Thursday, February 7, 2013
The Research and the Writing
They were badges of honor for a kid who was enthusiastic about learning, but also had her head in the clouds and her nose in a book (not textbooks). One of my teachers wrote this in one of my high school yearbooks, "Eleanor has the attention span of a butterfly on a flower, but she can tell you all about that flower and its relationship with the butterfly." He had me pegged at sixteen.
As many first-time novelists might admit and I will, I wrote my novel, A Decent Woman, without a plan. Sure, I had an outline and knew who my main characters were, but when I began to tell the story, I just wrote. I allowed my characters to tell their stories without a story board nor a stack of how-to writing books because I didn't know those books existed. I was in awe of writers and never thought that they didn't know what they were doing at one time nor that they'd been beginners like me. I thought they were born for greatness and were doing what came naturally. God had blessed them, I didn't question a thing.
Naively and naturally, I gravitated toward writing and doing research as questions and the need arose in my story. That seemed to work for me. I'd decided that I would write a chapter or two and then, do the necessary research to flesh out the scene, the descriptions and the characters. Naturally, writing a novel about life in Puerto Rico in the 1900's meant I had lots of questions and blanks to fill, mixed in with my grandmother's stories of how she cooked, cleaned and washed clothes when she was young with the limited resources available to her.
My then-husband, kids and I lived in Belgium when I began my historical novel, A Decent Woman and our library was small. I'd browse the titles and nothing jumped out at me. Honestly? I don't think I even knew what I was looking for, so the Internet became my research tool. Hurricanes - off to the Internet! I learned all I needed to know about the hurricanes, tropical storms and tropical depressions that passed near the island and the direct hits to the island in the early 1900's. I learned about tropical waves that begin off the coast of Africa and the conditions for the perfect storm. I could easily spend hours doing research on the Web and I did. Soon however, I realized that I needed to keep writing and just research on a need-to-know basis. I had to remain focused and not be that butterfly on the flower! That worked very well for me, so I kept writing.
Questions about indigenous plants and flowers, burial practices in the early 1900s, slavery in Puerto Rico, and the lives of women on the island came flooding in at times. More research to be done!
As my story progressed, I added new characters that came with their own baggage, complications and goals that at times, didn't mesh with my heroine's goals, dreams and ideas. I learned to let go and let my characters loose just to see what would happen. The things my characters got into or were involved in boggled the mind, but I kept writing. I'd often say that my characters were whispering in my ear and looking over my shoulders at every turn. In those early days, I wasn't worried about finding an agent, I didn't worry about what other writers were writing and I certainly didn't worry about selling books. I had a story to tell and I figured that if I loved my story this much, certainly others would find it interesting. No one had read my novel-length manuscript yet. I kept it to myself.
While writing, I'd listen to CDs of period Puerto Rican music, to tangos my grandmother loved, I devoured archives of old photographs taken on the island for details on period dress, architecture and no detail, no matter how minute, escaped me. I interviewed older family members and friends born in Puerto Rico back in the day and asked them question after question. I even sent questionnaires to every Puerto Rican woman I knew about daily life and growing up on the island. Not only was I doing research for my book, I was also learning more about the place of my birth and that of my grandmother and mother. Writing this book has been a wonderful experience for me. The process has been healing, illuminating and yes, revealing.
I brought out my novel several times during the next five years while I got divorced, went back to school and worked long hours. The timing was right to keep the manuscript out in 2011. Timing is everything in life. I then began to read books on writing, plotting, character development, dialogue, story boards, advice, tips and writing the breakout novel. I was ready for those books and didn't mind going back with edits and rewrites. I found a great editor and with her fantastic ideas, suggestions and questions, I continued to edit and rewrite passages, scenes and chapters.
I still edit my novel (when do you know you're done?) with Puerto Rican music playing softly in the background and am surrounded by family photos, many of my grandmother and my mother, taken on the island and in the US. All their beautiful smiling faces encourage me, nod in agreement, laugh with me, and give me that look that says to me, "Keep going, you're getting closer."
Peace and love,
P.S. I took the above photo on my most recent visit to Puerto Rico last December in beautiful Rincon.