Thursday, July 5, 2007

Getting to Know You

The germ of the new novel began a few weeks back and characters began to materialize. Unlike many of my previous characters, who evolved away from people I sort of knew, these people are virtual strangers.

The story idea emerged first. I saw my two lead characters, an adult brother and sister and I saw the beginning of the story and the course of action that takes them through to the end. I hear dialog and the gist of some of the conversations they’ll have. As human beings, they have struggles and issues with relationships, career, family and with their ideas about life and where they’re going – I’m all over these issues. I think about them all the time. But she was a child prodigy and a talented musician who attended Juilliard. He was extremely bright, graduated from high school early and attended a prestigious university to study chemistry and to conduct groundbreaking research. I don’t know anything about how a person would come to follow either of these paths and that is – cool.

I thought through what kind of a family would produce siblings like these two, what kind of home life they might have, where they’d live, what the father would do for a living and the questions kept coming. I knew my violinist would turn away from music and choose another life and I knew why. I’ve grown up around musicians and artists and I have a much easier time feeling like I understand that part of her. Juilliard is another matter.

How can I understand the scientist and figure out what would cause a gifted person on a trajectory toward greatness to turn away from that path? I don’t know any scientists, but I have a romantic notion that there is a parallel to be drawn between great scientific minds and great artists, writers and musicians. I researched the achievements that have come from the university I plan to send him to in my story. I read about a famous scientist who’s been doing work since the 70s that has great potential philosophical implications and it struck a chord with me. I make connections between this science and some of the very largest questions these two are dealing with, each in his or her separate way. I barely understand the basic scientific concepts of this particular scientist's research, but I ordered a book written in layman’s terms – maybe I can gain a very high level understanding of what’s being done and fictionalize it to make it part of my character’s back story.

What’s the academic and career path to become a scientist? I want what I write to make sense and to sound genuine. I stumble onto a chemist’s blog and I’m delighted to find that he’s just a normal guy with a job I don’t know anything about. I find a whole bunch of chemist’s blogs. Now I feel guilty that I’ve stereotyped chemists – each is as different in his or her way as writers and painters are.

I chose three chemists who sounded approachable (and funny) and I emailed them to ask if they’d be willing to answer some of my questions about the scientific community. Much to my delight, all three responded that they would. So far, I’ve been gaining great insights into a world I previously knew nothing about. Our exchanges are a mix of the practical and the personal.

Next, I’ll find some Juilliard students and alumni to see what I can learn about their worlds. I need to explore some more classical string quartet pieces, so I have an excuse to buy some Bartok to add to my collection.

In the meantime, the details of my characters are taking more shape and the structure of my story is solidifying. A notebook is filling up.

Last weekend, I started to write the first chapter and I stopped. It’s not time yet. My work to find what I need to make these people genuine is not finished. My work in fleshing out who their parents are is not finished. I may use very little of the information I’m gathering now in the actual story, but I need it in order to know and understand them. I need it to begin their story.

I can already tell that the writing of this story will flow much differently than it did for my last. I can feel a much more defined plan taking shape; I can see the utility of outlining and detailed notes and character sketches -- maybe I'll even use the index cards I bought a year ago.

Ironically, despite the fact that these characters are materializing entirely from my imagination, they seem to be much more vivid to me already than the characters I wrote about in my first manuscript -- and they were inspired by real people.

How important has research been to your writing? What methods did you use to conduct it? How important is it for you to think through your characters’ backgrounds, even if it may not appear in your story? How much preparation did you do prior to starting your last novel and typing in “Chapter 1”?


Patti said...

i am always so impressed with your entries, and this one is no different. my prediction: you have a wonderful literary future ahead of you. (please note the time and date of prediction as i will be crowing about how "i called it" once it comes to pass).

So far for me my story has come to me first, and the research is an ongoing process. in one of my stories i needed to understand hospice (although i didn't know when i started the story that i would end up at that place), so i called on a hospice nurse and a nursing friend. i let them read what i had and they corrected me in all the areas i had been misinformed. they gave me the technical info i needed so that when someone else is reading it they couldn't point to that scene and call me a hack. sure, they could call me a hack otherwise, but not for that scene!

the most important question for me to start a storyis: is there sufficient conflict to carry the characters? if the answer is no, or only half way, then i don't attempt it unless i feel the need for an exercise. for me the conflict has to be a do or die (although not literally do or die) coflict ofr the main character. that character has to make such a decided change that she can't help herself. and it's that conflict that carries the story. research follows if needed.

i feel as if i am not help, but there it is.

Patti said...

^ sheesh, maybe next time i will reread my comment before posting. sorry for the hard read.

Shauna Roberts said...

My books have started with an idea for a setting first. Perhaps that's not surprising since my books are fantasies, where worldbuilding can make or break a book.

Before I start writing, I do do a lot of thinking about my characters and work out a general character arc and plot arc. I also tend to do a lot of background research on subjects related to my characters' occupations, comparable Earth ecosystems, Earth history of comparable societies, and so on.

With the one book I've finished, although I thought I knew the characters before I started, I really, really knew them by the end. So on my second (and subsequent) drafts, I pared away everything that wasn't in character and made each person even more himself or herself. I think I ended up with richer characters by letting them develop through the book than if I had set them in stone at the beginning.

Gradually evolving characters worked out for me because I have to do multiple drafts, so I can leave things hanging and fix them later. If you're one of those people who can do one draft and be done, my way won't work for you.

I've heard some published writers caution about overresearching before starting the book. They say once you know the basics you need to get started, do your research on as as-needed basis. Research can be so fun that it's hard to stop.

As a science and medical writer, I know a lot about the world of science, but from an outsider's perspective, which you won't get from your chemists. Feel free to pick my brain anytime. I also play several instruments and occasionally perform for money, so I may be able to answer some of your musician questions as well.

Lisa said...

Patti, your comment is very helpful and encouraging too! The research about hospice and your rationale is exactly the type of thing I'm working now about the chemist and to a similar degree, the musician and we're in total sync about the conflict. Much of the reason it's so important to me to understand why and how these two would have been obsessed with reaching the pinnacle of each respective career/art is to understand how critical some of the events to follow will be to them as people. I see the story arc and the plot and as the characters develop initially I can see how much weight (or not) particular events will or won't have on them. Moving backward toward the parents, who are also from a world I am not, also helps me to get into the heads of these brilliant people to understand how the events and parenting styles they know have or will impact them as mates and parents.

Shauna, I've always viewed fantasy writers and historical fiction writers with a certain awe because of the research I know must be inherent in writing stories that feel real. You've confirmed what I already suspected. I appreciate and am also being cautious about over researching. I'm very early into this process and because the research is somewhat new to me, I'm anxious to get as much as I need done so I can begin the story. I don't think it will be much longer.
I really appreciate your offer and would like to take you up on it. I once tried to email you with a question related to the use of IV human immunoglobulin (something I saw on your medical blog raised a question) and it didn't go through. If you stop back here, can you leave your email address, or email me at so I can ask you a few things? Thanks so much!

mcewen said...

Newbie - how wonderful to feel something coming to life.
Best wishes

Lisa said...

Mcewen, I'm so glad that you stopped by. I've spent the last few hours with these new people -- funny to think that they didn't exist before and now they do. Thanks so much for the kind words.

The Writers' Group said...

It's just like new love, isn't it?

Lisa said...

Yes, it really is like that. Or maybe more like infatuation. I want to know what their favorite flavor of ice cream is, what books they read, who they admire and what they're afraid of. I get to know them better than I've ever known anyone.

Scott Mattlin said...

Just wanted to wish you a very HAPPY BIRTHDAY baby!

- I love you, -Scott

Larramie said...

Well, Happy Birthday to you, Lisa!

You sound excited in this post. Although not certain where you'll end up, you're more than ready to let your characters take you there. And, as they lead, fresh ideas will keep flowing...ah, the fun of it.

Just an observation, but it seems as though this brother and sister -- who sound fascinating, btw -- are among your best birthday surprises.

Celebrate well and enjoy a Happy New Year!

Lisa said...


Thank you for the birthday wishes. Yes, these characters have been a wonderful surprise and I'm having a great time with them. Hope you had a nice vacation and I'm glad you're back. I missed you!

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf