Not long after the first orders to shelter in place came down, The New Yorker ran a cartoon that I’m sure hit home with a lot of writers. In the background there’s a storm at sea, lightning flashing, a ship broken up and sinking. In the foreground there’s a hapless fellow in a small boat, rowing for safety. The caption read: “This is it… the time to FINISH YOUR NOVEL.”
Sure. We don’t have anything else to worry about, right?
As it happens, I actually had finished a novel, my first, indie-published in August 2019. When the pandemic struck, I was supposed to be starting on the next one. STARDUSTED is a mystery and was always meant to be the first in a series of three or more. And I’ve been encouraged to start the second one after requests from readers who have asked for more books featuring my amateur sleuth, 1930s Hollywood movie star, Frankie Franklin, aka “America’s Kid Sister.”
But I don’t write fiction quickly. As a former newspaper reporter, I can turn out a news or feature story decently fast, stringing the quotes and facts together until I have something that’s good, if not perfect. But fiction is different. Novels are a lot bigger, and you hope they’ll have a longer shelf life. So you write and edit, and edit some more. Some people do that quickly, some do it more slowly, and then there are those like myself–glaciers move faster. I need to let a story sit in my head a while, until eventually scenes appear as if out of a mist, and I hear and see my characters doing things that I can write down.
Pandemic or no pandemic, that’s how my writer brain works. After years of deadline pressures and just-the-facts writing, I find it a lot of fun, and a great luxury, not to worry about deadlines. For the pandemic to have slowed down my writing, well, I would have to not write at all.
What has been harder for me is the impact on research, one of the joys of writing historical fiction. There’s always something else to look up, some other telling detail of language, dress, custom or events to ferret out that will make the setting come alive. A lot of it can be found in books, archived photos and print materials, and a lot of that’s available online. But reading and looking alone doesn’t hold a candle to accessing whatever real-world experiences you can to help inform your writing, even if that means just visiting a museum to look at artifacts. Being able to touch the things you write about: even better.
For instance, there’s a Colt .45 Peacemaker that makes an early appearance in STARDUSTED, and (this was pre-pandemic, remember) it occurred to me that it would be helpful to see one up close. There’s a store that deals in vintage firearms in a town near mine, and after a brief exchange of emails with the owner, one day I found myself standing across the glass case from him in the store. He brought out the six-shooter, demonstrated that it was empty, and let me pick it up to feel its 32-ounce heft. He also showed me the ammunition for it and demonstrated how to load it, making it clear that I would not be handling it after that–which was fine by me.
So this year I had hoped to travel south, to Inyo County and Lone Pine where so many pictures were shot, to Pacific Palisades and Will Rogers State Park to watch a game of polo, to Hollywood to check out Barney’s Beanery, to Beachwood Canyon to try and imagine what it must have been like in those hills in the ‘30s when the sign still said HOLLYWOODLAND. All the stuff that’s on hold for now.
But that may be changing, as the population gets vaccinated and the pandemic numbers continue to improve — even if it seems to be happening about as slowly as I write. Eventually we’ll see a new normal.
Whatever that will be like, I know it will mean we can venture farther afield than we do now. And I’m looking forward to hitting the road.
This blog post has been guest written by Deb McCaskey. Visit her website. Follow her on Facebook: @djmccaskey