Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Birth of a Novel

Every novel is created in a unique way. Even when an author approaches a new novel in the same way -- plots extensively, plots loosely or doesn't plot at all -- that actual art of creation is different. It has to be. Each novel is itself different from any other one. Or it should be. If an author is simply repeating the same novel over and over, then perhaps it's time for that person to retire.

But where does a novel come from? What well do ideas spring from and how do you keep that well fresh and full of new ideas? It's like an artesian well. When the pressure builds up some of what's in there (ideas or water) has to be released. And the water is always replenished and kept fresh by a constant influx of new water.

I never know when an idea will hit me. They often come out of left field. My first completed historical novel came about from watching a History Channel show on their series called Underworld Cities. I turned it on because the blurb said it was about the Manson Family, which I have a deep fascination with. But instead of being about the Mansons, the show was more about how underground tunnels were common all over Los Angeles in the first part of the 20th century. At one point L.A. had a world class subway/train system, which was essentially shut down by a combination of Goodyear, California Oil and a public that was on its way to becoming addicted to cars. But what intrigued me was that in the Prohibition years some of these tunnels became speakeasies. And in Los Angeles the criminal underworld was not run by organized gangsters like the east coast was. Instead it was the LAPD and the mayor's office that ran the gambling, bootleggers and brothels in Los Angeles. 
Following that, I watched the Gangs of New York and again the idea of this dangerous time in this small piece of land in an earlier New York. A time of intense immigration when hundreds of thousands left their homes and came to a place they thought would give them a real chance. Many of those immigrants were Irish. I have Irish ancestors and in the course of researching the era I found out some things about my family I had never known. What surprised me the most was I had a great-great-great Grandfather from hundreds of years ago, who landed at New Amsterdam—now New York. So part of my family came to America a century before it became a country. His side of my family kept moving westward over the centuries until my Grandfather's family reached North Dakota. He was married to an American woman but she died, leaving him a widower with children. He crossed the border into Saskatchewan and met my Grandmother. I a sandwich American. My Grandfather was American and my daughter is an American.

I'd also seen Far and Away years ago and the story began to grow. An Irish man and woman, who didn't know each other, meet on their immigrant ship to New York. Their lives become entangled along with a 10 ten-year-old native boy who's a budding crime king and manages to get the two immigrants into trouble until they are all caught up in a raging blizzard. They can only survive if they work together.

I don't know if other historical authors go to the same lengths I do, but I find the search exciting. Some of the things I've done in the name of research include sending away for a catalog for taxidermists, since a story (Geography of Murder) had taxidermists in it. I bought a stone depiction of a Quetzalcoatl, the feathered god of the Aztec because it was in L.A. Boneyard and an unpublished book. I own two Sears, Roebuck catalogs. One from 1897, the other 1923. I bought four Good Housekeeping magazines from the 20s.
I'm continually learning and in the process expanding my boundaries into unknown territory. Who knows what's next. I don't, but I'm eager to find out. Nothing serves a writer better than boundless curiously.


Tina Donahue said...

I hear you, Pat. My ideas come out of left field. Sometimes in dreams, other times when I'm driving or grocery shopping. Suddenly, I have a thought of 'what if?' and then 'what's next?' - after that, the story starts to unfold in my mind. :)

Fiona McGier said...

When I dream up ideas I perceive it as my brain trying to entertain me. Then the characters take on a life of their own and demand to be allowed to entertain others as well. Non-authors find this odd...we don't, right? ;-D

P.A.Brown said...

Non-writers think we're all odd. But then we hear voices and have invisible friends, so maybe they're right. LOL.

Sarah J. McNeal said...

Oh yeah, Pat, writers are a whole other class of crazy. But we like it that way. The hard part of historicals is the research. Let me change that. The fun part of writing historicals is the research. Gothom looks like a winner.