study of creativity is relatively new but has produced some startling breakthroughs now that brain imaging allows researchers to see what’s going on inside our skulls when we appear to be idle. Scientists used to dismiss daydreaming and sleep as low-level brain functions. Wasted time. After all, what could anyone achieve when they weren’t focused on a specific task? A lot, it turns out.

A neurologist named Marcus Raichle gets credit for discovering that our brains are madly busy all the time, its various zones exchanging information, indexing everything we’ve taken in. This activity, dubbed dark energy, serves up answers and inspiration when we’re quiet enough to listen — in the moments just before, during, and immediately after sleep, and when we’re wide awake but letting our minds wander.

Now when someone asks what inspired Poisoned Ground, I don’t have to limit myself to the snarky and pretentious answer that I read a Poisoned Ground 300bestseller with a similar theme — big business running roughshod over a small rural community — and thought I could improve on it. That was the original inspiration, but everything else, the characters and subplots and subtext, came from my unconscious mind. In the end, I wrote a novel that is less about a fight over development than a story of intertwined lives, buried grudges, and the kind of old secrets that can explode into the present and destroy people.

I’ve often wished I could write in a more “businesslike” way, doing a detailed outline up front, knowing everything that will happen before I begin. Now, after reading about the latest research, I’ve come to accept that writing doesn’t work that way for me, and I’m better off leaning on my “dark energy” for inspiration.

The research results raise a troubling question, though: What will become of our creative lives in an era when we sleep less, take less leisure time, and don’t allow ourselves to slow down and daydream?

Good question, Sandra. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the creative process with the readers of Birth of a Novel.

For more about Sandra Parshall and her books, please check out her website:

10 Comments leave one →
  1. hopeclark permalink
    March 10, 2014 8:44 AM

    Sandra is an impressive lady as well as a good writer. Thanks for sharing your inspiration for your work. Love the sausage analogy.

  2. March 10, 2014 9:09 AM

    I often get my best ideas in the early morning hours, when I’m half awake, thinking through story issues. Who knew that meant I have dark energy? Cool.

  3. March 10, 2014 10:42 AM

    Thank you, Hope. That’s a great compliment coming from someone as accomplished as you.

    Barb, I was hoping you would read this. When we were doing our library panel together last Saturday and talking about where our ideas come from, I almost brought up the “dark energy” concept, but I was afraid it really would sound like voodoo if I tried to explain it verbally. I think I’m better at writing about it, and I hope I made it clear. Human brains are still such a mystery to their owners.

  4. March 10, 2014 12:01 PM

    Most excellent and so right on the money, Sandy. I use the voodoo analogy all the time, because that is exactly what it feels like–especially when I come up with an idea that is better than I’m capable of coming up with. So to speak.

  5. Lisa Nelson permalink
    March 10, 2014 3:21 PM

    Thank you for sharing this, Sandra. I love learning more about how our brains and creativity work. In fact, I saw a display at the library this morning in honor of Brain Awareness Week.

    Off to learn more about Marcus Raichle and dark energy.

  6. March 10, 2014 4:46 PM

    Hi Sandra — another excellent post in your Poisoned Ground tour. I love these discussions of characters who sometimes lead us through our stories. And like you, I have a tough time doing outlines and planning ahead. At the moment I’m slowly reading “The Tao of Writing,” and for the first time receiving a little encouragement for writing with the flow to see what happens. That’s the way I love to do it.

  7. Jodie permalink
    March 10, 2014 7:14 PM

    Sandy, I like how you refer to writing an outline as “businesslike.” I’ve been outlining a novel. I’ve spent the last month rearranging the outline. Just when I think I have it done, I find out I have a character knowing something before they discover it. So I’m back to moving scenes around. I can’t imagine what that would be like if I didn’t outline, if I had to move whole scenes rather than snippets around. Still it makes me a little crazy, and it doesn’t feel businesslike at all.


  8. March 10, 2014 8:37 PM

    I’m fascinated reading how different writers approach the making of a novel. I use a combination of pantser and outliner. I start with an outline because I need at least a general destination, but somewhere in the writing, the characters take over and their story starts to unfold in ways that surprise me. That’s when I know there’s actually a story to tell.

  9. March 10, 2014 10:46 PM

    Sandy, that’s exactly how it is for me. I have to know where I’m going, but I don’t always know how I’ll get there. It’s scary sometimes, but as long as I know my destination, it somehow works out. Black energy saves me. I’m always conscious of pacing. Something important has to happen in every chapter. I want two or three major turning points in the story, events that take it in new directions. If I feel things getting too quiet, I know I have to do something about it — but it has to be organic, arising from the characters’ lives. Characters and pacing are the most important elements of a book for me.

  10. March 11, 2014 7:36 AM

    Sandy, I so agree about character and pacing being the most important elements. Fortunately, they’re also the most fun.

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