Someone once asked Albert Einstein how he worked. “I grope,” he answered.
I like that answer because I feel like I grope, too. (I write mostly about real people, dead people one might say, and “groping dead people” doesn’t seem like a good way to say it but that’s how I feel sometimes!).
I have a process. I read everything I can find about the person. I answer my three questions before I begin about intention, attitude and purpose. I make my timeline of events known about the character and the historical period. Because I usually write about real people, women primarily, I’m always trying to find out not just what they were doing and where and when but why? I’m always asking as I research, was this the defining event in that woman’s life? Why did she leave the place she’d always lived? Why is she on the census living with only her daughters while her two sons are living with the very person earlier she had great conflict with? What brought about this change? Sometimes I don’t find the answer until well after I’ve started to write. Sometimes I never find the answer and must speculate. This feels very awkward.
Writer Katherine Ann Porter says she writes the last page first. She says if she didn’t know where she was going she couldn’t begin. “I know what my goal is. And how I get there is God’s grace.” Now see, I’d like that. I have this general idea of where I’m going but not the last page.
But then I came across this Arthur Miller quote: “He who understands everything about his subject cannot write it. I write as much to discover as to explain.”
So maybe it’s all right that I don’t have all the answers when I begin. I can be delighted and surprised even as my readers are. In fact, that happened last week. My first book in the Change and Cherish series will be out this month. I’m writing book two and while visiting with a descendant (whom I’d discovered when the first book was in final copy-editing) I picked up a letter that he had to his grandfather that had been translated from German into English. There were several letters to his grandfather that he’d kept and had translated. One from a great uncle who was an ambassador to France, England and Germany. Another from a member of the colony they were involved with. But then I picked up a letter signed by Emma, the very woman I’d been researching and writing about. Her great nephew was as startled as I was as he’d had no idea he had her letter. To see what she’d written and even her PS was delight all over and I’d merely groped upon it.
When I told a friend of this find she said if I ever wondered over God’s call to write in my life, that I should remember this story. Groping is indeed a part of God’s grace that will help me get to the last page.
Jane Kirkpatrick’s 12th novel, A Clearing in the Wild, will be out this month.
See a video interview about it at http://bookstreaminc.com/emailthis/basic.aspx?id=199.