Regarding “inspiration.” First of all I really do not think that I was inspired to write or to be a writer. As a kid, I just liked to write “stuff”. I believe the inspiration comes after the fact. For example, two six-year-olds might simultaneously begin taking piano lessons. One has no interest and just goes through the motions. The other is intrigued and plods forward. The first falls by the wayside. The second begins to play and understand the music and the instrument. Lo and behold, here comes the inspiration to create his own music, to tap those keys making his own sound in his own way. So, for me as a writer, the inspiration to write about different things and say things in my own way came about because I liked to write to begin with. I scribbled this and I scribbled that and kept on scribbling. For me, there were long pauses between the scribbles but I never lost the desire to scribble and kept at it.
The way I see it, inspiration is triggered by the people, places and things that we encounter and experience. A friend of mine might introduce me to a friend of theirs and my mind will begin a journey, intrigued by the way that person said, “Hello”, or by the manner in which they looked at me or the clothes they were wearing or whether or not their shoulders were slouched or not. They will be unconsciously placed in my mental Rolodex for future reference as a possible character and I do not even know it at that moment in time. Some one else would never give that person a second thought.
In the final analysis we are all different, all unique and I guess we all have inspiration that fits who we are. Some of us join forces with our inspiration (some call it Muse), others may talk about it for awhile and others ignore it completely. We certainly are interesting creatures.
Lastly, you asked me to give you an idea about books I read to relax. What I do is, I go to my library and they have a rack of used books in the children’s section. Many of them are YA novels. They are older books and are all for sale. They charge about 25 to 30 cents per book. I picked up four yesterday afternoon. Total cost, including tax, $1.29. That will be my reading for the next week or two. It’s great.
When I began to write The Priest And The Peaches it was taking place in the present. The Peach characters were adults, had families and careers and flashbacks were taking place during dialogue that transported the reader back in time. After about 15k words I left it alone for a few days and when I returned and read it I promptly tossed it. It was too confusing the way it was being presented. I mention this because when I tossed it I also tossed several characters that may, down the road, reappear. Actually, at this point in time, I do not remember who they were. Bottom line, I am glad I did it. If I had not I may never have met some of the characters that followed them and are in the book. For example, the antagonist herself, Beatrice Amon may never have been. Other folks like, “Migraine” Magrane and “Fadeaway” Walker, and even Mr. Levinski, a.k.a “Humphrey Pennyworth” – I would never have gotten to know. I had a lot of fun interacting with these folks, even if they had minor roles in the story. Oh yes, “Little Red” Coffey. I certainly enjoyed working with him.
What are five things people do not know? What I have discovered in my brief writing career is the fact that most folks have no idea what the life of a writer entails or the work involved, especially when you write a book. They seem to think that you sit around with a pen in your hand or a keyboard on a big wooden desk that overlooks a pretty lake with swans slowly moving about while you pen or peck away creating fabulous prose. Yeah – right! They do not know about the hours upon hours of re-writes, of editing, of proof-reading and then doing it over again and again. They do not know – well, to be fair, I guess I don’t know a lot about their stuff either. I do know this – I’m not about to trade places with anyone.
Here’s a bit about the “writing process.” Just remember that this is MY way and, since I am (like my books) a work in progress, this process may metamorphosize into something else as time goes by. Having laid out the disclaimer which comes from my insecurities, let me begin.
For me, the initial process begins with pen and paper. This might be the easiest. It is like my brain is a dump truck loaded with all of the necessary materials to build a house. The paper is the property where the house will be built. So I dump it all in a big pile on the paper as it pours out of my pen or pencil. Now all I have to do is figure out where everything goes. Onward to the keyboard to sort this mess. That’s the hard part. I know where the foundation will go and I can see the finished product with its roof, doors, windows, shutters and even the landscaping. That is the “big picture”. But I have not been inside that house nor have I painted the outside. I still have to install plumbing, heating, electrical, cabinets, sinks, decide on colors etc. Okay, I have seen the “big picture” and now I have to figure out how all of those NECESSARY parts will fit together. As I write there are many changes that continually take place. By the time I have finished I have re-constructed that house many times.
As far as the characters are concerned (those folks living inside the house) I want the reader to get to know them in a way that they want to know more about them. As I write, these folks develop and sometimes I am even surprised when I find out who they really are and what makes them “tick” or what they are capable of. It is like meeting real people. Sometimes you might meet someone and become life-long friends. Then there are those who initially impress you but you find out soon enough that you just do not “connect”. That is the end of that. So, that is the way with me and my characters.
As far as The Priest and The Peaches is concerned the idea came to me at my brother’s funeral several years ago. There were five of us and we did lose our folks at an early age. But I had never considered writing about it. Then, after Bobby’s funeral, my sister, brothers and I, were reminiscing about our early years. One thing led to another and we were laughing like crazy. All of us had different memories of a shared time in our lives and it was a beautiful afternoon for all of us even though we had just buried our brother. That is when the idea for the book began to germinate. However, it is a work of fiction. I just seized that moment in time and ran with it.
I have described writing a novel as akin to building a house. For me, the overall concept is in my mind. The blank paper is the land where the house will be built. Most of the building materials are on the truck waiting to be unloaded. The only problem for me is I do not have any blue-prints to follow so I have to figure out where everything goes without direction. Many writers outline carefully (blue-print) and some synopsize from beginning to end (build a scale model). I synopsize after the fact (more or less jotting down where I have been after a few chapters so I have reference to the thousands of words already written). I am more or less considered a “pantser” (flying by the seat of my pants) and it is a method frowned upon by most experts.
Another way to look at the process of novel writing is as if you are on a cross-country journey. The first couple of hundred miles are more or less a straight run on the interstate and you just breeze along with nary a bump in the road. Suddenly there is an unexpected detour ahead and you are sent in another direction. You make a wrong turn and discover that you have no idea where you are. Where is that darn highway? You stop and ask directions (thinking) and write them down (different ideas) and the person who gave you directions becomes a new character. You begin to drive and “thumpa-thumpa,” you blow a tire. Uh oh–the spare is flat. You have had enough and decide to stop at a motel so you can relax and regroup. Ultimately, you fight through the adversity (write-edit-write-edit-write) and keep on going.
I hope you get my point with all of this. You will always hit the proverbial “bump in the road”. Sometimes you will wind up in a ditch. You have to deal head-on with all obstacles. The goal is to finish the journey. The entire process will more than likely prove to be a lot more challenging than you ever thought. But you MUST keep on truckin’ – sooner or later you will reach the end of the journey.
Sidebar: If some of the young folks out there would like to get an idea of how it might be to have to fend for themselves and take care of the “business of life” they might enjoy reading The Priest & The Peaches. Not all kids come home to an X-Box 360 or a Wii, and a mom who is there to feed them and tuck them in.
This is my analogy of MY writing process. I am confident that many of the “experts” would take me to task since I am a bit of a “pantser” (flying by the seat of my pants). Anyway–here ya go:
Let’s start with “plotting”. For me, I have the idea in my head. The more I think about this idea the more vivid things become. It is as if I am picturing a house I want to build. I know where the foundation will go and I can see the finished product with its roof, windows, doors, shutters and even shrubs. But, I have not been inside that house nor have I painted the outside. I still have to install plumbing, heating, electrical, cabinets, sinks, decide on colors etc. That’s what it is like for me when thinking the story through from beginning to end. Where and how all of those necessary parts and pieces will fit together I do not know. It happens as I write and there are many changes that continually take place. By the time I have actually finished I have re-constructed that “house” many times before I even considered moving in.
As far as the characters are concerned, (the people living inside this house), you have to get to know them quickly but only enough so you want to know more about them. As I write, these folks develop and sometimes even I am surprised when I find out who they really are and what they are capable of. Actually, it is the same as meeting real people. Sometimes you may meet someone and become life-long friends. Then there are those who initially impress you but you find out soon enough that they are trouble and you quickly distance yourself. But, you never know that immediately.
As far as dialogue: I try to write just the way people speak. I use slang ie; “ain’t got” or “I dunno” depending on the character speaking. I also try to dialogue interaction where there is a minimal amount of “he saids” and “she saids.” I try to do it in such a way that the reader knows who is speaking even though you are not saying who is speaking. That can be a bit tricky at times but I think it is important to do. Also, try to avoid long winded dialogue and speeches. Get it done in one or two sentences if possible.
To finish up let me just say that, as a writer, I am a work in progress just like my books. I am not too concerned how big or how fancy the house will be. My goal is to build something well crafted, durable and long lasting.
When I wrote The Priest & The Peaches, I did not anticipate it being classified as historical fiction. The story takes place in the mid 1960s and I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s. I always thought of “historic” as being way before my time, not during my time. The first thing I had to do was make sure I was not dead yet. I calmed down when my own left hand smacked me in my head and I heard myself say, “Oh man, get over it.” I realized I was still breathing and I got over it.
The point is, I am far from being an authority on writing historical fiction. Since I actually experienced the point in time I was writing about much of my needed research was already categorized inside my head. All I had to do was begin opening dormant files that I had forgotten about. The writing helped me to open them. Somethings I did have to research such as clothing styles, hair styles, prices, automobiles and things like that. Otherwise, I had it easy being historical.
I do love history and there may very well be a historical work in my future. It may even have to do with the early Peach family going back to when their American journey began at Ellis Island. Here is what I can tell you. If you truly want to write historical fiction you must travel back in time (books, internet, letters, photos, etc) will help you get there. You have to “see” the streets, “smell” the odors, “talk” to the people and understand the culture of the time you are visiting. I might recommend as not only a learning tool but also an excellent read the book, Call Me Kate: Meeting the Molly Maguires by Molly Roe and published by Tribute Books. It takes you back to the 1860s to the coal mining country of Pennsylvania. It captures beautifully the people, streets, homes, and lives including hopes and dreams of the folks living during those days. If you want a good example of historical fiction, check it out.
It seems that Damaris (from GoodChoiceReading.com) was, like me, born and raised in the Bronx near Yankee Stadium. Well, Damaris, I am sure you are a bit younger than I so I imagine if you could step back into my Bronx world (I moved to New Jersey in 1967 when I got married) you might find it a bit different. Let me start with “feeling safe.”
Did you know that when I was growing up we rarely locked our doors. During the heat of summer our windows and front doors were left open all night long with the hopes of catching a much wanted breeze that might pass through the rooms. It wasn’t perfect. There was the time “Old Man” Molloy came home drunk and only managed to make it up one flight of stairs instead of two. He went into the apartment below and tried to climb into bed with Mrs. Connelly whose blood curdling screams can still be heard on summer nights if the breeze is right.(so I have been told). When we kids got home from school we immediately changed into our “play” clothes and, in a flash, were back outside. We played in the streets, roamed the neighborhood, and our parents only admonition was that we make sure we were home ON TIME for supper–or else. During summer vacation we spent days on end over by Yankee Stadium. When the Yankees were home we always got to see the players as they arrived and parked on 158th St. There was The “Mick” and “Yogi” and “Scooter” and “Moose” and ‘Whitey” and we even got to know them a bit. We were usually able to sneak into the stadium by the second inning over on the 161st side (I think they looked the other way) and after the games you were allowed to run around the field and run we did pretending to be the “Mick” or “Scooter” making fabulous plays.
I am not sure how things changed so much. Now doors and windows are dead-bolted and have security locks and alarm systems monitoring them. Parents have to be aware of their kids whereabouts at all times. In fact, they might get into trouble with the authorities if they do not. I rode the subway alone for the first time when I was in 5th grade. I took the IRT from 161st (Yankee Stadium) down to 59th and Lex to meet my mother by Bloomingdales. No big deal. Yet a year or so ago a lady made national headlines when she allowed her 12-year-old son to ride the subway alone. She was arrested for child endangerment. So Damaris—whatever happened? Bottom line, we come from the same place but somewhat different worlds. Anyway, thank you for giving me the opportunity to do this. Now I have to leave to pick up my 9-year-old granddaughter at her after school play center and then pick up my 4-year-old grandson at his pre-K day care. Oh yeah, I make sure they are seat-belted in the car. When my kids were small they just rode free and unencumbered. Seat belts are a MUCH better idea. Guess I’m still in the mix.
Damaris’ response to Larry:
Oh wow… things were definitely different for me growing up. But I also lived on the third floor of a building so our doors had to be locked at all times. I always remember Yankee Stadium being the “not so great” area. The only time it was safe (at least in my eyes) was whenever there was a game going on. There were always plenty of police officers around. A lot of the fields by Yankee Stadium are no longer there. They built a huge shopping mall on them. It really is sad to see how much things have changed in just eight years.
Thank you, Larry. I wish I could go back in time and see what the Bronx was like then.
I wanted to discuss writing for young readers. Okay, but remember I am not an expert and, to tell you the truth, I am not even sure what it means to be an “expert” in this area. The whole thing seems ambiguous to me. What I mean is this; many books classified YA are fine for adults also. MG might be okay for some YA readers and then, they might be okay for some savvy readers under eight. MG is classified 8 to 12. YA is classified 12 and up. Personally, I believe MG should range from about 10 to 14. YA should start at 15. My own rule of thumb is that I try to remember that MG kids are still discovering things inside themselves, especially as they head toward puberty. YA readers are discovering things outside themselves, like the realities of the adult world. Where do you transition? I’m not sure. I guess it comes down to some good old fashioned common sense.
Now that I have attempted to separate MG from YA what’s next? Okay, I think that MG books should be 125 pages or less and YA books should be 300 pages or less. When I was in high-school (a long time ago) required reading for us in junior year was Gone With The Wind. That was well over 900 pages long and I’m sure, in today’s world, might not be considered YA. So, who is to say? Certainly not me. The best advice I might give – READ YA books that have been out for awhile.
I would suggest that your writing should be be honest and straight-forward. Avoid being too “slick” or “tricky.” Kids are too smart for that and you will not win them over. But, you must make them think. Good luck. Also, avoid long sentences. The human brain starts losing focus often after the 20th or 25th word in a sentence. Another thing is I believe that the interaction between and among characters is crucial. Describing places with all the white, fluffy clouds overhead should be less, not more. For example, “At the foot of the steps the water was the color of gray foam,” or “At the foot of the steps, a long, curling string of seaweed lay upon the sand like a chubby snake watching the thin, legged sea gull hop to and fro in the gray foam.” Which do you think is best? You have to decide as you go along.
When I was knee-deep into the writing of The Priest and The Peaches I never considered that it might be considered historical fiction. I was of the mindset that I was simply writing a book at the YA level. In my mind “historical” dealt with things that had taken place way before I was but a twinkle in my parents’ eyes. Then the reality of the concept sunk in. The story was taking place during my early years on this planet. I was alive and experiencing those days that I was writing about. I suddenly felt old because I had become “historical” also. I realized that the time frame I was dealing with was almost 50 years ago. I was here and still reeling (as were so many others) over the Kennedy assassination. The Vietnam War was escalating and a close friend I had gone to school with, Stevie O’Shea, had just been killed in action bringing the war home to our neighbourhood. Medicare had just been signed into law. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 had been passed. A year earlier, the Civil Rights Act had also been enacted. There were riots in the Watts section of Los Angeles and The Sound of Music was released. I could go on but it is obvious why this work is classified as historical fiction.
I discovered that the advantage for me, as a writer and having actually experienced those days, was that they are part of who I am. The result is, when writing about the time frame, you can “feel” it. You were there and the sounds and sights and people are indelibly embedded in your mind. I did not realize that until I started jarring memories loose, memories that must have been stuck deep down in a hidden cave somewhere in my brain. So many things began popping up. It was like I had stuck a shovel in the ground, dug down and hit a hidden reservoir which contained my past. I was amazed that I was seeing “Joe the Bungalow Guy” driving his ice-cream truck down the street. Or “Little Louie,” the UPS man, and Gus, who had a merry-go-round on the back of a pick-up truck and for ten cents a kid could get on it and Gus would pull the thing around by hand. The subways, the candy stores, the movie theaters and so much more once again became vivid sights.
I guess I should end by saying that unexpectedly revisiting all of these memories became a part of the journey. It enabled me to see not only myself but my family and friends and so many things from days gone by. It was almost as if I were watching an old Super * movie reel. Talk about “perks” of the job. WOW!
I thought about a character interview vs posting something from one of the character’s journals or diary. I immediately opted for the interview format but no one would cooperate. Dancer told me had homework to finish (yeah sure, good one Dancer). Beeker whined that he had promised Lefty and Righty he would help them clean the hallways in their building (their dad is the super) and Joanie suddenly had a date with Scratch. As for Teddy, I could not find him anywhere. So, what to do? Well, I swiped Sarah’s diary and took a peek. I feel a bit guilty about doing this but my justification is that since I created it anyway I guess I can learn to live with it. I hope you understand. I do respect other people’s boundaries.
January 1, 1966
It is New Year’s Day and my own mother is not talking to me because I did not get home until this morning. She knows the car would not start. She knows it was only 5 degrees outside. But, it’s all about Teddy. Always about Teddy. It isn’t fair. I try so hard. I think Momma and Daddy actually hate each other. Daddy is so mean to her. He doesn’t talk to anyone. He just sits in that ridiculous red chair watching TV. I found out that he had a big yelling fight with Kevin last night and threw him out. His own son, he throws him out on New Year’s Eve. How could he do that? I was not there so Momma was probably in her room just crying and feeling alone and blaming me for it. It is not fair. I hate this so much. They have not spoken a word to each other in months. Why don’t they just separate? She makes him supper and I have to give it to him. If he needs something from her I have to get it. I’m supposed to keep them together? For what? The whole thing is insane and I can’t talk about it at all, even with Teddy. Teddy? Oh my God, she wants me to go out with Bert. Bert’s a jerk. All wrapped up in himself. Just because he goes to NYU and is going to be a doctor. Teddy is just a “stupid construction worker”. Well, I don’t care Momma, it is my life. What am I supposed to do? She always is sick and says she has chest pains and is dizzy. If something happens to her I’ll get blamed by everyone. Oh sure, it will be all my fault. I don’t know what to do. I really love Teddy but I don’t want to kill my own mother. Oh my God—I have to put this down. Happy New Year diary, Sarah