Q&A tail end

Maybe I ought to finish off the November questions before I find we’re in December. Nothing like a national election to distract a person.

Q: Neighbor in the Next Valley (you better not be the one with the goddamn dog that barks all night) asks: Okay if we’re not talking about sex any more; how about religion or politics. I guess my question would be though, how much of Mary’s opinions and insights are yours or are they based upon the comments/thoughts of historical figures of the times?

For some reason, your description of Touchstone made me think of New York City and what would be more natural than for Mary & Holmes to travel across the continent..

A: About the latter—the next Russell, which I’ll begin writing after the first of the year, will be set entirely in England. Or anyway, I intend it to be set entirely in England, although if you’ve been reading more than a few entries in this blog you won’t be surprised to hear me say that books have a habit of getting away from me, so that my own intentions end up having little to do with it.

However, yes, in the future this might make an interesting book, either flashback to their cross-country journey or a return.

There are many things I like about writing historical fiction, one of which is that ideas “based upon the comments/thoughts of historical figures of the times” are so often useful in enriching the comments and thoughts of the present. TOUCHSTONE is about a man’s search for an international terrorist—in 1926 England.

Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

(no accents here, sorry—everything turns into Hebrew, where you have to add your own diacritical markings.)

Q: Una writes, as part of a longish post, i think sometimes i would like to become a writer … i am an intensely private person. so much so, that i do not ever keep a journal for long before i dispose of it because of how risky it feels to think someone might read what i wrote, or i might read it later and find it ignorant or stupid, or otherwise unworthy of my high opinion of myself.

i don’t know if that has anything to do with the fact that when i set about try to write my ideas for a book or article, that i would want someone to read, or speak them into a recorder, it all simply vanishes… more like the time spent in considering what i would write was an experience itself, than something that could actually be crafted into something to share.

assuming- for the sake of the question- that it is worth sharing, and would be of interest to others, is there anything you can suggest to get beyond this?

A: You want to know the secret to being a writer?

You write.

Beyond that, though, you need to accept yourself in your writing. You need to accept that what you write is going to be bad, and stupid, pointless, and that as a result, it will make you feel bad and stupid and—yes–pointless.

You need to accept that what you write will sometimes give away more of yourself than you’re comfortable with. You accept this by telling yourself, This is a first draft; nobody is going to see it unless I get struck by lightning; I can take out the icky stuff later on.

And as for the vanishing effect of writing, the written experience is not the real experience. There’s real life, immediate and confusing and complicated, and then there’s fiction, which even when it’s complicated has a point to it. That’s because the writer’s job is to aim for effect, not for reality. Even stream-of-consciousness isn’t reality. Everything on a page is shaped for effect.

Is it shaped for the effect it has on others, what you call sharing? It can be, but if you write as I do, the first draft is for your eyes only, and the effect is strictly personal. Only after the first draft is shaped will you stand back and let judgment fly where it will: This is bad. (But at least it’s here, and it wasn’t last year this time.) It will never be good. (But it can be better, and that’s as much as you can hope for.) It’s pointless. (Is it really, or is that just the self-critic in you? If it is truly pointless, why did you go to all the work of writing it? Is there a hidden point in there somewhere you can begin to work to the surface?)

What I might suggest to you is, write as in a journal, and when you’ve finished for the day, don’t reread what you’ve written: Put it away, close it, forget it entirely. Do this again tomorrow, and again every day for a week.

At the end of it, read your first entry, now cold in your mind. What in this passage tweaks your interest? What part isn’t bad, and what don’t you like about it? Are the verbs strong enough, the nouns accurate enough, the sentences succinct?

Not every day’s writing is going to be good or interesting. When you take a bunch of photographs, are they all works of art? But really, it’s just film, who cares if nine tenths of them are duds? (And with a digital camera, there’s not even that concern, the images are the very essence of ephemeral, wiped away as if they never were.)

You need to separate your creative side and your editorial/critical side. Both are necessary, but they get in each other’s way. This is why editors work in offices in New York, writers work in coffeehouses in Seattle.

A writer writes, that’s the only way it gets done. And then she rewrites, that’s the only way it gets good.

Good luck.

Q: WDI asks how, or if, the narrative style (first person in the Russells, third person elsewhere) of a book affects the writing process. Do you have to go to a different place in your head to write “as” the protagonist than you do when you’re the omniscient narrator? Does that, in turn, change the way the story unfolds for you? Or is it, as Will Shetterly titles his blog, “all one thing”?

A: There are a lot of technical considerations, of course—how do I present a piece of information that exists outside the 1st person narrator’s point of view? How do I achieve a pleasing degree of variety when the narrative is restricted to one voice? How do I write a 120,000 word novel that doesn’t have every second sentence beginning with “I”?

I wrote Beekeeper’s Apprentice, and subsequent books in that series, first person in Mary Russell’s voice, since they seemed to require the memoir style. I’m not even sure if I could write third-person Russell (outside the small snippets in Locked Rooms) because sharing the intimacy of her mind is such an integral part of the books.

Certainly, the broader the POV the bigger the potential effect. Touchstone moves between omniscience and a tight concentration on one or another of the six main characters, which enables me both to tell a big story and to explore the subtleties of each person’s character from within.

The problem with first person is that you’re trapped behind one set of eyes; the problem with multiple POVs is that you risk diluting the story line and distracting, even confusing the reader.

Does this affect the writing process? No doubt it does, in that the memoir style necessitates a sort of channeling approach, whereas the multiple or omniscient viewpoint requires a more deliberate craft. That, however, is for the first draft, and I would suspect that in the rewrite, any innate stylistic differences are smoothed down.

Posted in


  1. L. Crampton, LAc on November 19, 2006 at 3:40 am

    Thank you, Laurie, for your graciousness in mulling over and responding to the questions put to you. I particularly appreciate your answer to Una’s question; as a sometimes writer myself, I do find that simply accepting myself and the process are a huge part of making any progress on the projects that mean anything to me–I’m glad you brought that up!

  2. Dr. Susan Ollar on November 19, 2006 at 11:36 pm

    Having found you first, through a CD reading of The Moor in my brother’s Lexus (driving to Walnut Creek, CA on a visit to see my parents last month) I’ve found you again on the internet. As a result of this second encounter, I have been inspired to just go ahead and finally write the book about my life experiences in memoir style, letting go of the self doubt that has paralyzed me over the last four years. I’ll take your advice and write a lot out of curiousity about what I have to say. Thank you for your humor, good wishes and generosity of spirit.

  3. Anonymous on November 21, 2006 at 3:34 am

    Hi Laurie, I greatly enjoyed your response to Una’s letter. As an aspiring mystery writer, I can appreciate what you said on many levels. My article-writing follows the same path of first draft and rewrites, but it seems easier when the draft is four pages rather than 400. I find myself surprised at the depths I am able to plumb when I actually put pen to paper. I’m really glad you’re sharing from the heart. It truly can be painful to reach down into ourselves and pull out truths and observations we didn’t know we knew until the words fell upon the page. Good luck to all the Una’s out there, trying to find a voice. Iris Lady

  4. Anonymous on November 22, 2006 at 3:30 am

    Dear Laurie,

    Thank you very much for years of entertaining reads…please continue for many more to come!.


  5. Anonymous on November 25, 2006 at 3:06 am

    oh goodie more nuts and bolts of writing. I keep thinking I’ll get bored with hearing about the subject or that Laurie, you will end up repeating your self and we could just read old posts for the same news, but NO!

    each and everytime it is fresh and fascinating.

    Hmmmm, must have to do with you being a very entertaining and engaging writer.

    and yes reading good writers and writing seem to be the basic food groups required to train our little writers minds to the task…

    thanks as always,


Leave a Comment