The Prime Directive
Who is your audience? Write for them.
Where do ideas come from?
When I let my mind wander, ideas may bubble up. Often, they relate to my life: A friend asked me to help organize a program on the daughters of Zelophechad (Numbers 27:1-12), who were fighting for inheritance rights. At the time, I was part of the Hartman Class, the largest sex-discrimination lawsuit against a federal agency. From that came Judging Noa: a Fight for Women’s Rights in the Turmoil of the Exodus. Same battle. It’s why I like writing historical fiction: seeing the present through the lens of history.
For the historical mystery trilogy I’m working on now, I was taking classes with a leading authority on Kabbalah’s essential book, the Zohar. Besides its mystical aspects, Kabbalah also focuses on “repairing the world.” What do sleuths do? They right wrongs. And I love mysteries. Kabbalah became popular in Late Renaissance Europe. During that period, Venice was the commercial and innovative center of Europe. And the center of book publishing, including the Zohar. Sixteenth-century Venice, Kabbalah, mystery…stolen treasure, pirates: bingo!
The idea…then what?
Writers ask: Are you a plotter or a pantser? I’m a long-time editor and a research librarian. Those skills make me a plotter. I use Scrivener, not well, but well enough to help keep me organized. I think, however, that there’s a lot of pantsing among plotters and vice versa.
A general outline, a map of where I’m headed. Then research, research, research. Those of us who write historical fiction do a lot of research. What I learn is fascinating, yet less then 10 percent of what I learn gets into the story. I also love doing location research. To Venice! Next, to Istanbul!
I’ve now got a desk that electronically shifts up and down, allowing me to sit or stand. Still, the butt-in-chair concept is essential. Minimum: 750 words per day. Sometimes I cheat.
I’m making this process sound more orderly than it is. Often, I’ll write parts of an upcoming scene I’m excited about. Writing a mystery is like doing a jigsaw puzzle when you’re not entirely sure what the picture looks like.
Draft 1 is the “shitty first draft.” Just get the bones of the story on the page and don’t worry about finding the perfect word or description. When I can’t find the verb I want instantly, I type VERB in all caps and highlight it in yellow. If I find a word that comes close to whatever word I’m looking for, I add /OW to the place-holder for “Other Word.” It’s the “ow” factor. These shortcuts allow me to gallop on.
After writing what I hope is a dramatic, action-filled opening, I remind myself: no infodump! I went to a craft session in which one author suggested “feathering in” critical backstory information. A light touch, here and there, where appropriate: in dialogue, as a memory that fits in later in the story. But big blocks of backstory? No.
The Long Game
Then I clean up the first draft, usually deleting thousands of words. I remind myself that every scene must advance the story in some way. In Judging Noa, I wrote a purely joyous scene of winnowing wheat. But my word count was long and other scenes bespoke joy, so…I killed that darling. Actually, I consigned to a DeadDarlings.doc.
Beta readers are precious. Three or four people who are writers, editors, or simply read a lot of good books alert me to the good and the troublesome parts of my draft two. They read for free and I so value their comments and time. I may agree or disagree, but I’m always startled when I read a comment and wonder, “How could I have forgotten to incorporate that?”
After incorporating beta readers’ catches, I send draft three to my editor, who sees and suggests fixes for big concepts, little mistakes, and everything in between. This often requires scene additions, deletions, and moving things around. Painful. Draft four: by this time, I just want to be done, even though there may be yet another draft.
When I am done, I gird myself for what lies ahead. Selling my manuscript. After that? Long ago, I went to a conference on publishing in which a publisher said, “When your book is between covers, you’re halfway there.”
Judging Noa: a Fight for Women’s Rights in the Turmoil of the Exodus is Michal Strutin’s debut novel. She is now working on a mystery series set in the Late Renaissance. Michal’s award-winning nonfiction focuses on natural and cultural history and travel. Her eight nonfiction books include Places of Grace: the Natural Landscapes of the American Midwest with photographer Gary Irving; Discovering Natural Israel, a high-spirited discovery of flora, fauna, and people; Florida State Parks: a Complete Recreation Guide; and History Hikes of the Smokies.