The Making of a Novel
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.
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 bestseller 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: http://sandraparshall.com/