Questions for Authors:
- How long do you think about a topic before deciding to write about it? Do you have a set of notes or a note book where you write down topics that appeal before making a decision as to which topic this time?
There’s been no set time-frame for thinking through novel ideas. Once an idea seems to have legs, I set up a “fermenting file,” which will collect odd bits of research (90 percent of it never used) and random notes to myself. My initial idea may change dramatically even before I start writing, as well as during the writing process. I’ve published four novels now (and am currently working sporadically on two at the same time) and with every one, I start out knowing how the novel should begin and how it should end. So far, that certainty has not changed. It’s that large space in the middle that gets tricky. After the first few chapters, I inevitably get stuck. This is probably because my novels are so character-driven and the characters start having minds of their own and taking me places I didn’t anticipate going. If I let them talk to me, without my losing control completely, the workflow changes halfway through the novel. At that mystical halfway point, I suddenly know how to get to that previously envisioned final chapter. Suddenly, I’m able to chart out six or seven chapters at a time. The main challenge then becomes keeping up with the flow. I may still get stuck occasionally, but nowhere near as profoundly or frequently as in the first half of the writing process.
- How long does it take to research a topic before you write? And for this book?
The research time frame varies with every book. My first two books were non-fiction, ghostwritten with a deadline and overall subject area someone else proposed. That was a much more structured process than for fiction writing. With both of those non-fiction projects, I had six months to deliver the draft. In both cases, I spent four of those months researching and two months writing. Although there was some spillover, the research and writing phases were largely segregated.
With fiction, there’s much less compartmentalization. Reinventing Hillwilla required the least amount of research time of any of my books. Even though I wrote it as a standalone, it is, after all, the third in a series, with the same venue and same principal characters. So those characters were well-developed by the time Chapter 1 ended up on paper. Nevertheless, there were lots of facts I had to check — for example, about the legal system, about the exotic locales Tanner visits, etc. And before I plunked Clara in the middle of Wellesley College, I trekked up to Massachusetts and chatted with students to get a better sense of the current campus culture. That way I had something firmer than memories of my own college years, and I learned about some key changes in campus venues and dormitory life.
One final comment about research… My most valuable research tool is bald observation. A favorite pastime is to park myself, solo, in a restaurant, in a region that will be the venue for part of a novel. Then I shamelessly eavesdrop on conversations at nearby tables. I’ll make mental notes of vocabulary choices, pronunciation, phrasing. At one point, I overheard a local speak about the need to “ponder” something before finding the solution to a problem. That verb struck me as downright eloquent, uniquely West Virginian. And you’ll hear it coming out of Ben Buckhalter’s mouth.
- What is your favourite genre?
My favorite genre? Hmmm, depends on my mood. I’ve certainly had my cop-shop whodunit phase, cozy mystery phase, family saga phase, biography/autobiography phase and period novel phase. Literary novels are a constant, however. Especially those involving flawed, complicated characters with dark pasts. Not surprisingly, those are the kind of novels I want to write, too.
- If you recommend a living author – who would it be? A dead author?
Recommendation of a living author? When it comes to wordsmithing chops, the first name that pops up is Alexander McCall Smith, author of the Botswana lady detective agency series and the Scotland Street series (my favorite), among many, many others. That man can string words together so eloquently, combining both economy of language and lyrical flow, he just makes my jaw drop. He also has a talent for delicately tweaking certain social trends, without coming across as preachy.
As for dead authors, oy, so many. If I focus on economy of language, John Cheever and Emily Dickinson come to mind. Both could pack so much into so few words, in very different ways. Both had an appealingly dark sense of irony, too. Writers who stretched my brain — but made that painful effort worthwhile — include such greats as Shakespeare, Goethe, Rilke, Eliot. I’m sure I’m forgetting others who had a major influence on me.
- Have you ever tried to imitate another author’s style? And if so, why?
No, I’ve never tried to imitate another writer’s style. But I’m sure I’ve subconsciously absorbed elements from other authors. Perhaps because I spent most of my professional life as a nonfiction ghostwriter, it’s really important for me to speak in my own (unique, I hope) voice as a novelist.
- Do you have any pets?
Do I have pets? Is accounting boring? The numbers are down to a precious few these days: one soft-eyed English setter who looks a lot like Ralph (but was born years after Ralph); one English cocker spaniel with the swagger of a rhinoceros and a great sense of irony; and one gray barn cat who has staff.
- If so, what are they?
Over the years, my life has been blessed by llamas; a string of English setters, one Old English Sheepdog (hmmm, there seems to be a pattern here of English-bred dogs), one mutt; one ginormous Newfoundland; a bunch of rescue and feral cats; a series of fancy long-haired cats (Himalayan and Birman); one Peruvian guinea pig (whom I named Fash, short for Fascist Pig); and two parakeets, who got me through the terrible five-year era when my childhood family was dogless.
- Do they help you write?
Yes, my pets help me write. I can’t remember how many dog-walks have freed up writer’s block. Mainly, my animal companions have safeguarded my sanity, which fiction-writing constantly undermines.
Do you want to add a photo of them to this Q&A?
If you’re interested in pictures, you need look no further than the cover of Reinventing Hillwilla. My current setter Finnegan ably stepped up to portray the spectral Ralph. But, yes, I had to bribe him with treats.
Melanie Forde is a veteran writer, ghosting in diverse formats—from academic white papers to advertising copy. Under her own name, she has published numerous features and commentaries about the natural world, as well as the first two novels in the Hillwilla trilogy (Hillwillaand On the Hillwilla Road). She lives in Hillsboro, West Virginia.
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