I got a book idea… and this time I paid attention to how it happened so I could answer the FAQ, “Where do you get your ideas?”

Hi everybody.

The question I get most is: “Where do you get your ideas?”

Generally, when I’m asked this question, it’s at a book event where it’s difficult to answer, because… Well, the answer is long, and complicated, and hard to pin down, and most of the time, I don’t really remember how it happened. When an idea starts to arrive, I get to work. I’m not paying attention to how it’s happening, or how it would look to an outsider. 

But — a few weeks ago, a new book idea started knocking on the door of my mind. And this time, I decided to pay attention!

What follows is probably the most detailed explanation I’ll ever give of where my ideas come from. More specifically, where this particular idea came from, because it’s not always the same. But my experience of the past few weeks has been fairly typical for me, and I’ll add that there are a few activities I need to engage in every single time, if I want an idea to take root. Namely: PATIENCE. LISTENING. And, LABOR. Book ideas require a certain honed receptiveness, and they require a LOT OF WORK. 

I’m yelling because I’m trying to push back against the idea that ideas simply come to writers. Yes, some parts of ideas come to writers. But when I first get a book idea, what “comes to me” probably comprises about 0.1% of what could properly be called a book idea. Often, it’s little more than an inchoate feeling. With patience, listening, and labor, I transform the idea into something I can grasp, and work with.

I’ll add that yes, we do hear sometimes of writers whose ideas “simply came to them,” fully formed. I’m going to take a guess that (1) this doesn’t happen very often, if ever, with books that have complicated structures or plots, and (2) writers who are blessed by ideas in this way probably have a long-honed practice of receptiveness.

Anyway. Warning upfront that this may be a little unstructured, because the process is a little unstructured. It’s challenging to describe, and I’m still in the middle of it. But here’s what my last few weeks have been like.

A few weeks ago, while watching a TV show that had a certain mood/aura that’d really sucked me in, I found myself drawn to the idea of a story involving three characters. I’m not going to tell you what TV show I was watching, and I’m not going to tell you anything about my three characters, because story ideas are intensely, intensely private. The first time I say anything publicly about it will probably be years from now, if and when this book is ever scheduled for release. But let me try to explain a bit about that moment when the first glimmering of the idea appeared. 

Like I said, I’d been watching a TV show when it happened. But my three characters weren’t characters in that TV show. Nor did anyone in that TV show relate to each other the way my three characters seemed to want to relate. Nor did my three characters seem to live in a world like the world of the TV show. The TV show helped to launch the idea at me because of the show’s mood and its feeling, and how much I cared about the people in it. But my idea? As is often the case, my idea came from something I saw missing in the TV show. Not missing because there was a flaw in the TV writers’ story; I loved their story! But missing (for me and possibly only me) because their story was not the story I would have told.

I think that a lot of my idea seeds come from my adoration of other people’s stories, but also from my noticing what’s missing in those stories, for me. What story I would’ve like to have seen told; what characters the story lacked.

Anyway. So this idea of these three characters came to me. But when I say “idea of these three characters,” already that sounds more substantial than it was. I knew they were three humans (or humanoids; I didn’t know what genre the story was, so they could’ve been aliens on another planet, for all I knew. In fact, I actively considered whether they might have different biology than ours). I knew they cared about each other, but I didn’t know in what way. I knew they were facing a challenge that would strain all of their relationships. I thought they might be grown-ups, but I wasn’t sure. I thought I knew at least two of their genders, but I wasn’t sure. I knew they lived in a world with magic, but I didn’t know what “magic” meant in the context of their world. I didn’t know where they lived, or when they lived (past? future? futuristic past? postindustrial future? any of about a hundred other possibilities). I knew a whole lot of things that the characters weren’t, and that the world wasn’t — which is another way of saying that my sense of what this story was was actually more defined by all the things I knew it wasn’t. (Apologies if this is vague. I’m not being intentionally vague! I’ll try for some concrete examples: I knew I didn’t want to write a story where partway through, someone suddenly discovers they have an inborn power they didn’t know they had. I knew I didn’t want to write a love triangle. There’s a certain kind of high-handed fantasy tone that I knew wasn’t right for this story. But I didn’t know what I did want yet at this point.)

Really, all I knew was that I seemed to be having an idea.

So, like a writer, I did what I needed to do: 

  • I made space in my mind for receptiveness. (I scheduled uninterruptable alone time. I stopped listening to podcasts while I was out walking, and instead, just walked, so my mind could wander. I put aside non-urgent tasks for a while so that I didn’t have the feeling of a to-do list hanging over my head. I gave myself permission to wool-gather, to become vague and absent-minded. I set three timers any time I cooked anything so I could feel free to forget I was cooking, but also not burn the house down. I remembered to thank my husband frequently for being willing to live with a space cadet.)
  • I thought about what fertilizer might help the idea to grow, especially fertilizer in the form of books, TV, and movies. I put all other books, TV, and movies aside. (I kept watching that same TV show, and I also began reading almost exclusively one writer who had a narrative tone — and also subject matter — that helped me sustain a mood that felt concurrent with the mood of my own idea. Why does this kind of intake help? It keeps my mind in a story space, while also giving me something to bounce my own ideas off of. It’s a kind of reading, or watching, that involves a state of constant interactivity and reactivity. Everything I’m consuming becomes about something else that I’m looking for. It’s difficult to explain, maybe because it gets back to that inexplicable moment when new ideas form.)
  • I made sure that every single time I had any new thoughts relating to my idea, I wrote them down. (This meant making reminders on my phone; sending strings of emails to myself; choosing a notebook where I began to jot things down; sending texts to myself on my husband’s phone, if his phone was closer to hand than mine.)
  • I looked at my schedule to give myself a sense of if and when I might have a few days soon to put my current writing project aside and give some true, devoted time to this new idea. (I was, and still am, in the middle of revisions of the next Graceling Realm book when this happened, and that was, and still is, my absolute first priority. As exciting and intense as a new idea can be, it can’t unseat me from my current object of devotion.)

By chance, last week, I did in fact have some time away from my revision while it was briefly with my editor. I was able to devote an entire week to the new book idea. So, next, I’ll try to describe what a week of intense idea-gathering looks like for me! (Though I should say that this will differ from book to book. It’s been pretty clear to me from the beginning that this new idea is going to be slow to grow — planning this book will take way more than a week. In contrast, last fall, I found myself with a new and sudden book idea that coincided with the end of another project, so I had some free time and was able to sit down and hammer out the entire book plan, which took only a few days. I think this is because that book was shorter and less emotionally complicated than this new book will be, and was set in a less complex world. Also, at the time, I was absolutely thrumming with the adrenaline and momentum of having just finished a writing project, so book-planning became a way to channel that energy. Often these processes are subject to whatever else is going on in my life.)

So. My week of intense idea-gathering looked a lot like what I’ve already described — reading, watching TV, but now also with long hours of sitting staring at a blank page and/or lying on my back staring at the ceiling — but with a more specific goal. Namely, I was trying to figure out what my main questions were. For me, every book starts (and continues, as I write) with an extremely long list of questions that I’m trying to find the answers to, but it takes work to figure out what the questions are. The questions can be very different from book to book. And it’s essential, at the beginning, to identify what the main questions are.

When I’m first idea-gathering, I use very short notebooks in which I scribble down all my random thoughts as they come (I like using these twenty-page notebooks from Laughing Elephant, because they’re short enough not to feel intimidatingly important). Then I have one longer, thicker notebook which is for my more coherent thoughts — my more serious book planning. During my week of active idea-gathering, I came up with the following list of major questions, worthy of being written down in my thick, “serious” planning notebook:

MAJOR QUESTIONS.

  • What is magic?
  • How does bad human behavior manifest in this world? (for real *)
  • Where/what culture does each of them come from? What family?
  • How is society governed?
  • Who is each of them — as a person and as a power manifestation?
  • How is the narrative positioned?
  • What is the plot?
  • How do humans relate to the rest of the natural world?
  • What is gender? (for real *)

* and by societal definition

So. I’m not sure how closely you looked at those questions — but they are pretty gigantic questions! It took me a week to identify all of them. It’s going to take me much, much longer to answer them. Which goes back to my point that ideas don’t just “come to me.” The merest seed of an idea might come to me, and after that, I make the space, and do the work.

As I began to hammer out my questions, I continued to read, watch things, and wool-gather, but with more intense focus. Because now I was also trying to answer these questions as they came. It was interesting to observe the order in which I began to find the answers. Not surprisingly, probably since my novels tend to be character-based, it was the character-based questions that drew me in first. “What is gender” in particular, because I have a sense that in this story, my characters’ relationships to gender are absolutely integral to who they are, and I can’t get very far with a book plan if I don’t know who my characters are. I also started to gather some clues about their personalities and their strengths. Enough that after a couple of days, I got to the point where I suddenly knew I needed their names. Names ground everything, and they can also change some things; at a certain point, I can’t make any further progress without names. I spent one entire day last week mostly just trying to figure out three people’s names. Once I had the names, I was able to return to my questions.

Then, not too long after that, a moment arose where I knew, again quite suddenly, that what I needed next was at least the broad strokes of a plot. If I’m a little scornful about the concept of inspiration — because it’s a concept that dismisses how hard I work! — I do believe in intuition, and also in experience. Intuition and experience told me that I’d reached the point in my planning where the needs of my plot would hold the answer to a lot of my other questions. Like, how this place is governed; what constitutes bad behavior; and even some character things, like what culture each of my characters is from. Sometimes, once you know what needs to happen in a story, it becomes easier to picture the structure of your world. Because a plot comes with needs; once a plot exists, it limits some of your other options. For example, let’s say your plot involves a particular kind of government-based corruption. Well, thinking about that corruption will probably start to show you some of your options for the structure of the government. Once you know the structure of the government, you might begin to understand who holds governmental power — which can lead to answers about how families are structured. Which can lead to answers about culture, which can lead to answers about the societal definition of bad behavior, etc.

So. I reached the point where I needed at least a sense of my plot. But: plotting is a HUGE job. I knew it wasn’t something I could do in just a few days, and at this point I also knew that I was going to need to return to my revision soon. So, intuition told me that it was time to stop. Not stop being receptive; not necessarily stop reading or watching the helpful things; not stop sending myself emails, texts, and reminders; but stop trying to make any real, meaty, major progress on this book idea. I needed to save the job of plotting for when I next had a stretch of uninterrupted worktime. Maybe another free week or two somewhere, between other projects.

So, I did some final organizing of my notebook. I transferred things into it from other notebooks and I designating a huge number of empty pages in it for future plot thoughts and future character thoughts. I did this even though in this book, as in most of my books, I sense that character and plot will ultimately end up being the same thing, so it’s not going to matter much which thoughts I file where. (In other words, most of my plot is going to spring from who my characters are, and many of my characters will spring from the needs of the plot.) But at this messy stage in planning, it’s important to me to feel organized. The illusion of organization stops me from feeling as overwhelmed as I probably should be feeling. So I label things, and delude myself that I can contain this messy process inside a nice neat notebook 😊. 

I organized my notebook, and then I put it aside. Today I’m still open to thoughts about my new book idea, but it’s not my entire worklife anymore… it’s more of a promise for the future. It’ll probably be good to have it simmering on the back burner for a while. I’ll be able to approach it with a new freshness when I sit down with it again one day.

So. I’m not sure how satisfyingly I’ve answered the question “Where do you get your ideas?” After all, this idea is still very much in progress. I figured out a lot of stuff last week, but mostly what I figured out is a long list of all the things I don’t know yet. There will be many, many more workweeks to go before I’ll be able to claim that I truly have an idea for a book. 

But this is my best shot at an answer to the question of where my ideas come from! I guess the point I want to convey is this: I don’t necessarily believe in inspiration. But I believe that sometimes a writer will start to get the merest sense of a story that’s missing from the world, and find herself wanting to write that story. At that point, if circumstance allows her the time and space to enter a state that is extremely internally-focused and possibly involves a lot of intake (reading, watching other stories), or if not that, at least an extreme level of sensitivity and receptiveness, of seeing, of listening… And if she puts in the work… her idea-seed will start to take root, and grow into a real, workable idea that might one day be the beginnings of a book! 

And of course, every writer does this differently. Many writers don’t plan or plot ahead of time. They figure out the idea as they write. So there’s no right or wrong way to do it. 

But this is my best explanation of how I do it.

Godspeed to all writers.

Bells and Echoes: The Craft of DOOMSDAY BOOK by Connie Willis

Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book is one of my favorite books, and also one of the best books ever written. It is a masterpiece.

It’s also extremely sad, and happens to be about deadly epidemics. So I’ll start by saying that depending on what you’ve experienced in the past year, this may not be the book for you right now. Alternately, it might be exactly the book for you right now. I think it depends on whether and how much you’re grieving, whether you’ve been traumatized, and whether it helps you, as you process, to share those feelings with people inside a book. For me, this can be a touch-and-go sort of question… When is a book comforting, and when is it exacerbating my difficult feelings? I’ve read this book before, so I knew what I was getting into last week when I sat down to reread it. For me, it helped me access, and settle, my own overwhelmed, confused feelings from the last year. But I say that as a person who is not a COVID nurse or doctor and has not lost a loved one to COVID-19. I am, however, a person with PTSD. As such, I’d advise that if you’ve been spending anxious time at someone’s sickbed — or not been allowed to spend time at their sickbed, only allowed to imagine it — or if you’re one of the overworked caregivers — this might be a book to save for another time. Among other things, it contains a lot of graphic descriptions of human sickness and suffering. It also puts you inside the head of a character who’s gradually being traumatized by the sadness and death around her. Please spare yourself, if that’s not a good headspace for you right now. (This post, on the other hand, will contain no graphic descriptions, and I don’t linger on the trauma.)

I’ll also say that, maybe moreso than the other posts in my craft series, this post will contain some plot spoilers. Not all the plot spoilers! Willis does some excellent weaving that creates surprises for the reader I won’t reveal. But it’s impossible to talk about this book without revealing some important plot points. If you don’t want to know, stop reading now. (If you’re undecided, I can say that it’s thrilling reading even if you know what’s going to happen.)

First, a little background: The conceit of Connie Willis’s time travel books (each of which is wonderful) is that in the mid-twenty-first century, historians in Oxford, England conduct fieldwork by traveling back in time to observe other eras. This is not the kind of time travel story we’re all used to in which the plot hinges on the time traveler changing the course of history, or the story getting wound up in complicated paradoxes. The “net,” which is the machine that makes time travel possible in this book, doesn’t allow time travel that will alter the course of history. And though some of Willis’s other time travel books do deal with the paradox issue (sometimes hilariously), that’s not the point of Doomsday Book. This is a different kind of time travel book.

In Doomsday Book, Kivrin, a young Oxford historian in December 2054, is set to travel back to the Oxfordshire of December 1320, to observe the lives of the locals at Christmas in the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, on the very day of Kivrin’s travel, a new influenza virus arises in 2054 Oxford, and the tech responsible for running Kivrin’s travel coordinates (or, “getting the fix”), Badri Chaudhuri, falls ill. He doesn’t know he’s ill — no one knows Badri is ill — until it’s too late. In the disorientation of his illness, Badri gets the coordinates jumbled, and Kivrin is accidentally sent to December 1348 — which is when the bubonic plague reached Oxfordshire. The circumstances of Kivrin’s passage ensure that it’s going to be difficult, if not impossible, to get her back to 2054. Kivrin is trapped.

The novel then alternates between 2054/55, where a frightening new influenza epidemic is arising, and 1348, where Kivrin is gradually coming to realize what’s about to befall the people around her. Connecting the two timelines is an Oxford historian named Mr. Dunworthy, a deeply caring and pessimistic man who is desperately trying to figure out how to rescue Kivrin from her accidental fate, and bring her back to 2054/55. (For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to keep referring to the future timeline as 2054 from this point on, even though the year turns to 2055 partway through the novel.)

Incidentally, that plot twist I just casually revealed — the one where it turns out Kivrin is in the year 1348 instead of 1320 — isn’t revealed to the reader until page 384. Willis’s slow and brilliant pacing, her careful, drawn out reveal of the horror that has happened and the horror that’s coming, is one of the magnificent accomplishments of this book. It’s not what I’m planning to talk about today, though. In truth, I could write a long series of craft posts about “Things a Writer Could Learn from Doomsday Book.” But today I’m going to single out one of the things I took from my latest reading: namely, her construction of parallel characters in separate timelines.

All page references are to the 1992 Bantam Books mass-market edition, though I’ve also listened to the 2008 Recorded Books audiobook narrated by Jenny Sterling, which is excellent (and deliciously long!).

Before I dive deep into Willis’s construction of parallel characters, I want to speak more generally about the potential for parallels — echoes — inside a book, when that book takes place in multiple timelines. Many books do take place in more than one timeline, of course, whether or not they involve time travel! And there’s so much you can do with that kind of structure. As you can imagine, life in Oxfordshire in 1348 is dramatically different from life in Oxford in 2054. But Willis weaves so many parallels into these two stories, big and small things, connecting them deftly, and showing us that some things never really change. I suppose the most obvious parallel in this particular book is the rise of disease. The less obvious is some of the fallout that follows the rise of disease, no matter the era: denial; fanaticism; racism and other prejudices; isolationism; depression and despair; depletion of supplies (yes, they are running out of toilet paper in 2054). She also sets these timelines in the same physical location, the Oxfords and Oxfordshires of 1348 and 2054 — the same towns, the same churches. Some of the physical objects from 1348 still exist in 2054. She sets both stories at Christmas, and we see that some of the traditions are the same. She also weaves the most beautiful web between timelines using bells, bellringers, and the significance of the sound of bells tolling. 

Simply by creating two timelines, then establishing that some objects, structures, and activities are the same and that some human behaviors are the same across the timelines, she can go on and tell two divergent plots, yet create echoes between them. These echoes give the book an internal resonance. (Are you starting to appreciate why it was so thematically smart for her to bring bells to the forefront of her story?) They also give the book a sense of timelessness. It becomes one of those masterworks that presents the best and worst of humanity in all times, for the reader to see and recognize. Epidemics lay us bare. In all times, people are bound by the limitations of their scientific knowledge. In all times, people (the good ones and the bad ones) struggle to find a bearable framework, a way to conceive of the horrors without succumbing to despair. And in all times, some people respond with kindness and generosity, working themselves to the bone in order to help others; and some people allow their fear to turn them into selfish, craven, unfeeling hypocrites, striking out at others in defense of themselves. By letting these echoes ring across the timelines of her book, Connie Willis captures her themes magnificently.

And now I’m going to focus on the echoes in her character-building: on the way she creates characters who are unique individuals, yet who strike the reader with extra force because of the ways they parallel each other across time. I’ll offer a range of examples. Some are small, isolated moments in which characters from 1348 and 2054 perform similar activities. Some are people who have similar attitudes or spirits, even as they perform different roles. Most of them are loose parallels, drawn with a light touch. One of the parallels is quite clear and deep, two people who are characteristically similar, to the point where you feel like one could practically be the 2054 version of the other. This is one of Connie Willis’s special skills: she draws her parallels lightly in some places, heavily in others, never hamfisted, none of them tied too tightly, all of them open to interpretation, and all of them reaching for her larger, more timeless themes about what it means to be human. 

 

Smaller Parallel Moments

I’ll start with a few moments that are brief, but also plainly deliberate.

Here’s one: There’s a moment when Agnes, a five-year-old girl from 1348, tries to feed hay to the cow, but is clearly afraid of the cow. First she holds the hay out “a good meter from the cow’s mouth” (304), then she throws the hay at the cow and runs to safety behind Kivrin’s back. 

Skip ahead to page 551, where Colin Templer, a twelve-year-old boy from 2054, is trying to feed a horse. He offers “the horse a piece of grass from a distance of several feet. The starving animal lunged at it and Colin jumped back, dropping it” (551).

Moments like this are brief and might seem insignificant, but they do a lot of heavy lifting in the text. This particular parallel is funny, but also sad, because while Colin Templer is one of this book’s bright gifts to the reader — he’s incorrigible, he’s funny, he lives — by the time we see him feeding that horse, Agnes has died of the plague.

Here’s another detail that resonates within the book, and will also resonate with present-day readers: Both in 1348 and 2054, people with medical knowledge implore laypeople to please, please, put on their masks. (This happens here and there, but see pages 345 and 440 for a couple examples across timelines.)

And here’s one last small behavioral parallel: In 2054 Oxford, Mr. Dunworthy’s assistant, Mr. Finch, is stuck caring for a team of American bellringers trapped in the Oxford quarantine. The bellringers, who start out as pretty annoying characters, gradually begin to endear themselves to Finch (and to the reader), and Finch begins to practice bellringing with them. He gains a true appreciation for how heavy the bells are and how challenging the art of bellringing is. Then we see the bellringers begin to come down with the influenza, and cease to be able to ring their bells (Chapters 21 and 24). 

At the very end of the book, this is echoed when Kivrin, still in 1348, is trying to toll the church bell to send the souls of the dead to heaven, and Mr. Dunworthy, who’s traveled back in time to find her, is trying to help her. She’s injured. He’s having an influenza relapse. Between them, they can barely manage it (pages 566-567). The physical challenges of bellringing connect across time.


Broader Character Parallels

There are also some broader parallels drawn between characters, especially between characters’ roles in their respective pandemics. For example: In Oxford 2054, Dr. Mary Ahrens is at the head of the effort to locate the source of the influenza, sequence it, and find a vaccine. She cares for her patients tirelessly. Her 1348 parallel is Father Roche, who of course has none of her scientific knowledge, but has a similar fervent devotion to helping other people. Roche hardly sleeps in his efforts to care for his parishioners as they fall sick with the plague. 

The reader cares deeply for both of these characters, probably because of their tireless competence and their selfless dedication to other people. When first, Dr. Ahrens dies of the influenza, and then, Father Roche dies of the plague, it is, at least for this reader, the book’s most heartbreaking echo.

I’ll note that one of the things that makes this parallel so effective is that it doesn’t map perfectly. Dr. Ahrens and Father Roche are drastically different in their approaches — one is pure science and one pure religious faith — and also, they aren’t each other’s only character parallels. Kivrin, too, tirelessly cares for the plague victims in 1348, with a lot more scientific knowledge than Father Roche has. In 2054, many different kinds of doctors and nurses are caring for lots of patients, in lots of different ways. Twelve-year-old Colin is also caring for people, in his cheerful and forthright way. Mr. Dunworthy’s overburdened and tireless assistant, Mr. Finch, is constantly in the background of the 2054 timeline, moving mountains to turn college halls into infirmaries, find food and supplies for everyone stuck in quarantine, and care for the American bellringers. A lot of varying people step up to become caretakers, differing from each other and paralleling each other in all kinds of fluid and inexact ways.

Also, the book is chock-full of characters who don’t necessarily map onto parallels with anyone, but have other important functions in the book. In 2054, a young Oxford student named William is having liaisons with practically every female nurse and student in the quarantine perimeter. Also in 2054, archaeologist Lupe Montoya is excavating a historic site nearby. A secret love story is unfolding between a married woman named Eliwys and her husband’s servant, Gawyn, in 1348. Also in 1348, Rosemund, Agnes’s twelve-year-old sister, is struggling with her obligation to marry a leering older man. All of this character development matters, but often for purposes other than creating echoes and resonance. 

When done well, this kind of layered, complicated character development — some characters paralleling others, some not, and each character having more than one function in the text — goes a long way toward making a fictional world feel real. It also allows the author to touch on themes without beating them to death. And yet, sometimes this kind of light touch is one of the hardest things for a writer to achieve. In my experience as a writer who often writes complicated plots, it isn’t until later drafts of a book, when my structure is more solidly in place, that I finally have the space to sit back, breathe, and look for places where I can create little connections, or spots where I’m pushing a theme too hard.

Deeper Parallels: Mr. Gilchrist and Lady Imeyne

There’s one character parallel in this book that I find to be drawn with a heavier pen, and appropriately so.

In 2054, Mr. Gilchrist is the acting head of the History Faculty. Self-important, self-righteous, ignorant about how time travel works, and focused on his own glory, he supervises Kivrin’s travel to the Middle Ages with little care for Kivrin’s safety. Ultimately, it’s largely Mr. Gilchrist’s fault that Kivrin ends up in such a dangerous and traumatizing place, and gets stuck there. 

When Gilchrist’s culpability becomes clear, he blames and threatens everyone else. For example, when the tech, Badri, collapses onto the net consul, clearly ill, Gilchrist decides, out of nowhere, that Badri must be a drug user. Here’s the way he talks (to Mr. Dunworthy): “You can’t wait to inform [actual head of the History Faculty] Basingame of what you perceive to be Mediaeval’s failure, can you?… In spite of the fact that it was your tech who has jeopardized this drop by using drugs, a fact of which you may be sure I will inform Mr. Basingame on his return…. I’m certain Mr. Basingame will also be interested in hearing that it was your failure to have your tech screened that’s resulted in this drop being jeopardized…. It seems distinctly odd that after being so concerned about the precautions Mediaeval was taking that you wouldn’t take the obvious precaution of screening your tech for drugs…” (64-65). Agh. Every time he opens his mouth, he says something pompous, repetitive, obnoxious, and untrue.

In 1348, Lady Imeyne is part of the household where Kivrin ends up living. Self-important, self-righteous, sanctimonious, selfish, and ignorant, she ignores the imprecations of wiser people, and, for the sake of her own status, invites visitors to the household — who turn out to be carrying the plague. It is essentially Lady Imeyne’s doing that the plague comes to her town. 

When this becomes clear, Lady Imeyne blames everyone else. While others in the household are working themselves to exhaustion trying to care for the sick, she kneels in the corner, ignoring the need for help, and praying. “Your sins have brought this,” she tells her daughter-in-law Eliwys, the one who’s in love with her own husband’s servant (432). Later, she turns on kind, patient Father Roche. “You have brought this sickness,” she says. “It is your sins have brought the sickness here.” Then she begins to list his sins: “He said the litany for Martinmas on St. Eusebius’s Day. His alb is dirty…. He put the candles out by pinching them and broke the wicks” (444).

“She’s trying to justify her own guilt,” Kivrin thinks. “She can’t bear the knowledge that she helped bring the plague here”… But Kivrin can’t summon up any pity. “You have no right to blame Roche, she thought, he has done everything he can. And you’ve knelt in a corner and prayed.” (444-445). Similarly, Mr. Dunworthy sees right through Mr. Gilchrist, even at one point considering him Kivrin’s murderer (484).

Mr. Gilchrist and Lady Imeyne are UNBEARABLE. They’re the characters in this book that you most hate, or at least that I do — maybe especially in 2020/21, when we’re plagued in real life by dangerous people like them. Later, in possibly the book’s most satisfying moment, we learn that Gilchrist has died of the influenza. The book doesn’t revel in his death; none of the characters revel. But I sure do. Good riddance, you harmful, self-important, lying hypocrite. This is one of fiction’s safe spaces: the intense, guilt-free satisfaction of an asshole being punished.

Similarly, Lady Imeyne dies of the plague. It’s a relief. But it’s also a bit harder to revel, because with the exception of Kivrin, who’s immune, every character in the 1348 timeline dies of the plague. Every single character. It is so desperately sad, not least because it’s exactly what happened in 1348. As the book reminds us repeatedly, entire towns were wiped out. There was no one left to toll the bells, or bury the dead. No one is left but Kivrin. Our hearts break for her.

I’m glad that Connie Willis teases out the parallel between Mr. Gilchrist and Lady Imeyne more than she does with a lot of the other character parallels. I think it’s important; I think that these two characters embody a clear and recognizable type of human who will always exist in eras of human suffering. I’m relieved she kills them; and I’m relieved she doesn’t kill everyone we love. In particular, she doesn’t kill Mr. Dunworthy and she doesn’t kill Kivrin… Which leads me to one last powerful character parallel in this book.

 

Mr. Dunworthy and Kivrin, God and Jesus

This character parallel is in a different category from the others. It doesn’t stretch across the 1348 and 2054 timelines, or not exactly, anyway. It exists on a different plane: It’s a parallel between the story of Mr. Dunworthy and Kivrin, and the story of God sending his son, Jesus, down to earth to live among humans.

The people of 1348 believe the story of God sending his son down to earth. They believe it literally; it’s one of their guiding principles. Kivrin, Mr. Dunworthy, and many of the people of 2054 do not believe that story in the literal sense. Kivrin and Mr. Dunworthy don’t believe in God. 

And yet, there are times when the vocal recordings Kivrin is making for historical purposes begin to sound like pleas to God: “Over fifty percent of the village has it. Please don’t let Eliwys get it. Or Roche” (467). “You bastard! I will not let you take her. She’s only a child. But that’s your specialty, isn’t it? Slaughtering the innocents? You’ve already killed the steward’s baby and Agnes’s puppy and the boy who went for help when I was in the hut, and that’s enough. I won’t let you kill her, too, you son of a bitch! I won’t let you!” (493). 

And Father Roche, who finally reveals to Kivrin that on the day she arrived, he saw the net open and Kivrin appear, believes with all his heart that Kivrin is a saint, sent by God to help his parishioners in their time of need. “I feared that God would forsake us utterly,” he says, as he’s dying. “But in His great mercy He did not… But sent His saint unto us.” He says, “Yet have you saved me… From fear.… And unbelief” (542-543). He means what he says. Kivrin’s ministrations to the sick and to Roche do save him from despair.

And back in the Oxford of 2054, Dunworthy lies sick in his hospital bed, considering Kivrin, whom he’s sent to a terrible place. As a rather unbearable character named Mrs. Gaddson stands at his bedside “helpfully” reading him Bible verses, Dunworthy thinks to himself, “God didn’t know where His Son was…. He had sent His only begotten Son into the world, and something had gone wrong with the fix, someone had turned off the net, so that He couldn’t get to him, and they had arrested him and put a crown of thorns on his head and nailed him to a cross…. Kivrin would have no idea what had happened. She would think she had the wrong place or the wrong time, that she had lost count of the days somehow during the plague, that something had gone wrong with the drop. She would think they had forsaken her” (475).

I love the questions these moments raise for the reader. Who represents what here? What is God, really? Why, when Badri became ill, did the net send Kivrin to that particular time? Who, or what, are we talking to, when we shout our fury to the universe? Maybe Mr. Dunworthy, sending historians into the past from his lab in Oxford, is a kind of god. And maybe Kivrin is a kind of Jesus, or a kind of saint. Maybe Father Roche has the right idea when he believes what he believes, even if he has some of the particulars wrong.

Near the very end, Kivrin speaks into her recorder addressing Mr. Dunworthy: “It’s strange. When I couldn’t find the drop and the plague came, you seemed so far away I would not ever be able to find you again. But I know now that you were here all along, and that nothing, not the Black Death nor seven hundred years, nor death nor things to come nor any other creature could ever separate me from your caring and concern. It was with me every minute” (544).

And then, with great difficulty, Mr. Dunworthy comes for Kivrin. He finds her in 1348, heartbroken and surrounded by the dead, and he brings her back home. “I knew you’d come,” Kivrin says (578). There’s a way in which the justified faith of these characters — Father Roche’s faith in God’s saint Kivrin, and Kivrin’s faith in Mr. Dunworthy’s care — show the reader that even in the darkest, most death-ridden times, love doesn’t forsake us.

That’s a pretty timeless theme. 

***

If you’ve made it to the end of my post about character parallels in Connie Willis’s magnificent Doomsday Book, I hope I’ve given you a sense of what a powerful tool this can be. It’s pretty closely related to some of my other writing lessons here on the blog. Creating webs like Tiffany D. Jackson did in Monday’s Not Coming; creating connections like Victor LaValle did in The Changeling. Writing is often about finding the internal connections that’ll best support the themes of the story you’re trying to tell. I think that especially if your book takes place in multiple timelines, character parallels can go a long way!

Usually I end my craft posts with a photo showing the book filled with post-it flags from my careful rereading, but this time around, I reread by listening to the audiobook. My paper copy is flag-free — but I took eight pages of notes while I was listening! So here’s a different photo of my process.

 

Listening like a writer.

 

 

 

Stuff and Things

 Hi all,

Today I finished a draft of a brand-new writing project. I started it on December 14, which means that I wrote it faster than I’ve ever written anything. And though I already know a lot of its revision needs, and though the draft isn’t really done (because I still have to transcribe an entire notebook of handwritten scribbles), and though I’m feeling that unsettled sense of not being sure yet where I’m going with it… And though I expect it to be a while before I can focus on it again… I feel hopeful about its potential. 

I’ve recently (maybe in the past year or so) entered a writing pocket that I call Less Angst. I don’t think my writing is any better or worse than it ever was, but I’m enjoying the work more, and worrying about it less. I can probably list a lot of reasons for this, but I suspect the biggest factor is experience. The feelings of doubt and worry, anxiety because the book isn’t right yet, uncertainty about how many attempts it will take to get it right… Those feelings have become so deeply familiar to me over the years. I think their familiarity is finally making them easier companions. They don’t rock me the way they once did. It’s really nice. And maybe this is temporary; maybe I’m in a sweet spot; but I’ll take it while it lasts. 😊

In other news, the release of Winterkeep went so very well, and now it’s possible to watch videos of all my virtual book events online. Here are the links:

My conversation with Sarah Enni, hosted by Brookline Booksmith.

My conversation with Malinda Lo, moderated by Tui Sutherland, hosted by Mysterious Galaxy.

My conversation with agent Faye Bender, moderated by editor Andrew Karre, hosted by Books and Books.

I have a couple of podcast links to share as well:

My conversation with Sarah Enni on First Draft.

My conversation with Felicity on the Penguin Teen podcast, We Are YA.

I’m also delighted to announce that with the release of Winterkeep, the Graceling Realm hit both the Indie series bestseller list and the NYT series bestseller list, for which I am very grateful. 😍

Finally, these days, most of my announcements and musings take place over on Twitter, which means that readers of the blog may be missing things… And I feel it’s imperative that none of you miss being introduced to my writing companion, February Spiffington. I made him myself, using this sewing kit. Of course I substituted blue felt for his body, because naturally, like all Keepish foxes, he is not red, but blue.

Happy reading and writing, everyone!

Events Today and Tomorrow

There’s still time to register for my virtual book events happening today and tomorrow. For those of you who receive my blog post as emails, your email got weirdly cut off yesterday right before all the event information. You also missed some photos of my notebooks while I was writing Winterkeep. Sorry about that. For event details and to catch up on what you missed, please visit yesterday’s post on my Blog Actual! https://kristincashore.com/winterkeep-ish-stuff-for-release-week/

Winterkeep-ish Stuff for Release Week!

Winterkeep is now out in the world, and can be purchased at your favorite book retailer. I am happy for you to buy the book wherever you prefer, but do keep indie retailers bookshop.org, Libro.fm, and Kobo in mind!

This week, I’m on the podcast First Draft with Sarah Enni… Sarah is so skilled at insightful conversation, and so warm, too. We had a lovely chat. Check it out!

I have two more virtual events to round off book release week, and you’re invited. The first is Sunday at 5PM ET (2PM PT), with Malinda Lo, moderated by Tui Sutherland, and presented by Mysterious Galaxy Books in San Diego. The nice thing about this event is that Malinda, Tui, and I are all in the same book group. So we’re used to getting together to talk about books. Just not usually our own books! Of course, our last eleven meetings have been virtual, but normally, the group meets in one of the homes of our lovely members. If I were hosting book group in January, I would have a fire roaring in the fireplace… So I’m going to light a fire for Sunday’s event.

It’s free to join us, but you do need to register ahead of time. Also, note that though I’m not personalizing books via my local indie during the pandemic, you can purchase books through this event and get signed or personalized bookplates. But you need to do so pretty soon, so if you’re interested, follow the links! Instructions for ordering are here.

My final event, on Monday at 6PM ET, will be a conversation with my agent Faye Bender, moderated by editor Andrew Karre, who is my new editor! So this conversation will certainly involve some publishing talk. This event is hosted by Books & Books and the Miami Book Fair. This event is free, but you do need to register ahead of time.

Finally, for those of you not on Twitter, I’ll share some pictures of my Winterkeep-writing process. Here’s a drawing I made on November 10, 2013, while I was planning this book while on a writing trip in Akureyri, Iceland. At the time, I’m pretty sure I imagined that this picture encapsulated the entire plot of the book. (Don’t worry, there are no spoilers! Especially since most of the stuff didn’t make it into the final draft…)

Next up, here’s a picture from the first page of my first draft, started on April 21, 2014. I wanted to share this because at the top, I’ve written, “I am writing a book and today I will write 2 pages.” That’s something I learned from Linda Sue Park, who gave a speech about writing once years ago in which she talked about the emotional weight of trying to make progress through such a long and gigantic project. You don’t sit down thinking to yourself, “I need to write this entire book.” You sit down thinking to yourself, “today I will write two pages.” When Linda Sue said those words, it changed my writing life. So much pressure disappeared! (By the way, if you enjoy seeing pictures of my notebook, you might like the detailed post I wrote about writing Bitterblue.) (Oh! And if you read that post, then read the writing carefully below, you will notice that ONCE AGAIN, I tried to write an earthquake into a book. Like the earthquake in Bitterblue, this Winterkeep earthquake did not make it through to the final draft. Why am I obsessed with earthquakes?)

Finally, years later — almost 3 years ago, in February of 2018 — I was far along in the writing process, but I still hadn’t figured out what this place was called, what this book was called, what the undersea beast was called…. At a writing retreat with friends, I kidnapped this gigantic easel notepad thingamajig and started writing down possibilities. Everyone voted. You’ll note that “Winterkeep” isn’t even on this list (though some pretty silly things are; I wrote down every possibility, no matter how bad), but you’ll also see that I was getting pretty close to “Winterkeep!” I don’t remember exactly, but I must have come up with “Winterkeep” while we were at dinner one night, and everyone agreed it was the winner. (For a while after that, I was calling the book Winter Keeper, but when it came time to decide for sure, my team at Penguin decided to go with Winterkeep, so that the title would line up nicely with the other single-word Graceling Realm titles.)

And that’s my Winterkeep update for today! I hope we’ll get to see you at one of my upcoming events!

WINTERKEEP Virtual Tour Info

 Hi, everyone. In the midst of all this difficult news, Winterkeep is about to be released. So it’s time to share the dates and details of my virtual tour events. If you’re looking for a happy escape from all that’s going on — and let’s face it, probably some conversation about how books help us absorb/understand/frame current events — please join us! I’m going to be talking to a lot of super interesting people: Author and podcaster Sarah Enni. Authors Malinda Lo and Tui Sutherland. Agent Faye Bender and editor Andrew Karre.

Here’s a link to my tour page: http://www.penguinteen.com/event/kristin-cashore-on-tour/

 

And I’ll also spell everything out here:

First up, on Tuesday, January 19 at 7PM ET, I’ll be in conversation with Sarah Enni, hosted by the Brookline Booksmith. Sarah’s an author and journalist who’s the host of the wonderful First Draft podcast. More details and registration here: https://www.brooklinebooksmith.com/event/kristin-cashore-sarah-enni.

Next, on Sunday, January 24 at 2PM PST (5PM EST), Malinda Lo & I will talk about Winterkeep and Malinda’s beautiful new release, Last Night at the Telegraph Club. Our conversation will be moderated by Wings of Fire author Tui Sutherland. You can probably expect some craft talk! This event is hosted by Mysterious Galaxy. Details and registration here: https://www.mystgalaxy.com/cashorelo124 

Finally, on Monday, January 25 at 6PM EST, I’ll be in conversation with agent Faye Bender, hosted by editor Andrew Karre. Certainly some publishing talk! This event is hosted by Books & Books. Details and registration here:  https://booksandbooks.com/event/winterkeep-an-evening-with-kristin-cashore/ 

All events can be attended virtually for free. If you’re purchasing a book as part of your registration, limited signatures and personalizations are available in some cases, so please do check the details.

And thanks.




A Book Needs Space: The Craft of THE HOUSEKEEPER AND THE PROFESSOR by Yoko Ogawa

I took a break from my craft series for a couple months. And then I handed in the first draft of a new book this week! Which means that this weekend I can finally turn my attention to writing about craft in The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa.

Yoko Ogawa’s slender, stunning book, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder, is a challenging one to use as a writing lesson, because while I can describe a hundred smart and wonderful things about it, that doesn’t mean I know how to translate its beauty into advice to other writers. It’s not helpful for me to say, “See how perfect this is? Now go do that.” 

And it is that kind of book, the kind that pulls you into a narrative dream and holds you there so gently, with such soft hands, that it’s hard to figure out how you got where you are. When did it happen, and how?

For me, it had already happened by the time I’d gotten to the end of page 3. And I think that the “how” has something to do with a sense of spaciousness.

What do I mean by a sense of spaciousness? Well, it’s pretty hard to nail it down exactly, but I’ve been considering this a lot, and I think it has to do with a combination of things. One is unflowery, unfussy prose. Another is revelation of character through brief, searing lines of plot or observation. (You know those beautiful moments in books when a single sentence seems to capture the essence of a character, and just like that, you feel like you can see into their soul?) Another is a gentle, no-rush kind of pacing. Another has to do with themes that lend themselves to spaciousness. And another is the way Ogawa hooks this story into two real-world entities that have power, meaning, and spaciousness outside any book: mathematics and baseball.  

You didn’t think this was going to be simple, did you? :o) The Housekeeper and the Professor is a book that seems spare and uncomplicated as you read it, but I think it’s deceptively so. There’s a lot packed into its 180 pages. The reader who feels suspended in a narrative dream is actually perched on top of a lot of strong, invisible foundations. Today I’ll try to look at those foundations a little closer.

I’m not going to harp on the unflowery, unfussy prose, because I think you’ll see that for yourself when I share examples from the text. Instead I’ll talk first about the revelation of character, then get into pacing and themes, then say a little about the allusions to mathematics and baseball.

All page references are to the 2009 English-language paperback edition published by Picador.

First, a brief overview, with no spoilers: A housekeeper is assigned to work in the house of a professor of mathematics who lives in a small city on the Inland Sea. The professor, who’s sixty-four, sustained a brain injury in an automobile accident seventeen years ago and lost his ability to form new memories. “He can remember a theorem he developed thirty years ago, but he has no idea what he ate for dinner last night” (5). He can only remember new things for eighty minutes. 

As a consequence, every morning, when the housekeeper arrives at the home of the professor, she’s a stranger to him, as is her son who often accompanies her. And every day is predictable in some ways, yet thoroughly unpredictable in others. 

Told from the perspective of the housekeeper, the book is about the inner lives and growing relationships of four people, all of whose real names are not used: the housekeeper; her son; the Professor; and the professor’s sister-in-law, who lives in the main house across from the professor’s cottage. The book contains small, quiet, satisfying revelations. You learn more information about all of the characters over time. But the journey is as satisfying as the destination. This is one of those books where I wasn’t reading to find out what happens; I was reading for the pleasure of spending time with the book.

Now, let’s talk about character.

In the hands of a clunky writer, a character’s inability to form new memories would be a gimmick. There are no gimmicks here. Almost from the first line, these are people you believe in, with thoughts and dilemmas that suspend you in a state of wanting, along with these characters, to understand what it means to be human. 

Here’s how the book opens:

We called him the Professor. And he called my son Root, because, he said, the flat top of his head reminded him of the square root sign.

“There’s a fine brain in there,” the Professor said, mussing my son’s hair. Root, who wore a cap to avoid being teased by his friends, gave a wary shrug. “With this one little sign we can come to know an infinite range of numbers, even those we can’t see.” He traced the symbol in the thick layer of dust on his desk.

 

This opening is the first of many times when the Professor embarks on an explanation of a mathematical concept. You, the reader, might immediately groan, thinking, Oh no, he’s going to lecture, he’s going to mansplain math… But only two pages later, on page 3, our narrator, the housekeeper, addresses that concern with this description:

But the professor didn’t always insist on being the teacher. He had enormous respect for matters about which he had no knowledge, and he was as humble in such cases as the square root of negative one itself. Whenever he needed my help, he would interrupt me in the most polite way. Even the simplest request—that I help him set the timer on the toaster, for example—always began with “I’m terribly sorry to bother you, but…” Once I’d set the dial, he would sit peering in as the toast browned. He was as fascinated by the toast as he was by the mathematical proofs we did together, as if the truth of the toaster were no different from that of the Pythagorean theorem.

It’s this description of the Professor peering in as the toast browns, caring about it as much as he cares about everything else, that captured my heart on page 3. With that tiny act, Ogawa shows us something essential about the Professor’s character. And Ogawa repeats this method of revealing character over and over again, sharing small, isolated moments of searing revelation.

Here’s another example of a small moment, one where we learn the Professor’s particular, yet socially clueless, sympathy toward children:

Just then, there was a cry from the sandbox. A little girl stood sobbing, a toy shovel clutched in her hand. Instantly, the Professor was at her side, bending over to comfort her. He tenderly brushed the sand from her dress.

Suddenly, the child’s mother appeared and pushed the Professor away, picking the girl up and practically running off with her. The Professor was left standing in the sandbox. I watched him from behind, unsure how to help. The cherry blossoms fluttered down, mingling with the numbers in the dirt. (46-47)

I’m not sure the professor understands what’s just happened in that moment, but we do. And we can see him and feel for him (at the same time as we might feel frustrated with him).

Here’s one more, shorter example: “I wondered how many times I had said those words since I’d come to work at the Professor’s house. ‘Don’t worry. It’s fine.’ At the barber, outside the X-ray room at the clinic, on the bus home from the ballgame. Sometimes as I was rubbing his back, at other times stroking his hand. But I wondered whether I had ever been able to comfort him. His real pain was somewhere else, and I sensed that I was always missing the spot” (169-170).

Maybe when I use the word “spacious” to describe this kind of characterization, what I mean is that nothing is crowded, every detail is illuminated and clear, and allowed to be the star of the scene it’s in. Every description is given the space it’s needed. As a result, the characterizations seem clean and spare, but not because the characters are simple people with simple lives. They are complex people with difficult, tragic, sometimes frightening lives. But we can see them clearly, because Ogawa draws them with precise lines on a spacious page. 

I almost want to say that it’s like each character is standing alone, visible to us in a bright, uncrowded room, but that makes the characters and the book sound sterile, which is completely wrong. In fact, they live in rooms full of things, especially books, papers, baseball cards, and food. And their lives, thoughts, and feelings are deeply entangled. But reading this book, the reader does not feel entangled. The reader has room.

This is partly because Ogawa gives every moment in this story the same weight as any other part of the story. The moment with the browning toast, for example, is just as important as other longer, more emotionally fraught scenes in the book. And this gets us into pacing. 

This book is composed of a lot of different kinds of passages. Tiny plot moments, like the Professor watching the toast brown. Longer scenes, like one where Root gets injured and the Professor and the housekeeper rush him to the hospital; one where they all go to a baseball game together; one where they have a party. Passages where the housekeeper is musing about the life of the Professor; passages where she’s doing a little snooping in the Professor’s house, hoping to learn about his past. Occasional passages where the housekeeper is telling us something about her own past. Also, lots and lots of passages about math.

Pacing isn’t something I can demonstrate using short examples, because it depends upon how all the parts of the text sit in relation to each other. But I can try to explain what Ogawa does, and what it’s like to read: She simply and straightforwardly lets every passage take as much time and space as it needs. It’s okay if a math explanation fills up several pages. It’s okay if some of the most beautiful and revealing character moments for the Professor — like his ability, every afternoon, to see the evening star before anyone else can (page 79) — take less than a page. There’s a way in which the weight of any one part of this book has nothing to do with its length. All the different needs of the text are balanced in their significance. 

How does a short description manage to carry as much weight as a many-paged scene? I think it’s partly because of what this book is telling us — its themes. Browning toast is, in fact, as important as the Pythagorean theorem. The housekeeper tells us so. A child is as important as a mathematician. A moment when a man with a brain injury is sad and confused is as important as the most fundamental mathematical discovery. Everything is connected, everything matters, and everything gets to take up space.

One thing I took away from the pacing of this book is that I want to try to worry less about the moments when my text feels uneven. I’ll always listen to feedback from my readers when it comes to my pacing — but ultimately, there are other aspects of a text, particularly its style, mood, and themes, that can bind seemingly disparate parts of a book together. Maybe that’s something I can talk about more sometime using one of my own books. It comes down to a book being a web, and that’s a really complicated thing to try to talk about!

Here’s another interesting thing Ogawa does with pacing: While it becomes pretty easy, pretty quickly, for the reader to know who the Professor is, this makes a fascinating contrast with the other characters in the book, who come into focus much more slowly. Especially the housekeeper herself, who’s the narrator, but who’s always talking about everyone else, hiding herself in the background (much like a housekeeper). Honestly, it took me a while to even notice the housekeeper as a character. And then I began to care about her experience deeply.

A lot of our revelations about the housekeeper’s character relate to math. With a quiet, patient kind of wonder, the housekeeper absorbs every math lesson the Professor gives, and we see what that’s like for her. We watch it touch her daily life—and reshape her entire outlook. 

“There was something profound in his love for math,” the housekeeper says. “And it helped that he forgot what he’d taught me before, so I was free to repeat the same question until I understood. Things that most people would get the first time around might take me five, or even ten times, but I could go on asking the Professor to explain until I finally got it” (23).

Just as the Professor explains math to the housekeeper, Ogawa explains it to the reader, and explains it well; we understand it because we’re sharing the housekeeper’s growing understanding of it. Consequently, we can understand the way it’s changing the housekeeper. One day, while cleaning the kitchen, she finds a serial number engraved on the back of the refrigerator door: 2311. Unable to help herself, she pulls out a notepad and gets to work trying to figure out whether this is a prime number. “Once I’d proved that 2,311 was prime, I put the notepad back in my pocket and went back to my cleaning, though now with a new affection for this refrigerator, which had a prime serial number. It suddenly seemed so noble, divisible by only one and itself” (113).

Later, she reflects on the relationship between math and meaning: “In my imagination, I saw the creator of the universe sitting in some distant corner of the sky, weaving a pattern of delicate lace so fine that even the faintest light would shine through it. The lace stretches out infinitely in every direction, billowing gently in the cosmic breeze. You want desperately to touch it, hold it up to the light, rub it against your cheek. And all we ask is to be able to re-create the pattern, weave it again with numbers, somehow, in our own language; to make even the tiniest fragment our own, to bring it back to earth” (124).

(It’s worth mentioning that this book’s sense of spaciousness is also aided by descriptions of actually spacious things. It’s hard to imagine something more spacious than infinite lace!)

Slowly, we watch the housekeeper’s relationship with the Professor—and with math—change her entire concept of herself. Here, the Professor has just watched her cook dinner with utter fascination and respect: “I looked at the food I had just finished preparing and then at my hands. Sautéed pork garnished with lemon, a salad, and a soft, yellow omelet. I studied the dishes, one by one. They were all perfectly ordinary, but they looked delicious—satisfying food at the end of a long day. I looked at my palms again, filled suddenly with an absurd sense of satisfaction, as though I had just solved Fermat’s Last Theorem” (135).

Honestly, the mathematics in The Housekeeper and the Professor is one reason it’s tricky to use this book as a craft lesson. It’s clear Ogawa has enormous mathematical expertise, which breathes life and meaning into this story — but not many writers are going to have that expertise at their disposal, and not all stories can be about math. I also wonder what it’s like to read this book if you’re indifferent to math, or even hate it? Baseball, which is extremely math-based, plays another huge part in this book — I wonder how the book reads to people untouched by both math and baseball? I happen to adore both; I lap up baseball movies and math plays like Arcadia or Proof with the purest joy; so it’s impossible for me to imagine reading this book from the perspective of a baseball-hater or a math-hater. It’s hard to imagine that reader having the same experience I’m having.

Nonetheless, the point remains that Ogawa is harnessing the essence of other disciplines, math and baseball, and using them to expand her story — and it works for a lot of readers. It creates a kind of magic similar to Victor LaValle’s use of fairytales in The Changeling. Things that we understand in a different context, like math or fairytales, can expand the meaning of realities that otherwise don’t make sense, or hurt too much. Like a person who’s lost a part of their brain that they need in order to make new, sustained relationships. Or a housekeeper who’s been alone, unsupported, and unappreciated for most of her life.

And here again, Ogawa makes spacious choices. Is anything more spacious than math? Math defines space, and the infinity of space. And one of the complaints most often brandished at baseball is that there’s way too much empty space in the game :o). Math and baseball serve as themes helping to create the book’s spaciousness.

So. I’m not convinced that this post is the most useful entry in my craft series, especially for any of you looking for nitty-gritty writing advice. But I do hope you’ll read Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor, and maybe my thoughts will combine with your own to help you come to some conclusions. I’ll end this post with a spacious image:

“As we reached the top of the stairs that led to the seats above third base, all three of us let out a cry. The diamond in all its grandeur was laid out before us — the soft, dark earth of the infield, the spotless bases, the straight white lines, and the manicured grass. The evening sky seemed so close you could touch it, and at that moment, as if they had been awaiting our arrival, the lights came on. The stadium looked like a spaceship descended from the heavens” (88).

Happy writing!

 

The Housekeeper and the Professor filled with post-it flags.
Reading like a writer.

Some Resources to Get You Through This Bumbling Attempted Coup

U.S. District Judge Matthew W. Brann speaking to the only lawyer still willing to argue Trump’s case in Pennsylvania, Rudolph Giuliani, on Tuesday:

“You’re alleging that the two individual plaintiffs were denied the right to vote. But at bottom, you’re asking this court to invalidate more than 6.8 million votes, thereby disenfranchising every single voter in the commonwealth. Can you tell me how this result can possibly be justified?”

Hello everyone. You might expect that while we are having to endure this comical yet terrifying attempted coup, my subconscious mind would be having a field day, giving me creative dreams as usual. But here’s the dream I had Tuesday night, after that disgraceful show in Michigan: A Republican demagogue, anticipating his loss in the next election and wanting to prime public opinion, begins shouting as loud as he can about how the Democrats are going to steal the election. He loses the election. Then he tries to steal the election, again by accusing the Democratic victors of stealing the election. Rank-and-file Republicans fall in around him, supporting his baseless claims. A depressingly shocking number of voters believe him.

Not a lot of creativity there, subconscious.

For me, the most stressful part of all of this is how terrifying the GOP has become. A massive web of baseless lies that are believed by a gigantic number of people is terrifying. It’s what my books are about. Of course, as a fantasy writer, I’ve always known I’m writing about real life.

 I found a recent episode of the Ezra Klein Show helpful in contextualizing the crisis that’s been created by the Republican Party. In it, Ezra talks with Anne Applebaum, who studies authoritarianism. As a writer, I appreciated that the episode included a close study in character. The character of real people, of course, like Lindsey Graham and Laura Ingraham, but writers are naturally interested in the characters of real people. It’s how we write believable imaginary people! Anyway, check it out if a grim perspective will help you get your feet on the ground. Don’t check it out if what you need right now is comfort or reassurance, however. Those are valid needs too. And I have a couple of TV recommendations for that as well!

About a month ago, I finished watching Jane the Virgin, which now has a permanent place in the upper echelon of my favorite TV shows of all time. It is so funny, so sweet and full of heart. It has political relevance, in a way that will make you feel hopeful. It’s about families, writing, relationships between women, parenthood, magic, and it has characters you’ll love so much that when you finally finish the last episode, you’ll wander around feeling bereft for a while, or at least that’s what happened to me. The plot is so absurd that you don’t have to worry too much about bad things happening. The voiceover narrator is an absolute delight. I love this show so much, and if you’ve never seen it before, now might be the time!

Also, last week I started watching Crash Landing on You, a South Korean TV drama in which a South Korean heiress has a hang-gliding mishap that drops her into the North Korean section of the DMZ. A very serious (and brooding) captain in the North Korean Special Police Force finds her and reluctantly decides to help her hide. It’s very, very funny and keeps surprising me with its sweet moments — one of my favorite combinations in a TV show — and like with Jane, I’m falling for all the characters. Each episode seems to be incrementally longer than the last episode, to the point that my addiction to the show is interfering with the rest of my life, but I’m enjoying it too much to care. :o)

By Source, Fair use,
https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62530475

These are my recommendations for today… Hang in there, everyone. 💗

Online Event Tonight and Exclusive Map Giveaway

A couple time-sensitive pieces of book news for those of you not on Twitter, where, among other things, I’ve been posting my sister’s careful scrawled calculations of the vote count in Pennsylvania :o).

One, Flatiron Books invite me to chat with Melissa Albert, author of the gorgeous and chilling Tales from the Hinterland, tonight (Friday) at 8:30pm ET as part of  #yallwrite

 Info at @YALLFest and https://www.yallwrite.org/schedule#specialevents

Come join us! I for one will be exhausted yet (I suspect) calm, and Mimi and I will have plenty of bookish stuff to talk about!

Two, Penguin Teen has organized an exclusive map giveaway for anyone who preorders Winterkeep. Here’s the entry form: http://bit.ly/WinterkeepPreOrder

Tag @PenguinTeen with any questions. And enjoy! :o)

Pictures to Distract You: A Snowy Day, and Tools of the Trade

Hi, all. Waiting is hard. So here are some pretty pics to distract you. 

Friday was the day I’d scheduled to take some time off, go for nice walk, and get some pictures of the fall foliage.

In typical 2020 fashion, it didn’t go quite as planned… 

So I went with it.

Everything is great.

Here are some scenes…

…of October…
… in Massachusetts…

…just for you.

Now for some pictures of inside things. I don’t know about you, but this is a pretty stressful time for me, and I’m using every tool in my toolbox to stay healthy and well. One of those is — always — writing, and hardly anything gives me greater comfort than having fun with my writing tools.

I’ve explained before that I write by hand. Then, when I’ve written a sufficient amount that I start to worry about the house burning down, I transcribe my writing into a Word document, using voice recognition software. If you’re curious about the kind of notebooks I’ve written in previously and what my writing used to look like — and if you’re a writer who wants a reminder of how normal it is for writing to be hard — go check out my old post, Pictures of a Book Being Made

In recent years, I have some new tools.

Writing by hand has always been my way, even before I developed a disability that makes typing prohibitively painful. I’m left-handed, but not too long ago, after doing some realistic thinking about how much pain I work through on a daily basis, I began to teach myself to write right-handed, so that I can increase the likelihood I’ll be able to write forever. 

Now, after much practice, I alternate between hands pretty regularly as I work. The right-handed writing is slower and messier, and my hand gets tired faster. But it’s fine.

I’ve also started using smaller, lighter notebooks. This is partly to save my hands, and partly because the most recent books I’ve been writing feel different, and have been asking me for new supplies.

In particular, they’re asking me for smaller, lighter, less intimidating notebooks — and stickers. :o)

I’ve been hunting for stickers that feel like my books. Stickers that match my characters, my plot, the feelings that imbue my story. Then, as I write, I plop the stickers onto the page… And it helps. It gives me ideas; it slows me down, so that my writing is more thoughtful; it gives me joy. 

The two stickers on the left are the work of Katie at BearandFoxCo.
The sticker on the right is the work of Audrey Miller at CloudCatArts.

I’ll share some pictures of my stickers… And include, with some of them, samples of my right-handed writing, so you can see what I mean about that. Anytime you see handwriting, that’s my right-handed work. And anytime you see a sticker created by an individual/independent artist, I have gotten permission to share it.

Here goes.

Made by Katie Harmon at PinkPolish Design.

Made by Katie Harmon at PinkPolish Design.

Made by Katie Harmon at PinkPolish Design.

Made by Katie Harmon at PinkPolish Design.

This is an image from a cityscape washi tape, superimposed over some pale-blue sky washi stickers I can no longer find a link to.

Made by Katie Harmon at PinkPolish Design. (I colored her right eye red!)

I got a whole series of ship pictures on Etsy, but alas, they no longer seem to be available.

I found these butterfly/moth washi stickers on Etsy.

There’s one more artist whose work I wanted to share, but I didn’t get permission from her in time. Her Etsy shop is on a short break at the moment, but keep the shop of Helen Ahpornsiri in mind; she creates animals using pressed flowers and plants, and the results are beautiful.

And that’s my distraction for today.

Everyone, give yourself a break over the next few days and then however long this takes. Try not to check the news compulsively; wear masks to protect the vulnerable; forgive yourself for being stressed out. And hang in there.

♥♥♥