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Writing historical fiction: sometime journal of a New York City novelist

A guest blog from my friend Laurel Corona about FINDING EMILIE.

Normally novelists struggle to find people to write blurbs for the back covers of their books but when I heard through the grapevine about Laurel's first novel, I e-mailed her agent and said, "I must read this novel and blurb it!" And so here we are a few years later and Laurel is my first author guest blog for her new novel FINDING EMILIE.How does she write so fast and wonderfully? See below!

QUESTION:You started writing after years of teaching. Can you tell me why you started? What was your inspiration?

LAUREL: I’m still teaching full-time at San Diego City College, but ironically, I never wrote a word for publication in the many years I taught research writing and composition. Helping others improve their writing is an immense drain of time and energy--well spent, to be sure, but very exhausting. When I switched to teaching Humanities, which has a more standard lecture and exam format, I suddenly discovered I had so much more free time and could think about what I wanted to do with my own skills.

QUESTION:It seems to me you are writing at least a book a year. How do you write so fast?

LAUREL:I have written four novels in five years, which really is a brisk pace, especially considering that they are historical, which requires a lot of research, and most are fairly long by commercial fiction standards. I think the biggest reason I can keep to such a pace, besides not being able to wait to find out what happens next, and in general just loving to write, is that I am not a perfectionist. I don’t get wrapped up in value judgments about how good my writing is in the first draft, or even the early revisions. I try to focus on making a corking good story with wonderful, rich characters, and I don’t worry much early on about describing the scenery, the clothing, or the furniture, or what people are doing with their hands, or what expression is on their face. I just tell the story, focusing on the main characters, the plot and the dialogue, and then I go back and layer in draft by draft the details and multiple perspectives that will make each page as good as I can write it. This approach keeps me from getting writer’s block while I am working on a first draft. Once I’ve gotten that first draft done, I can relax. Writer’s block or other anxieties are unlikely to hit me after that point, because the book is on the page. It just needs to be improved, and though that’s daunting enough because of the amount of time it takes, revision usually doesn’t feel as scary as an incomplete first draft.

QUESTION: One scene which left me breathless in Emilie was when she first walks in the rooms where her mother, who died shortly after Emile’s birth, used to live; in that scene, the reader too feels she has met a ghost. Did you go to that French chateau to research it? Can you tell me what it was like?

ANSWER: I did go there and was lucky enough to get an off-season private tour, but the owners live in the part that was Emilie’s quarters, and it isn’t something they show visitors. In one of my source books I read a general description of her apartment, and I imagined the rest. It’s funny that you should mention that scene leaving you breathless, because I too felt that way. It was so vivid in my mind as I wrote that I felt as if I were remembering rather than making anything up. I felt as if I were tiptoeing too, along with Lili, and hearing the echoes of past voices, just as she was.

QUESTION: You write beautifully about the relationships between women: the two musical sisters in The Four Seasons, Xanthe and the strange and sad Helen of Troy in Penelope’s Daughter, and the two girls brought up as sisters in Finding Emilie. What draws you to this?

ANSWER: There are two things I particularly love about women. The first is our boundless resources of inner strength, and the second is the communities we form with each other. These communities don’t have to be large--they can just be two sisters, or two best friends. One of my favorite scenes in Penelope’s Daughter is when Helen, Xanthe, and the maidservants all relax upstairs in Helen’s quarters. Their makeup and finery off, they wiggle their toes in the warmth of the hearth, and talk about this and that while they weave ribbons on their hand looms. It’s just so cozy, and so right, because in my experience, that’s the way women friends are when together. I love imagining such scenes because moments like these have been a big part of my life, and I love writing scenes of women digging deep to find ways to prevail and to thrive in difficult environments because that’s what we do best!

QUESTION: What was your most wonderful experience (or two of three of them) so far in publishing your books?

ANSWER: I don’t think there’s anything that compares with the first time things happen--getting an agent to say yes, making the first sale, seeing the first galley, getting the first box of finished books, seeing the first book in stores. Still, I’d have to say that every sale feels awfully good! I also love being taken seriously as a writer--giving speeches, reading reviews, being asked for advice--and let’s face it, who doesn’t like to get some applause from time to time?

QUESTION: Any words to women who also want to begin writing novels as a second career?

ANSWER: Yes--what are you waiting for? You are better able to write a good book now than ever in your life because you’ve spent years enriching those webs of association in your head, gathering details, noticing things, crafting opinions and ideas, and having experiences. I can speak with the confidence of a former teacher of writing, that you will quickly become a better writer than you were the last time you wrote. You haven’t forgotten how. If you were a good writer in high school or college, you just need to dust it off. Then all that life experience and maturity will kick in, and you will be surprised how quickly you become a better writer than you now think possible.

Thank you, Laurel!
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