Nicole and I met a few years ago when we both had stories published in the popular CHESTER COUNTY FICTION anthology. Nicole’s story, “The Weeping Beech,” leads off the collection and is an imaginative tale inspired by an actual historical tree in West Goshen, PA.
After earning her MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts, Nicole is now putting the final touches on her first novel, a middle-grade time-travel story. Learn more about this book — and more about Nicole — at her website.
Thanks Nicole for tagging me in the “4 Questions” game. Here are my 4 answers:
I am currently being swallowed whole by the initial drafts of a contemporary crime novel. The story is set where I live: Chester County, Pennsylvania. There is so much rich history here, but there is also a sense that nothing ever happens in what is essentially a quiet, tight-knit community. So I want to write about the darkness that occasionally overtakes an otherwise peaceful town.
HOW DOES YOUR WORK DIFFER FROM OTHERS IN ITS GENRE?
Voice and setting. The crime genre (mystery, suspense, thriller, noir, however you want to subcategorize it) is certainly a well-beaten path littered with bodies and mayhem. I’m not as interested in the whodunit of a crime story. Instead I’m fascinated by setting — the history and character of a real place (or a place that feels real) — and the impact a crime has on the people in that place. Then, in telling that story of a place, I hope I bring to it a voice that is uniquely my own. I want my writing to be accessible, but also have some weight to it. It’s a difficult balance and a constant ambition.
WHY DO YOU WRITE WHAT YOU DO?
Two answers: (1) it’s what I like to read and (2) it’s what I hear in my head.
First, I admire all the greats of “literary crime” — in particular, Dennis Lehane, Ace Atkins, Tana French, George Pelecanos, William Lashner, Scott Turow, Laura Lippman, and so many others — and I devour it all. I’m a notoriously slow and deliberate reader (which is not exactly a helpful trait), but I’m making my way through the canon. I am attracted to stories of some social heft—stories you often hear categorized as “literary crime”—although a breezy whodunit is also a welcome read at the right moment. And I love Hitchcock films where an ordinary person is thrust into extraordinary circumstances. So, my writing is influenced by the writers I myself love to read and want to emulate.
I also write what I do because quite simply these are the stories I hear in my head. Most creatives will tell you they are always talking to themselves, telling themselves stories, concocting tales in their imagination. I see characters and settings constantly, I hear their voices and their stories — it’s like a multi-theater cineplex running in my brain 24/7. Most of the stories are based on some kind of “what if?” scenario — What if a dead body is found in an otherwise sleepy little town? What happens next? And then what? When these movies are playing out in your mind, sometimes a voice or a setting will speak to you a little more often or with a little more volume. And in that situation, you have no choice but to write it down.
WHAT IS YOUR PROCESS LIKE?
My process is dictated by the project. But for the most part it comes down to filling the well every day with stories, characters, places, situations, and letting them play for a while in my unconscious. Then a partially formed story or character will bubble up from the plasma — I can’t let go of it, can’t stop shaping it, messing around with it, thinking it through. That’s when I know it’s time to start drafting.
For me, the actual writing usually starts with a storyboard. I create a wall of index cards and Post-It notes with all the possible scenes in the story. Some of these will never see the light of day, but I put them on the wall until something else occurs to me. I tend to use a three-act structure (or more specifically four acts - I, IIA, IIB, and III) and place the index cards loosely within that structure. Bits of dialogue, scene descriptions, character notes will all go onto the index cards. I’m also constantly mind-mapping the story into my notebooks and keeping a running list of random thoughts in Evernote. It’s all very visual — I need to “see” the story.
Sometimes I just write from the storyboard and notes, which is kind of a loose skeleton outline (I usually transfer the boards to Scrivener writing software, which is in part a virtual corkboard, so I can carry it around with me). For the novel I’m working on now, the storyboard led to a more detailed synopsis. I’m finding I need that because I’m using several different points of view and time periods and the complications of the plot itself depend very much on structure and keeping everything straight.
My favorite part of “process” is REVISION. Early drafts are just a way to get at the real story you’re trying to tell. For my novel PHOENIXVILLE RISING, I worked from a storyboard until I had a solid first draft. Then I broke apart that draft into other outlines/storyboards and rewrote and rewrote. I read the story aloud, gave the manuscript to beta readers, hired professional editors, workshopped pieces of the book. And rewrote again. During the rewrites, new things will occur to you and you invariably will see connections or themes that weren’t visible in the early stages. One draft sparks the next.
It’s fun but also requires patience. Because of their desire to get work out there—coupled with the fact that in this new age of publishing anyone can publish anything—too many writers unleash their work too soon. The writing is incomplete, not yet fully formed. Of course, it’s hard to know when you’re actually finished. Truth is, many of us will always see something in the final book that we would like to change. It’s never going to come out exactly the way you hear it in your head.
And that is the great frustration and the great joy of being a writer.