The following is a guest post by Peggy Hanson, author of the Elizabeth Darcy series that includes Deadline Istanbul and Deadline Yemen. If you would like to write a guest post on my blog, please send me an e-mail at email@example.com
Every writer has it. Those moments of looking at a blank page and seeing nothing. “No brain-to-page network available.”
For years after I started writing fiction, I used the same technique I had gravitated to instinctively when jotting things down in notebooks, pieces of paper, backs of envelopes: I left in the middle of a sentence to deal with Daily Life, and usually never came back to that particular piece. It is easier to start writing than to provide a structure and an ending.
I am a very intuitive writer, so structure is a challenge at the best of times. I like words. I like sentences. I love impressions. I tend to live in the moment, not worrying too much about past or future.
Over the years, I have found poetry – loose, fragmented, impressionistic poetry — both a comfort and an inspiration. I read it. I write it. I listen to it on Garrison Keiller’s Writer’s Almanac every morning.
So after I’ve jotted down the first thing that comes to my mind, I set it aside in what I call my “journal.” It will never be read again. That’s one of the reasons I can be free with it.
Then I go to my laptop and open the manuscript I am working on. Right now, my manuscript is Unholy Death on the Orient Express, set in 1888 and starring my great-aunt Mary, a missionary who went off to teach girls in the Ottoman Empire (the Balkans) at the age of 23.
I have spent more than a year reading and transcribing into word aunt Mary’s diaries of her life in Macedonia for 32 years. So for books in the rest of the Mary Matthews Missionary Sleuth series, I’ve got lots of material. For this epic journey in 1888, I have two paragraphs to work with. (Possibly my aunt felt the trip was too luxurious for a strait-laced missionary?) I know the dates, the name of the steamship (the Bothnia), the fact that there was a short stay in London (while Jack the Ripper was at his height) and that Mary and another young woman then “made their way across Europe” to Constantinople. I have had to do a lot of research to fill out the details of the trip. (Yes, it had to be the Orient Express, as that was the only way to cross Europe by land visiting the cities whose names I have been given.)
Since I do not outline or plan a plot, I have started with the character of my aunt, and I know there will be a murder because that is what Aunt Mary is going to solve. Right now I am more than a third of the way through the book and am still pushing forward just a bit with the plot (wrote the death scene, even) but I am unsure about the identity of the perpetrator. So I go back to the ship and fill out some of the characters, and even add a few. I think of possible motives for each character. And I go back to London and Liverpool to arrange a few more red herrings.
This is a somewhat chaotic way of writing, and I don’t recommend it for everyone. But if you’re anything like me, with a busy life swirling around and duties of all sorts calling, you have to start somewhere.
I have published two books. I can finish and publish this one. And maybe writing this blog will help me get right back to work on structuring Unholy Death.
[Thanks to Cecile Sune of Book Obsessed for providing the stimulus to do the blog! Thanks, too, to my wonderful publicist, P.J. Nunn of Breakthrough Promotions for setting it up!]
About the author and her work: Peggy Hanson’s Website.