Thoughts from Susanna Ives

Where do ideas come from and character creation.

Sometimes, the initial germ of a story starts when I write page or so with no preconceived destination—just a splattering of words. Then I look at which characters turn up in the mess. I don’t “see” them, I feel them. I think Stephen King once advised writers not to worry so much about how characters look because readers will see them the way they want.

Once I have a thread of an idea, my theater background kicks in. I start building the characters, digging deep to discover their primal drives and needs. This requires knowing their childhood traumas or conditioning. It’s important to understand what a character subconsciously needs, because it forms the arc of that character and the resolution or healing that the two love interests must find together. I typically have to write an entire draft before I get a firm grasp on the characters, so that could mean a great deal of revision. And sometimes those pesky characters decide to reveal critical information about themselves on page three hundred of the draft. Typically, it is an “a-ha” moment that elucidates everything that came before, but it would have helped to have known it on page twenty. Alas, that’s the writing process.

Pondering the muse

I believe in caffeine and chocolate, but I’m not sure about muses. Steven Pressfield, in his wonderful book The War of Art, advises a writer to show up for her work, set conducive conditions for the muse, and hope that she appears. But in case she doesn’t, I have caffeine and chocolate.

Researching tips

I’ve made wonderful friends with historians, who have been very kind to me. I’m also in several historical writing organizations, including RWA’s special interest chapter The Beau Monde, which are chock full of talented writers who are passionate about history.

I’m not so interested in what actually happened in history or its celebrities, but how it felt to live in a particular time and place. I think a great deal of our psychology is influenced by the context of our surroundings. So setting is a powerful unspeaking force, shaping the story and its characters. Readers want to be transported into that setting for the duration for their reading session, so creating vivid, real historical worlds requires researching the minutia. It can quite painful for an hour of research to be reduced to a single sentence describing the painted wallpaper but such is life for an historical writer. We’re geeks for this kind of stuff.

I’ve been known to make some tremendous research blunders, but the creativity required to dig myself out of those situations has created some outside-the-box interesting plots. I realize that I’m not going to get every detail correct, nor do I want to. There are some attitudes and prejudices from the past that I simply do not want in my stories.

I always remind myself to keep researching. Sometimes the most fascinating stories are born from random, obscure pieces of history that you stumble upon.

What kind of writer am I?

I muddle through with a whatever-works-as-long-as-it’s-legal attitude. In graduate school, we studied a circular model of software development. I’m sure it’s outdated now, and I can’t remember all the specific terms for the development phases. However, for writing, I’m constantly spiraling through the stages of conception to implementation and back to conception. Each time I make the circle, I refine the story a bit more.

Sometimes during the writing process, it feels like I’m on a well-paved, well-lit highway, my words flying at seventy-five miles an hour. Sometimes, I’m broken down on the side of the road in the rain, waiting for a tow truck. I’m learning to accept the ebb and flow of creative life.

The hardest part about writing is…

For me, the hardest part about writing is writing. And the more I write, the harder it gets. A sentence is a deadly thing. Is it active? Does it need be active? Is the verb vivid enough? Is it interesting? Is it redundant? Does it further the plot? Does it drag the pacing? Does it say what I’m trying to convey? From there, we move onto paragraphs and scenes and chapters and insanity.

I find that it’s all a balance of good story telling and the mechanics of writing. A thing of joy is to read a wonderful story that is complemented by incredible craft.

Another painful reality of writing is the patience required to write a book and then get it published. This is very much at odds with my frenetic energy and demanding nature. I want everything now. And a book can take years to write and even longer to publish. That said, we are lucky to live in a time of booming self-publishing. In the past, a painful aspect of writing was to understand that your beautiful novel wouldn’t find a home in the world.

Ideal writing space

I recently bought a recliner thinking it would be the best thing ever to write in. Then I discovered a problem: I think in motion. So I need a rocking chair or a chair with wheels. I like having books around me — ones that have sentimental value, from authors who possess fabulous craft, or for research purposes. I also like pinning historical images, prose passages, and poetry to my walls. My desk looks like some sort of pagan altar strewn with rocks and small gifts that people have given me. Sunlit windows with views of trees are very important, as is good music.

Balancing life and writing

I’m not very good at this. I’m moved by emotion rather than routine, so it can be difficult. I think the best thing a busy writer can do is slow down, look around, and be present.

12_4 Susanna Ives book cover

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