World Building

One of my college babysitter’s friends was over last night and she loved my office with its three bulletin board collages. She wanted to know about the collages, the stacks and stacks of magazines in my office, and how I use the collages and magazines in my writing.

I told her leafing through magazines (my favorites include Vanity Fair, Town & Country, National Geographic, Gourmet, Oprah, Traveler, & People) gives me ideas for my books and looking at pictures, as well as reading interviews and profiles, trigger connections…helping me link what might be disparate thoughts into one cohesive, and hopefully, compelling story. When I read about someone’s childhood, or the struggles a woman has faced, I have these little aha! moments which in turn became plot points for my book.

Some writers can plot out the whole story and say, ‘this is conflict, this is his issue, this is hers and this stands in the way.’ Now I can do that, too, but when I actually write, the words often come out differently. The dialogue and situation will frequently feel fake. My characters will have the issues and goals and conflicts I’ve given them, but somehow it won’t quite work. It lacks the ‘magic’ ingredient and I really never know what the magic ingredient is until I dig into the story, try to write, get frustrated, try to write some more, step back and analyze why the story isn’t interesting, why the situation doesn’t have the emotional resonance I want.

That’s when the magazines and reading come in handy. That’s when profiles and biographies and interviews all go into that mush pot of my brain, mix around, and simmers.

Now I really start world building. I return to my bulletin boards, go back to my binders and pictures torn from Traveler, pictures taken from Brides Magazine, pictures from Vanity Fair and I start asking myself, ‘what if….?’

What if this elegant woman is really terrified of the glamorous world she’s come to inhabit?

What if this charming playboy isn’t really charming? What if he’s not even a playboy? What if he’s brilliant? Or dangerous?

What if this young woman had sixteen operations by her fourteenth birthday?

What if her parents divorced when she was ten? Remarried when she was twelve? Divorced again when she was fifteen? And remarried ten years later again?

What if the gossip magazines were right?

What if the evening news was wrong?

What if?

This is how I write. I don’t write for weeks (although I do sit at the computer but the pages don’t exactly pile up. It’s what I call my lateral writing phase. I just write the same scenes sometimes over and over and over until it feels right and becomes the proper skin for the story.) And then eventually I do write. I must. The deadline is on me, the characters are bored, and I’m panicky as hell.

My babysitter’s friend told me she’d like to try to write a book but didn’t know where to begin. I told her I don’t believe in beginnings. I just jump in. Beginnings are circular, anyway. Beginnings always lead us to the end and endings become beginnings so dive in, write what is most urgent and compelling and let the story unfold from there. At a later point, in an editing phase, you can cut and paste and move scenes around. But for now, just start. Hear what your characters are saying. See what they’re doing. Find out who these people really are.

Which is exactly what I’m doing with my current book and I’m doing things that I’m not supposed to be doing (again) and using settings Harlequin doesn’t publish and careers that don’t sell and I’m really having a good time.

At this point in the game, what makes writing for Harlequin so much fun? Breaking all the rules. Five years ago I couldn’t do what I do now. But by consistently trying to push the edge of the envelope, my editors–and readers-are no longer surprised when I take huge risks. Some of the risks pay off. Some don’t. But it’s the trying that makes the writing life rewarding. I always say, if you’re going to go down or out–do it in a blaze of glory.

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