Friday, March 08, 2013


from Jacqueline

Process is a word that sort of tickles me, when I’m asked about it – usually in an interview.

“What’s your process?”

It’s as if I have the map that will lead to discovery of some literary holy grail.  I’ve been asked if I light candles before writing.  Candles, it seems, are generally believed to be process enhancement tools.  I have been asked if I meditate before writing.  Do I read poetry, or otherwise reach up into the ether with my wand to touch a power line of words that will simply fall onto the page?

Who has time to do that before they go to work?

Writing is work.  There is a story to be told, a book to be written, and if you love to write, it’s of course the best work you could ever land in your life.  Writing is something you work at, even when you are not writing.

First of all, candles are things I have in a drawer in case there’s a power outage.  I really don’t have time to stare into a flame in the morning and hope the Muse stares back at me.  Here’s one thing I know about that floosie, the Muse – she’s a bit idle.  You have to get going and tapping away at the keyboard to wake her up, and only then will she consider ambling over to breathe across the page.  If you wait for the Muse, you will be waiting for a long time.

I believe that if you are looking for that special place to write, the place where the words will just tumble out onto the page in beautiful stunning formation, you will be on a time-consuming search.  I have never had what in my wildest imagination I consider to be the “perfect” place to write – my home office is cramped, I don’t know where things are half the time and I have no view to speak of.   It’s amazing the number of authors who finally get the home office they always wanted, only to find they couldn’t work there.  I read about one author – I think it was Richard Russo - who always wrote in a local coffee shop, but hankered after that perfect writing annex.  Then he did quite well for himself, and soon the builders were hard at work creating this ideal room.  And it was everything he wanted it to be – except that he couldn’t work there.  So off he trundled, down the road to the coffee shop.

The most important part of my process is, frankly, paying attention.  Paying attention to my memories, to stories retold around the table, to the bit and pieces, the details I’ve put away since childhood, as if each one were a shell collected at the beach. I can take it out, put it to my ear and hear the voices of another time and place, or I can scrutinize the strata, the seams of color and texture that was yesterday, or will be tomorrow, and that helps me create scenes and dialogue that lead into the past or the present.  And paying attention is hearing that one comment, that said-in-passing line that you know needs to be tucked away and never forgotten – and chances are it’ll show up in scene different from that of its origin.  Here’s what I mean:  About seven years ago, when the vet came to do the pre-purchase exam on my horse, he and I watched as his assistant took Sara’s halter, then led her away from us, and into a trot so that he could check her movement.
            “Got snappy little hocks, ain’t she?” he said, smiling, the weathered skin around his eyes crinkling into the sun.
            And at once, I wasn’t there, on a ranch, watching a soon-to-be-mine horse trotting back and forth, but I was in a bar, a fly on the wall, observing the two guys in tuxes, one pulling back his bow tie as a woman walked past, a young Lauren Bacall of a girl. They both look at her ankles, the dark fluted lower seam of her stockings visible just above her heels.  “Got snappy little hocks, ain’t she?” said the tall guy, the one with a smile like Dean Martin.

            Or I was that invisible observer in a pub in wartime London – there’s a party of American GI’s at the bar drinking warm beer, and grateful for it.  They’re young, a long way from home.  Two girls come into the pub – only these girls don’t have stockings, because clothing is rationed. They’ve soaked their legs in a solution of potassium permanganate to give their flesh a bit of color; fake stockings.  Then they’ve taken it in turns to draw vertical lines to look like seams along the backs of each other’s legs.  As they walk past, one of the soldiers pushes his cap back and turns to his friends.  “Got snappy little hocks, ain’t they?”  It’s the end of May, 1944.  The soldiers are on borrowed time.

            When my father was in the hospital, last spring - if you could call it spring, for the winter lingering outside - he was in a ward with several other male patients.  It was good for them, for their morale; the back and forth, the banter.  Apparently, there were a couple of “co-ed” wards in the hospital – I’m not sure why, but I think it had been established that for some patients, it helped them heal faster.  Perhaps they made a bit more effort to be friendly when it was men and women in a ward together.  Or maybe it was a social scientist’s idea of an experiment, or a bean-counter’s way of saving money.  Anyway, during a visit to see my Dad, we heard his neighbor’s wife say in a loud voice, “Well, I bet you’re glad you’re not in one of them joint sex wards.”

            We laughed so much it lifted the drape across my heart.  And believe it or not, that was the same day I knocked the standard-issue Gideon’s bible off the shelf, and when I picked it up a bubble-card of mescaline fell out.  I took the offending drug along to the nurses’ station – we decided it had been smuggled in for a former patient by a visitor – and there was quite the to-do about it.
            “Where exactly did you find it,” asked a doctor.
            “Revelation,” I replied.

There’s the shell of a story there, somewhere.

            Process.  My process is remembering, and squirreling away the memory nuggets of those who’ve gone before. My process is in doing my best to pay attention.  No candles, no meditation, just memory, plus whatever imagination the Muse bestows upon me if she’s feeling so inclined.  Oh, and words.  Lots and lots of words. Memory plus words.  And on this occasion, probably too many for one post!  But you know that about me, anyway.  Oh, and one thing I didn’t tell you about my “process” – and it’s quite involuntary – that blank page every morning terrifies me, and the thought of a new book coming out is absolutely the most scary thing ever, indeed, there are really scary things I find much easier to launch into, given the opportunity ….

 (though none of the above just a week after knee surgery)

But a key part of the process is I cannot not write - and I think every writer is pretty much like that.  It's more than what I do - it's who I am ....

Have a lovely weekend, all.


  1. Well, there still is a process in note-taking or creating a board, like Maisie does!

    Whatever you are doing, please continue it. I love your writing.

  2. Beautifully written as always, Our J. My process goes something like this: stare at computer screen, type a few words, pet kitties, walk to refrigerator, nosh, repeat.

  3. from Jacqueline

    Well, thank-you, Lishie. I tend to write notes in one of those school composition books - they're cheap and handy.

    And Patty - thank you! Regarding sustenance, I'm not so different. In fact, after she'd read my second novel, my then editor commented upon the many times Maisie Dobbs was stopping for tea - turns out every time I made a cup of tea, so Maisie had a cup of tea. Oh well - it count as a vegetable serving, apparently! I also do a good job of cleaning the keyboard with a paperclip while thinking about those words.

  4. Appreciate the eloquence of your honesty. At least I've figured out the process for waking that floosie Muse.

  5. One "process" thing I do, which I find very helpful is to buy one of those old appointment calendars that have four columns. At the top of each column, I put the name of my main character, the killer and two other significant characters so I can track their movements in real time. So helpful for figuring out what the killer is doing while my protag searches for him/her. Also, helpful for monitoring how much is humanly possible to do in an 8-hour period of time.

  6. With or without a process, I admire all those who can and do write. You are responsible for transporting the rest of us, who wish we could write, into places and times we might not otherwise visit. I am glad you pay attention, remember, and squirrel way. The reader can only benefit!

  7. Opps,should read 'squirrel away'

  8. Does the process ever scare you? That question arises because I am in the second run through of my WIP, have had an epiphany, and now am stagnated in fear and frustration, wondering if I will ever be able to figure out what all must be done to make the changes. "Killing my darlings" is the least of it.
    Newbee to the Process