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March 25, 2014 —Today we’re shifting gears a touch to join the “Author Writing Process” blog tour. I’m honored to have been asked to jump into this pool of talented writers by Claire Gebben, author of the recently released historical fiction novel Last of the Blacksmiths. A fellow graduate of the NW Institute of Literary Arts, Claire settled in Seattle by way of Grand Rapids, Buffalo, and Cleveland, the city where much of her novel is set. Drawing from a set of letters discovered by a German relative, Claire researched and wrote the compelling story of a young 19th century blacksmith who immigrated to America. She even learned the blacksmith’s trade to bring authenticity to the words on the page. Claire’s writing has appeared in Shark Reef, The Speculative Edge, Soundings Review, The Fine Line, and Northwest Prime Time. The Last of the Blacksmiths is her first novel.
You can read Claire’s responses to the Writing Process questions here.
My responses to the Writing Process Blog Tour follow:
1. What am I working on?
I am currently in the last five days of a 31-day blog blast and crowd-funding project for a novel near and dear to me called The Tail Gunner. It’s the story of a young girl who is cleaning out the hayloft of her grandparents’ horse barn and comes across a box of dusty, curled, mouse-chewed letters and pictures that were slated for the burn pile. When her grandmother tosses a picture of a young bomber boy into the fire and walks away, clearly upset, the bomber boy’s ghost steps out of the fire demanding that Sylvie help him complete his final mission.
The story was born of the question, “What if spirits could transfer their memories to us? What would that look like?” It was also the product of my Dad’s WWII stash that my sister and I found while cleaning out the hayloft of our horse barn. It’s a remarkable collection that led me all the way from Washington State to a tiny beach on the island of Capri.
I do have a sequel in the percolator, but that’s yet to be revealed.
My other big project debuting this spring is an exhibit based on my short story “Ernest Oglby Punkweiler and the Fabulous-Miraculous Time Intrusionator.” The story first appeared in Soundings Review and has been adapted for use as the guiding storyline of a fun new exhibit of the same name. The project has given me the great delight of working with some of Washington State’s star children’s book illustrators (Mike Cressy, Richard Jesse Watson, Craig Orback, Jo Gerschman, Julie Paschkis, Karen Lee Schmidt, and Paul Owen Lewis) to create large-as-life scenes of key and quirky moments in the state’s history. An audio version of the story is also being recorded by the talented folks at Jack Straw Productions. The exhibit opens at the Washington State History Museum on May 17, 2014. Everyone is invited.
2. How does my work differ from others in its genre?
Collections—things. Everything I write is inspired by a thing or a collection of things. I like the challenge of finding the story in even the most “mundane” of things. Like Ernest Oglby Punkweiler, I’m an objectologist of the rarest sort. Perhaps it’s come from working in the museum field for nearly 20 years. Objects speak to me through the clues they carry and lead me on all sorts of adventures that come out in my writing. The Tail Gunner novel is based on the WWII collection my dad left behind. “Ernest” adventures are drawn from the collections of the Washington State Historical Society. A picture book manuscript I wrote was inspired by a collection of old railroad brochures. While what I write is both historical and fiction, because of its air of magical realism, it’s not hardline “historical fiction.” To me, that’s okay, because I know that the historical elements that are included in my stories are deeply researched and are pivotal to the story.
3. Why do I write what I do?
Because I have to. While I write both fiction and nonfiction, underlying both is the deeper belief that objects have the ability to connect us to our past. Consequently, my stories tend to find me; there are sources of inspiration all over the place. In the early stages of a story’s development, I make a point to “find” the story not craft it. I let the objects, images, and ephemera lead me on a journey. Then I take those stories to the next level to create a framework and story arc, and then revise, revise, revise, through many drafts. It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it, and it often yields both nonfiction and fiction elements that can be shared in a multitude of ways.
I need a lot of variation in my work, so I write both short stories and long, fiction and nonfiction. Some people say a writer needs to focus on a particular genre, and indeed all of us writers usually find “our thing,” but trying a range of forms is like getting a well-rounded workout. There’s always that one thing that you most enjoy, for which you hold a natural aptitude, but you still have to stretch to get it all right.
4. How does my writing process work?
I have no idea. Well, that’s not entirely true. My stories usually begin with a line that starts sliding through my mind like those banner messages pulled behind small planes to advertise beer or launch a proposal. And that part comes after having done what I call a “feeding frenzy” of delving into as much research material as I can find and devour. But that part comes after mental images of scenes in a story have appeared in my mind.
After I deal with that swirling cosmos of words and images, I put it all into a mental sack, depending on whether it’s a novel, a short story, a nonfiction article, or even an object label at the museum. Then, based on the type of word-product I’m after, I simply reach into the sack and pull out whatever I need.
Longer works are harder for me because while I’m great at grabbing ideas and getting a story started, I often wind up in the woods with no idea where I’m headed. That’s when I go back and find the frame of the story. I identify key plot points and begin to outline the scenes that seem essential to the story. This makes it easier because then I can just write one scene at a time instead of getting overwhelmed by the enormity of the story. Of course, then I revise. The Tail Gunner novel took no less than 15 drafts, and a couple of those drafts were complete remodels. I’ve posted a few out-takes here in Mission 31 that were great color for the early drafts, but they got tossed out in later versions because they didn’t genuinely move the story forward. It’s tough to chuck a scene you love, but the truth is, it still informs the story even if it doesn’t get center stage.
Writing is a puzzle for the mind; it’s fun, challenging, and can make you crazy. But then us writers would be crazy if we didn’t write, so we tackle the puzzles everyday and if we’re lucky, we manage to create works of great wonder and beauty.
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Next week, just in time for April Fools Day (but these folks are no fools) I’m delighted to pass the torch to two incredibly versatile and delightful story-makers.
Gwen (Perkins) Whiting is the author of The Universal Mirror, a fantasy novel set in a land “where men have killed their gods.” Although she is a fantasy and science fiction writer by night, she’s an historian by day with her writing appearing in a range of publications from encyclopedias to Columbia Magazine, where her work recently earned her the John McClelland Award. A native of the Pacific Northwest, she blogs at Amazing Stories Magazine.
Mike Cressy is outta this world. While toodling through the Internet looking at artist portfolios, I came across his work and discovered an image of the very character I had been writing about—Ernest Oglby Ounkweiler. Mike’s art quickly became central to the exhibit (come see it) and the rest, as they say, is his story (literally). Mike’s a guy with an eye for the unusual, one of his favorite books is the Power of Myth, and not only can the guy draw like nobody’s business, he can write in ways most people have never even imagined. You’ll find his blog at JetPack Studio.