With a couple of books on the street for awhile, I’ve done a fair amount of author talks, book club visits, presentations, guest blogs, and podcasts. One question that almost always comes in one flavor or another is, “Where do you get your ideas?” This is phrased with varying emphases: “Where do you get your ideas?” or “Where do you get your ideas?” or even the somewhat insulting “Where do YOU get your ideas?”
I’m always tempted to answer, “Oh, that’s easy. I just listen to the voices…” but that might afford Kay-Kay a colorable legal basis to have me committed. Not that she doesn’t already have all my money. And by “all” I in no way imply “a lot.”
Although the fourth book I’m just starting will be something of a departure, I’ve so far written historical fiction. That adds a wrinkle to this question. On top of that, I write what is inelegantly referred to as “character-driven” fiction. This is in contrast to the equally inelegant “plot-driven” fiction. So the question of where I get my ideas really devolves to a) where do I get my characters, and b) how do I decide where and how to place them in the Grand Arc of History.
Let me start out by saying that I never base a character on a specific person I’ve met or known. I know some historical novelists who have to have a period photo or painting for their main characters. Hey, whatever gets 100,000 words written. For me, that all seems rather stifling, almost cheating—and too limiting.
That said, I found with the first two books that somewhere around the third or fourth revision, I ended up chuckling at my realizations of where some characters’ behaviors or mannerisms or figures of speech came from. For example, the female main character in my first book, None of Us the Same, is an Irish nurse from a working class Dublin family. At about the fourth draft, it struck me that Deirdre Brannigan was a perfect crazy-quilt construction of every one of the stubborn, proud, opinionated, and indomitable Irish-American women I grew up around in my own unabashedly matriarchal extended family. And of course, I ended up marrying a Central European variant after meeting Kay-Kay. But the thought never crossed my mind to say to myself, “Self, we shall base our female protagonist on Great Aunt Genevieve.”
In practice, I construct my characters with several objectives.
First, to keep myself moving along in a coherent direction throughout the Very Painful Indeed first draft and the Much Less Painful rounds of revisions, my books each have some sort of meta-theme. For my second novel, Truly Are the Free, that meta-theme was the tectonic social and cultural shifts that war brings about. Since I was writing a trilogy set in the period 1914-1926, this led me to place a white American officer and a black American officer inside an African-American regiment and ship them off to France. I gave the black officer a sister who stayed home in Harlem—from whence the historic regiment was recruited—and gave the white officer a French love interest who flees the fighting for Paris. This allowed me to place them believably after the War in Jazz Era/Prohibition Harlem as well as in avant-garde Paris. This in turn facilitated exploration of my meta-theme with questions of racial discrimination, changing notions of sexuality, cultural transformations in art and music, and breakdowns in traditional notions of marriage and family.
Second, I construct the details of my characters backward from these objectives. I needed both my main male characters to be French speaking, which morphed the French love interest into a lycée English teacher with a British granny and created a mother from an old New Orleans “colored creole” family for the black officer. And these two choices allowed me to have a lot of fun with those characters’ backstories as a result.
Third, I found that taking this instrumental approach to character development didn’t really hinder my storytelling much. In fact, these deliberate choices made for often pragmatic purposes opened up new pathways into the story that had never occurred to me. This may be a regrettably sterile way of describing what more romantic authors than me describe as their characters talking to them. In my first book, the Newfoundlander pals I sent off to the War together ganged up on me and demanded I put them with a peculiar kind of sergeant major. I hadn’t planned on or sketched out Sergeant Major Pilmore in all my copious outlining, but he turned out to be, hands down, my favorite minor character from both books.
Writing historical fiction of course gives a jumpstart for ideas about plot and setting. Unless you’re writing historical fantasy or alt-history, you can’t get too fast and loose with the historical record. Since I was writing a fairly recent period, there’s a lot of historical record. For my character-driven purposes, I didn’t really have a compelling need to deviate much from the facts anyway. And the reality of the First World War was so horrible and tragic who needs to invent much? That said, I’ve only written one historical personality in my first two books as a speaking character, and he was a fairly obscure and minor one. I’ve taken a pledge to NEVER write in Winston Churchill as a character—let the poor guy rest in peace. He’s neck and neck with poor Ann Boleyn—no pun intended—as to who’s been more sorely abused by historical novelists.
There’s a dangerously seductive problem in historical fiction writing, I found. You spend so much time researching the minutiae of a period—women’s footwear, trench latrines, period profanity, the sound of different rifles—that there’s an almost irresistible impulse to show ALL your research. “Look how clever I am! Look at all the cool things I know!” Even with conscious knowledge of this, I still include too much of this stuff in my first drafts. Much of the thousands of words I remove in revisions revolve around cutting this surfeit of facts. As Papa Hemingway famously said on this subject, “The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.” And if it’s good enough for Papa H, it’s good enough for me.
Let me give an example from None of Us the Same. The pivotal scenes that change my characters forever take place on July 1, 1916—the first day of the Battle of the Somme. There’s a mountain of archival material and historical writing about the shockingly senseless slaughter of this day. Of course. I read a lot about the Somme in my research, the lists of divisions and regiments involved, the configuration of the trench lines, the size of the preliminary bombardment, the grand strategy behind the colossal attack and the deluded generals who ordered it.
However, since my interest was in how the violence of that day affected my characters directly, most of that research wasn’t directly necessary. In writing those fateful scenes, I tried to visualize my characters viewing the incredible violence of this huge battle through a soda straw, only able to see and smell and feel what was happening directly around them. In these scenes particularly, I found myself stripping away more and more historical detail with each revision, searching for that elusive one true sentence.
This isn’t to say all this research was wasted. I find deep diving into research essential to getting the truest possible sense of the time, of the events, and of the people who inhabited them. I love writing dialogue and I’ve been told by readers that I have a knack for it. This might be because I work very hard to get the sound of the period into my head. That leads me to reading a lot of prose, poetry, memoirs, letters, newspapers, even advertisements from the period. I want the cadence, the level of formality, the idioms to become second nature to me.
In the end, however, it’s fiction we’re talking about. I don’t have to be as punctilious as a non-fiction writer—my benchmark for this kind of writing is Erik Larson, whose impeccable books everyone everywhere should read. I just have to present the illusion of historical fact. I don’t feel guilty about that, as long as I’m honest with my readers and show them the respect of giving them the best story I can. And to do that, I’ll keep chasing after that one true sentence.