Friday, June 01, 2018

Honoring Your Process

Frankie here. Regular readers of Type M know by now that I'm not a pantser. As much as I often envy writers who can write a novel by plunging into the deep end, I can't do it. Not only do I write at a snail's pace until I'm well into the book, sometimes I fear I am channeling Adrian Monk. I can't begin writing until I have a title, and I keep coming back to the title, frequently and obsessively, until I have the right title. I do the same with character names and their backstories. I keep researching even as I'm writing. And, every blessed time I sit down to write, I read and tinker with the first chapter before going on. I do that at least until I'm halfway through the book.

I have the title of my 1939 historical thriller -- A Penny Struck by Lightning. As you may recall the title was inspired by a conversation Opie Taylor was having with his pa, Andy Griffith. The television was playing in the background, unnoticed, until the words "penny" and "lightning" caught my attention. The perfect metaphor for that year of 1939, and the New York World's Fair.

But having a title has not helped me move along. Yesterday, I switched the first-person POV of the protagonist -- who is attending Marian Anderson's concert at the Lincoln Memorial -- back to third person. And still it wasn't right. I had photos of the the crowd. I could imagine where my character was standing. I knew there was a brisk wind. But had the sun really come out as Anderson was about to perform. There were no mention of that in the second source I had looked at.

Being obsessive -- unable to pull myself away from Chapter One and get back to writing -- I stopped to find the answer to the weather question.

And that was when the Writing Gods showered me with gifts. During the next hour, I said "Wow!" three times. With the last "Wow" I was jumping up and down and dancing around the room. Harry, my cat, was looking at me like he was about to hide under the bed.

Here's what happened -- as Adrian would say -- while looking for a third description of the weather, I found the NBC radio broadcast of the concert. I had listened to portions of it before, but this website included the concert program and mention of the intermission during the concert when the announcer reviewed Anderson's career. The broadcast was almost 30 minutes long, and while I was listening, I started to go through some photos of the platform guests. It had occurred to me that maybe I really should take a page from Dennis Lehane. I love his novel, The Given Day, set in 1918, in the months leading up to the real-life Boston Police Strike. But the book opens with Babe Ruth, traveling on a team bus, coming upon a baseball game being played in a field . . .

So my idea was that I would have someone on the platform, looking out over the crowd. I thought of Harold Ickes, the Secretary of the Interior, who introduced Marian Anderson. When I searched for Ickes and the concert, a photograph I had never seen before popped up. Ickes and Anderson shaking hands and off to the right, a group of news cameramen and among them one black photographer. That was my first "Wow." The photographer reminded me of what the NBC announcer had mentioned about the concert being under "the auspices" of Howard University, the famed historically black university in D.C. I already knew that. My protagonist even mentioned seeing a group of Howard students in the crowd and wanting to go over and speak to them, wanting to tell them that he planned  to attend the law school.

I hadn't made too much of that, but now I was wondering how he would have known they were from Howard. So I Googled Howard University and the concert. I already had the telegram that Eleanor Roosevelt had sent to a professor there when the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused to allow Anderson to use their hall. Now I was looking for information about the students at the concert. That was when I went "Wow!" again. Ossie Davis. I had stumbled across what Ossie Davis -- yes, the actor, writer, civil rights activist -- had said about that day. That day when he was in the crowd as a student from Howard University.

So now my chapter opens from the POV of Ickes looking out over the crowd  -- or maybe Anderson herself -- and down in the crowd, my character standing near a group of students . . . and one of them is named "Ossie" . . . and they are both moved and inspired and there is a brief exchange between the two of them. . .

And that was when I went "Wow! Wow!" and jumped to my feet. I knew Anderson was wearing a mink coat and a mink hat. My protagonist mentions that. But I had only seen black and white photos and barely noticed her outfit. Yesterday, as I was thinking about Ossie Davis, the Writing Gods dropped more gold coins into my lap. A photo of the donation that Anderson's family had made to the Smithsonian. The ensemble she was wearing under that mink coat. The kind of "telling detail" that I love as a researcher. The kind of detail that I might have missed if I weren't an obsessive plodder, but that no one who attended that concert and was close enough to see Ms. Anderson would have missed.

Writing lesson:  Honor your process even when you hate your process. 

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