Incubating. What does that mean, someone recently asked. This person had first asked if I was taking a break, now that my new book is finished and in production. Lord, no, I said. Writing is what I do. It’s what I think about when I’m up the creek without a paddle – e.g., in the dentist’s waiting room, in the supermarket checkout line, or lying awake at two in the morning worrying about nuclear war. Writing keeps me sane.
Not to mention the fact that I already have a contract for my next book, which is a sure thing for enforcing inspiration.
Right now, it’s about incubating. Those plots you love to read have to be dreamed up, fleshed out, and woven together. First, though, there’s the nitty gritty.
Location. This is generally the easiest for me, so I pick it first. New England is my place. But I work backward to see where in New England I haven’t taken you in a while. My newest book (pub 6.26.18 and title/cover reveal next week) is set in Vermont. The one before that, Blueprints, is set in suburban Boston, Sweet Salt Air on an island in Maine, Escape in New Hampshire. For this new setting, it’s also about where I want to spend the next eighteen months. My current answer is the Rhode Island shore, where, coincidentally, I’ve been spending more time myself – as per the photo above, which I took last April in Westerly.
Theme. Sometimes this comes from my choice of location. Think ocean, and I think grains of sand, timelessness, and generational continuity. I think of the way life shapes each of us to be unique, like those ever-tumbling, ever-different grains of sand. Or the way life mellows us, like the ocean smoothing the edges of sea glass. Alternately, I may choose a theme that is current and captivating. Political issues come to mind – though I cannot write about those. Not what my readers want. Not keeping me sane. I have several themes in mind for this new book, but the final choice is still up in the air.
Names. I spend a ton of time choosing them – for the main characters, at least – and it’s fun. Names have to fit the story and the setting. They have to fit the history of the characters’ families. I use telephone books and obituaries. I check government lists for the year a character is born. I’m big on the rhythm of names, so I say them aloud – first, last, and nicknames – and pair them with other major names in the story to make sure they flow. Sometimes a name just clicks as one I want to write about. I’ve chosen ones for the women in this book, a set of triplets, two of whom are identical, one not (it does happen biologically, totally aside from the way it did on This Is Us, which I adore). I’m working with Morgan, Ashley, and Olivia Aldiss, Olivia being the main voice. I’ve had more trouble naming my male protagonist, stuggling for one that is strong but not soap-opera chic. I was leaning toward Thomas, then ran that, Nathaniel, and Colby past my Facebook followers, who overwhelmingly chose Nathaniel. My editor wasn’t wild about that one. So it may be Nathaniel. Or Calvin. Calvin’s been resonating with me of late. Calvin MacKay, Calvin LeVeque, Calvin Duran. Calvin MacAllister.
Occupation. What works with the location? What works with the theme and with these particular characters, as their lives start to take shape in my mind? What works for me – i.e., what interests me? What do I know? What don’t I know? What can I learn? Right now, I’m seeing my male protagonist as a veterinarian, which is the last thing his family would have chosen but which gives him the unconditional love they never did. My female protagonist, Olivia, mother of a bookish ten-year-old son, may be a psychotherapist, though that’s still up for grabs. Whatever, my characters’ occupations have to work with the plot vehicle.
Aha. Plot vehicle. This is crucial. If I want my book to be a page turner, I need a vehicle that will take readers from start to finish without more than a two-minute stop. In recent books, I’ve worked with a current issue, such as computer hacking in my June 2018 book or ageism in Blueprints – or with a timeless one, such as health crises in Sweet Salt Air and While My Sister Sleeps. As you probably sense, I haven’t settled on one for this next book. But I’m working on it. This is what I think about most when I’m up aforesaid creek without a paddle.
Okay. Next comes the opening scene. Dreaming this up – actually writing it – gets me in the mood. But it isn’t a frivolous exercise. The opening pages are my very first sales tool. It’s what everyone reads first – not only you readers, but well before that, my publisher and her team, who need to be excited enough about a book to aggressively market and sell it.
Ideally, I also dream up the closing scene. Yup, I try to do that now, before I’ve even begun to write the book. It’s like climbing a mountain, needing to see that peak at the end of the trek.
So that’s what I’m doing as you all wait for the next book. I’m incubating.