”I am done writing historical fiction.” Yes, I did say that most emphatically after my last published book, The Mapmaker’s Daughter, came out eight years ago. Many people looked askance, as if I couldn’t possibly mean it, that I just needed a break, that writers never stop writing.
Going through the publishing and marketing aspects of producing a new novel sucked a lot of the thrill out of my last two books, and I still feel physically ill thinking about having to go through all that again. And then there’s the little problem of inspiration. I think of a few dozen stories a year that would make good novels, but all of them have fizzled out in my head without writing a word. There’s no mystery why—a historical novel is a staggering amount of work. Many ideas are fun for a few hours, as I think through how I would tell the story, but none have left me in helpless thrall, demanding to be written. A character has to get her claws in me, bother my sleep, whisper in my ear at inopportune times, refuse to go away, before I reach the point where, as Dianne Ackerman so beautifully puts it, I am ”coming down with a book.”
Well, I think I am indeed coming down with a book. There’s a remarkable woman who will not leave me alone. But the big question for me is why it has taken me so long to get started, since I first fell in love with her story a year ago.
Fear That’s it. Plain and simple. I sat outside yesterday at a Victoria coffee house, on a bright spring day, and when I least expected it, fear ambushed me. It wasn’t fear of the publication woes I described above. I haven’t even thought about what will happen to the book once written, and I wouldn’t describe my reaction to publishing as fear as much as loathing. It is the magnitude of the project that makes me weak in the knees.
A book is hundreds of pages long, and the author has to write every word of it. When I get the first few pages drafted, they seem so paltry. It’s a matter of breaking the writing down into doable bits, then adding each one to the total, and eventually I get to the end. I know this, and I know I am up to it because I have done it before. But page one is a daunting prospect, and page ten, or twenty, isn’t a whole lot better..
It’s not really the writing itself that most scares me. I love to write. I love the utter joy of finding the right words, the thrill of seeing a story take off and become more than I ever imagined. I really can’t wait to start experiencing that again. Maybe my biggest fear comes from loving writing a bit too much. I know how much a novel takes out of me. I reach a point where my world is the book, and the world I actually live in starts getting out of whack. I forget to exercise, I miss mealtime, I neglect my friends, I have to remind myself to brush my teeth and shower, I don’t watch where I’m going because I’m listening to my characters talk.
Finding out what’s going to happen next, letting the characters surprise me, or experiencing a place that feels more real than the room I am writing in—all of these and more are very seductive, but as the late Sharon Kay Penman advised, while we are writing about the past, we have to remember to live in the present. I am loving my present. I love Victoria and Vancouver Island, I love being with my friends, I love going to the pool and gym, I love going off on leisurely ambles in forests and on beaches. I don’t want to get crazy. I want balance, but creativity tends to thumb its nose at balance.
Can I write a book and have the life I am enjoying now? I guess I am about to find out if I can keep the crazy from taking over. i lie awake imagining dialogue, planning scenes, making decisions about the narration. The first words on the first page can’t be far behind. I hope I’m ready for them.