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”?