As near as I can figure out, the gestation period for a novel–at least one of mine–is roughly the same as for a human baby. At times, it seems just as uncomfortable, too. (I’m not speaking from personal experience, just observation.) And by gestation period, I don’t mean writing the book, I mean just coming up with a quasi-coherent outline–the story, if you will. (Actually writing the thing can take years.)
For instance, with Eyewall, I didn’t just plop my butt into a chair in front of my iMac one day and start pounding the keyboard, saying to myself: okey-dokey, I’ve got this recon plane stuck in the eye of a hurricane; an outspoken, Dr. House-like tropical weather forecaster; and a family trapped on a coastal island as a cat-5 storm roars toward them. No way.
The story came to life agonizingly slowly, starting with the idea of a trapped Hurricane Hunter aircraft. Obviously, I needed more than that to generate an 80,000-word drama. Bit by bit, month by month, the other pieces came to me–while going on my daily walk, while lying in bed at night before falling asleep, or while eating supper (much to my wife’s ire–You didn’t hear a word I said, did you?)
At some point, enough notions got crammed into my brain or scribbled down on a sheet of paper that I was able to generate a broad outline, a couple of pages, of how I wanted the story to evolve. Then I wrote biographies for my main characters. Both the outline and bios were “living” documents, that is, malleable. I modified them as I get into actually writing the scenes that constituted Eyewall. In effect, a sort of feedback mechanism was at work with the characters driving the story, but at the same time the story demanding alterations to the characters.
I should mention, too, that while I write fiction, I’m compelled to build my novels on fact. That comes from my background in science, I suppose. So in addition to sculpting Eyewall out of a one-line concept, I was simultaneously doing research: on how hurricane hunters operate, on the thermodynamics of tropical storms, and on the mechanics of storm surge. In the case of my current work-in-progress, I’ve had to learn about microbiology and filoviruses.
Well, that’s how the process works for me. It is only piece by agonizing piece that a story comes to life. Even as I’m finishing up my second novel, ideas for a third are rolling around in my head. Some days, I get absolutely stumped–I just don’t know where to go with the story. Then there’s a brief ah-ha moment before I’m stumped again at next turn in the drama.
But curiously enough, even as I sat here typing this blog, another ah-ha light bulb snapped on for a scene in novel number three. A strange business, being a novelist.
My head hurts.
That aside–and just for my writer friends–how are your books born?