On Composing THE DAWN
Sometime during the middle of February 2009, while I was just beginning the draft of what was then named “Nottingham,” Reader sent me an email, asking all sorts of questions about how I write:
Do you set a goal of x number of pages a day? Do you try to write x number of words a day? Do you work only certain hours? Do you have a schedule for completing certain things, like a scene or chapter?
My reply was probably disappointing. I write when the words come to me, and if they don’t come, I don’t write. There are plenty of other things to do! The last thing I want to do is set a timeline or deadline on my writing. My creativity is absolutely choked by imposing rules and schedules on it.
I did, however, draw a calendar to follow the timeline of Artur’s travels through Provence in Book 4; and I used an outline for the chapters of Books 6 and 7. I also pushed myself to get a certain scene or chapter revised/edited by two in the morning. For whatever reason, 2 a.m. was my limit. And then I could not fall directly to sleep because my mind was still working on the changes that were flooding the ivory dome regarding the scene just written/revised. It was a beast, not a muse that controlled me.
I am a very orderly, disciplined, methodical person who likes spontaneity and structure, but who also requires change as some form of catalyst. The bed must be made; the dishes cleaned, cleared, and put away after breakfast; and the curtains and blinds opened before I can set to work. There were, however, those unique days when Creative Self shanghai-ed me as soon as I woke up and, well, the day went by fast! Those days still occur. I always make sure to brush my teeth and wash up, but too often I forget to eat!
I cannot write in the midst of physical clutter. Organizing the clutter is part of my creative process. Imposing order on disorder and forming some kind of structure within chaos is what my mind does quite naturally, quite without my being aware of it. My work, however, is not scheduled, routine, or even orderly, although it is organized, systematic, and ordered in its own unique and methodical way.
Dear Husband understands my creative process far more than I do. He has been observing it, contending with it, and chuckling at it for decades now. He refers to one aspect of it as “tilling the field.” I simply “do it,” and if I stop to observe it or understand it, the creative process gets bogged down and clogged up, which puts me in a bad mood.
I recall the 100-degree day in August 2010 when Husband called home from work at about 3 p.m. Dear Daughter answered the phone and said something to the effect of, “I think she’s going to bathe soon. She’s working on the Dragoon section.”
I did wash up that morning and I brushed my teeth, although continuity details to be checked in several recently written scenes ticked away in my head as the Sonicare buzzed. (Dear Husband believes that I get creative messages -- or impulses -- through my Sonicare; I won’t disagree!)
When I am in the midst of composing fiction, I become so focused that things happen and they fly right by me. At the time, Dear Son was in college and still living in the nest. One night, the Sharks game “we” were watching ended; he kissed me good night, and went to bed. I continued with perfecting dialogue between Artur and Guillaume. The scene was long and tedious, too long and too tedious I concluded. When I felt content, for the moment, with the changes, I looked up from my laptop and asked where Dear Son went.
“He went to bed an hour ago,” Dear Husband informed me.
I then realized that the Sharks game had ended; the television was turned off, and my son had left the family room. I’d have to find out who won the game. I did not recall overtime or a shoot-out. And I’d have to apologize to Dear Son for insufficiently focused attention to him because of my composing trance.
Dear Son was witness many times in January and February 2009 to my earliest writings of “Nottingham.” Narration, dialogue, and pertinent research facts (with notes of where and when to use them) were jotted down in a small (not the large) chartreuse green cloth-bound journal. Those hurried scribblings took place at night during the viewing of Sharks games by Dear Son and, to a lesser degree, by me. I sat with the little green journal and a busy pen at the opposite end of the couch from him. Periodically, I kept an eye on the game. Todd McLellan was the new coach; I might have gleaned some interesting body language from the man to use in some scenes.
One night I was working on “the barn swallow scene.” This very emotional scene occurs between Guillaume and Camille near the end of the novel. I was writing quickly and crying profusely, blowing my nose, setting down my hankie, writing, and glancing up from time to time to check on the game. The last name of one hockey player caught my attention. I jotted it down, and continued with the dialogue, sobbing as I wrote.
“Mom,” a deep voice slowly sounded, “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. It’s a very moving scene. Did San Jose just end a power play? Without scoring?”
I think the unfortunate answers were in the affirmative.
I possess an iron-clad focus when I am writing; the focus is frightening even to me. The tension of maintaining that focus did indeed take a toll on me by November 2011, and the three years of composing THE DAWN ended none too soon for me. There are, however, in my memory vivid images and moments attached to, or rather imbedded in, the writing of certain passages.
-- The description of The Exodus was written during the recovery of Dear Son from wisdom teeth extraction in early February 2009. Somehow the description of the flight of the French, like ants from an anthill, and the rotation of copious bags of frozen peas on the swollen cheeks of the patient are forever linked.
-- During the month of June 2009, I wrote the draft of scenes involving the unforgettable song, “Parlez-Moi d’Amour.” I played the CD of Lucienne Boyer so many times that Dear Daughter must have felt that I was really putting myself through the ringer! Then I sang along with it! More heartache!
The vocal range for that song is far too low for my voice, but I had to experience the sensations of that musical composition. I also enjoyed singing Parisian French. But Dear Daughter would slowly shake her head: “So sad! So depressing!”
Later, as part of revisions of the text imbued with this song, I once again sang along with Lucienne. Dear Daughter was busily attending college classes and thereby happily escaped the totality of those scenes.
I must add that my taxiing Dear Daughter to and from her full-time classes was an integral part of the rhythm and routine of writing this epic. Many times I had to leave a scene in progress (but saved!) on the laptop and drive to pick her up at the campus. While I parked and waited for my lovely student, I made use of a 5x7 pad of note paper and pen, usually race-writing dialogue that continued to flow after I left “the scene” at home.
Dear Daughter daily observed and experienced Dear Mother in a somewhat altered state as Dear Novelist. She was always gracious, generous, kind, and patient in sharing me with my muse. Her three years of study preparatory to her life as a university scholar coincided with my composition of THE DAWN. She says that it was quite a journey for me. It was for her as well.
- Chapter 67 includes the moving of Pierre Richarde from Lyon to Roussillon. This section was drafted during a warm Saturday morning in mid-March 2009. I was working at the kitchen table and was interrupted by an announcement from Husband: the small luncheon that I’d planned for the next day had to be cancelled because an invitee got into a fracas with neighbors that morning. I glanced up, said something like, “He needs to control his temper,” and returned to the description of the 3-shelf bookcase in the style of King George IV.
-- In December 2009 it snowed where I live (an uncommon occurrence). I discovered that Annabella, my black cat, was horrified by the white stuff. She was no longer invisible! I can use this observation, the writer in me thought.
-- The Sharks-Red Wings playoff series of 2010 is forever linked in my mind to the North African Campaign. Somehow, the pacing of the games helped my writing about Rommel speeding across the desert. Indeed, the Sharks won whenever I watched them and concurrently worked on my laptop which, at that time, was a yellow Dell whose keyboard I wore out, thereby earning the thing the title “The Lemon.”
It was amazing how especially well Team Teal did while I revised/edited any scene or narration. During the Sharks-Canucks playoffs in 2011, Dear Daughter, who is not a hockey fan, advised me to pull out the laptop and start revising. It worked, for a while, until the Sharks self-destructed in Game 5 of the Conference Finals. (During the early winter games of 2010, no amount of revising or editing prevented the 3rd period meltdowns of the Sharks. I began to feel victimized, and so did my novel.)
I offer one more literary connection with the Sharks. In mid-November 2011, I was closing in on the end of final edits of THE DAWN. The Sharks returned to San Jose after six games on the road. Each player found on his locker a framed quote by Winston Churchill. The quote was inspirational and the Sharks needed inspiration. Todd McLellan certainly tried his best, as he always does.
I tuned into the game as a much-needed break from the pressures of “finishing the thing.” The pregame show was all about The Quote:
“To every man there comes a time in his lifetime, that special moment when he is tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a very special thing, unique and fitted to his talents. What a tragedy if that moment finds him unprepared and unqualified for the work that should be his finest hour."
To a reporter who asked what The Quote means, winger Patrick Marleau superbly and succinctly explained, "Basically, it's telling you to make sure you're prepared when it's your time to go out there and perform.”
I can always count on Marleau (such an immaculate skater) to come through with goals and the terse, true meaning of things. Of course, I then had to research that glorious quote and determine if it was applicable and usable for THE DAWN. It was, but I’d finished editing the Churchill sections. I nonetheless found a wonderful place for The Quote in the novel.
I might be wrong, but I think that I got a bit more use out of The Quote than did the Sharks, although Mr. Marleau made good use of its inspiration for any shot on goal. I was, however, very troubled by the frequent use of the phrase “Marleau time” for those stunning, last-minute overtime winning goals. The minute that a sportscaster (and I truly like the local guys) dubs something anything, it’s likely doomed.
-- “The Moonlight Serenade” scene in Chapter 32; and the snowfall promenade scene in Chapter 33 (the chapters which begin Book 4) were drafted during Super Bowl 2010 (let’s ditch the Roman numerals!). Before the game, I predicted the Saints would win and then I headed to my bedroom, closed the door, and wrote while my family watched the game.
The literal rendering of The Moonlight Serenade scene was momentous for me because for more than 30 years I’d saved in my mind many of those images and the sounds of the music. I was afraid that I would not do justice to those visual and auditory memories which had perhaps become too comfortably nestled in my mind.
I wrote quickly with excitement and trepidation onto the 8-1/2x11- legal pad; and then I input the scenes, revising as I typed on the laptop. One more round of revisions was necessary and then the scenes were done. Dear Husband says they are lovely.
-- The narration on Frenchwomen in Chapter 87 was greatly expanded and revised during one afternoon of semi-watching the 2010 Winter Olympics. I believe the sport televised was downhill skiing. The mute, as usual, was on. I sat on the sofa and worked by the fire in the fireplace while Dear Daughter made minestrone. We energetically discussed and debated the role of Frenchwomen of that era. (I did watch the gold medal final of that Olympics’ hockey game without laptop, revisions, or much thought of writing anything.)
-- The draft of the Climax came to me while I was showering early one afternoon in early August 2010. After the shower, while I towel-dried my body and hair, and then applied my under-eye cream and facial sunscreen, I silently told my muse that I’d write the rolling text in my mind later: first I had to eat lunch. The dialogue refused to wait. I wrote the scene in my bedroom, sobbing all the way through it. I then washed my tear-stained face and re-applied under-eye cream and sunscreen, adding some under-eye concealer.
I ate lunch but then was beset by the rolling of revisions in my mind. More sobbing, followed by reapplication of under-eye cream, sunscreen, and under-eye concealer. At least I got to eat lunch.
And then there were the goats, three of them: one brown, one white, one black. During the late summer of 2008, they trespassed onto my property from an adjacent property. My newly adopted cats were quite indignant. Large, rude, threatening hairy beasts were not part of the Social Contract!
I’d just planted chrysanthemums in a raised flowerbed. The stupid creatures ate all of those plants, down to the ground. They clear-cut buds on my lilac bushes, and devoured everything green in sight. I threw pine cones at them. The pine cones hit the goats and bounced off of them; the goats stared at me. I chased them with a broom. The largest goat, the white one, charged me. We erected a makeshift gate; they trampled over the thing.
After several weeks of dealing unsuccessfully with the trio of hungry trespassers, I called Animal Control. By the time that these men and their cage-on-wheels arrived, the goats were long gone. One county employee was fascinated with a patch of dried grass where I’d tossed a bunch of old, dried-out garlic bulbs. The garlic had begun to take root. He told me how much he loved garlic. When the time came to use some of those colorful elements of life in fiction, I happily did.
I will probably never again eat frozen cheese enchiladas which were dinner far too many times during these years. Cheddar Bunnies have made a triumphant return to the dietary lineup after they became a mainstay of literary food, along with Amy’s Frozen Pizza. I now prefer the Whole Foods 4-cheese thin-crust variety. More than a year, however, had to pass before I would even consider eating frozen pizza again.. On the other hand, whole wheat pasta shells with olive oil, just a touch of butter, V-8 juice, and herbs powered me through the draft of Book 3 (Guillaume), and especially the descriptions of Château Vallon. I still enjoy this batch of carbs and liquid veggies, even without a château in sight.
Comté cheese sandwiches for lunch, on brown bread, with mustard during winter were quite delicious while I composed this tome. I have been able to eat Comté again, although the price is now exorbitant. But I doubt that I will ever again eat ratatouille!
On the other hand, the Scottish breakfast tea that I discovered during the winter of 2010-11 now makes an annual winter return to my cupboard. It helps with the Scottish novella that has progressed from the cupboard of my mind to the keyboard. And the cookies I call “oatmeal hockey pucks” have made a return to my little dessert plate, just in time for watching the Sharks on my small wide-screen. Yes, they somehow helped with the scoring for Team Teal.