The Best Thing about Being a Novelist? Living Other People’s Lives by Holly Robinson
Yesterday, I spent several hours unraveling a sweater I’ve started over three times. It’s the easiest pattern I could find, yet I can barely seem to get past casting the stitches onto my needles.
If only I were Hannah, one of the characters in my new novel, Haven Lake, I wouldn’t have this problem. Hannah is an expert knitter and even raises her own Icelandic sheep, because that’s her favorite kind of wool.
Of course, if I were Hannah’s daughter, Sydney, I wouldn’t know how to knit, either. But, boy, I’d be a terrific dancer. Salsa? Bring it on! I wouldn’t be falling all over myself in Zumba class the way I do in real life, because I’d have rhythm and hips that don’t lie.
The best thing about being a novelist is living other people’s lives. I know I’ll never be able to afford a house on the beach, but I built one on the page, complete with a potter’s studio, for one of my characters. Thanks to my fiction, I also know what it’s like to sell my paintings on the boardwalk in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. I have ridden fast motorcycles and lost control of my car on slippery bridges; at the moment, I’m troubled by my childhood memories of being one of the sole survivors of a plane crash.
To write a novel requires inhabiting other people’s lives so deeply that we think, speak, and dream like them. Some of that requires doing research. For Haven Lake, I knew I wanted to write about a character in the Berkshires who raises sheep, so I found a shepherdess in New Hampshire who was willing to let me come hang out with her. To write about being a potter in Beach Plum Island, I signed up for pottery classes at a local studio. We still use a lot of the bowls and cups we made—though none of them are as fine as the ones my character sells to galleries.
My husband wonders how it’s possible for me to devote entire weekends to writing, as I do sometimes when I’m crashing through the first draft of a manuscript on deadline. Even some Saturday nights, I hole up at my laptop with a glass of wine. “How can you spend so many hours working?” he asks.
“I’m not working,” I answer. “I’m writing.”
Okay, sometimes, yes, it’s hard work to be a writer. I write a synopsis before starting every novel, and I am always startled, or even panicked, when the characters take over and things go haywire.
“Wait!” I want to shout at them. “Don’t do that! You’re not supposed to fall in love/have an affair/get into a car accident! That’s not what’s supposed to happen next!”
But, just like in real life, you can’t always control what happens on the page. My characters do what they want and often my only choice is to follow them through the book. Then it’s up to me to clean up their messes in a revision, where I must struggle to reweave the strands of their stories together in ways that make sense, given these new developments. Sometimes it feels like that will never happen and the book won’t work after all. Then the writing process definitely feels like work.
Most of the time, however, writing fiction is a joyful, even playful process. It’s a way of dreaming while you’re awake, in living color, as you experience incredible adventures and deep emotions through your characters. Whether their lives are fearful or angry, miserable or loving, they are endlessly fascinating to explore.
What other life do you fantasize living? Rock singer, dolphin trainer, anthropologist, landscape designer, corporate executive with houses in three different countries? Whatever it is, share your fantasy life with Shelf Pleasure in the comments, and you could win a free copy of Holly Robinson’s new novel, Haven Lake, signed by the author! U.S. contestants only please.
Novelist, journalist and celebrity ghost writer Holly Robinson is the author of several books, including The Gerbil farmer’s Daughter: A Memoir and the novels Beach Plum Island and Haven Lake. Her articles and essays appear frequently in The Huffington Post, More, Parents, Redbook and dozens of other newspapers and magazines. She and her husband have five children and a stubborn Pekingese. They divide their time between Massachusetts and Prince Edward Island, and are crazy enough to be fixing up old houses one shingle at a time in both places.
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