Karen White on Writing

Karen White recently published The Girl on Legare Street (click for my review).  And she graciously agreed to compose a guest post about her writing habits and routines.  

Please give her a warm welcome.

      I just yelled at my husband for stepping on a pile of papers on the floor in front of the printer.  Our brand new printer isn’t working and he’s checking the serial number so when he calls India for technical support, they’ll know which model we’re discussing.  That kind of made me laugh because I’m supposed to be writing about my organizational methods when writing a novel, and a pile in front of the printer doesn’t bode well.

      In real life, I’m pretty much of a neatnik.  In fact, friends and family have compared me to the anal-retentive and super-organized protagonist Melanie Middleton in my book The House on Tradd Street and the sequel (November 2009), The Girl on Legare Street..  I actually think that’s a compliment.  I’m the mother of two teenagers with a dog, a guinea pig, and a husband who travels all the time–and I’m in charge of all things minute.  Everything is scheduled on my Palm Pilot–I even have an alarm set every month to remind me when to give the dog his heartworm and flea medication.  I do laundry every Thursday without fail, and grocery shop every Sunday.

      But somehow, all bets are off when I write a book.  I don’t outline.  I don’t do heavy plotting.  I don’t do character sketches.  In fact, it’s not all that unusual for me to not know exactly how the book ends when I start.  

      When I get a story germ that I think is good enough for a book, I don’t write it down.  I let it stew and simmer into something bigger–usually a couple of months or more.  I’ve found that if I write it down–or worse, tell somebody about it–it grows stale.  Then after the idea has finished simmering (or when I realize how close my deadline is and I need to get started) I sit down and start to write the first three chapters.  I don’t write in drafts, but clean up as I go so that by the time I’m finished writing, it’s pretty much a clean copy.

      However, with writing two big books each year for the last two years, I’ve refined the process.  It’s what I call my ‘soldiers and generals’ technique.  My first go of my chapter I’m the general looking at the big picture and deciding what needs to be done.  I put the bones of the story down, setting the scene, moving the characters around.  Then I send in my soldiers on the second pass–I add the pretty stuff like descriptions and emotions.  Sort of like adding flesh and hair to a skeleton.  That way I don’t obsess as I sit down to write–I just get the story down.  Then I can relax and have fun with it–sort of like Michelangelo and a block of marble.

      To go to contract, my publisher requires some sort of synopsis so, after writing the first few chapters, I jot down my ideas for the book and turn it in.  Luckily, I’m at the point in my career where my editor (who should be sainted) realizes that my book will bear little resemblance to the synopsis.  Because after I turn that synopsis in, I don’t look at it again.  I’m driven by the characters and their story, and whatever unfolds on each page.  If I come up with an idea for a later scene or dialogue, I skip to the bottom of the manuscript and take notes or write the bits and pieces to be used later, then go back to what I was doing.

      The only thing about my writing method that’s semi-organized is my research area.  Even though I have an office in the home (where I am right now), I use it strictly for the business side of writing.  For my creative side, I use my pink Mac Airbook and write either outside on my screened-in-porch (when the weather’s nice) or in my sitting room.  This room has huge windows, bookshelves, a fireplace, a coffee bar and a refrigerator (for those Diet Dr. Peppers).  

      When I finish a book I clear out and file all of my research materials and empty the low-lying shelf next to my writing chair (big enough so that my dog can fit next to me).  Then I start acquiring books on whatever subject I need for the next book and fill the bookshelf.  I take notes in no particular order, on the backs of other notes or on scraps and hope I can find them later.  But they all get put on that shelf so that I have a good chance of finding it later when I need it.

      Right now, I’m heading toward the end of my next book (On Folly Beach, May 2010). Half of the book takes place in 1942 and the other half in 2009.  You can only imagine the amount of research this book has required to get all of the 1942 details straight.  Notes are everywhere (hence the pile by the printer–I haven’t brought them upstairs to my shelf yet).  I wish it weren’t such a mess!

      Yet, when I’m writing a book all I want to do it write. I just can’t be bothered with filing stuff because it takes away from my writing.  Maybe one day when I’m not chasing my family around, I’ll have more time to be more organized about my writing.  But for now, this method works for me.

      I’ve got to go sort laundry now (tomorrow’s Thursday) and then get to bed a little early because my Palm Pilot just sent out an alarm to remind me that my dog is scheduled for his annual vet checkup tomorrow morning at eight am.  If only my writing life could be so simple!

Thanks, Karen for sharing a bit of your writing life with us.  What do you think about Karen’s methods and her cute refrigerator for Diet Dr. Pepper?

***Giveaway Details***

1 copy of The Girl on Legare Street by Karen White for U.S./Canada reader

1. Enter a comment here about what you thought about the guest post.
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Deadline is Dec. 7, 2009, at 11:59PM EST.