Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Hearing Voices

At one of the Historical Novel Society conference panel discussions, an aspiring writer in the audience asked Margaret George how to handle questions about a character, for example, if one is not sure how a character should look. "Ask her," Ms. George said calmly. "She'll tell you."

Once I would have tittered at this and thought it rather loopy-lou, but now it seems natural, as it probably did for many writers in the audience that day. Characters DO talk to you once you've gotten to know them, and while at first it seems rather scary and schizophrenic, if you let them have their say, you'll have your story. While writing "Sunflowers," I would wake up in the middle of the night and have somebody's lines ready to scribble down, or in the shower, or driving in the a certain point, it was like being a scribe for Imaginary Friends. At lunch one day during the conference, a fellow author asked me did I ever have dreams with my characters. She had, she admitted, experienced a dream recently with a character in her current project where he was quite grumpy with her and urged her to keep working on his story. (He's a historical person, this character, not fictional.) Yes, I answered, but only once. Vincent appeared in one dream about six months into my writing, when I was finally getting the swing of it and really starting to hear the characters. What did we talk about? I don't remember, but I remember he hugged me, and I woke up feeling very peaceful and cozy inside. The author I was speaking with nodded her head. "He was happy," she said. "Happy you were telling his story."

So how does one reach this state of total connection with one's characters? Margaret George, in her keynote speech at the Saturday night banquet, discussed some of her methods: obtaining clothes, jewelry, objects somehow related to the characters and keeping them near; traveling to the places they were; playing music from their time period to create a mood; keeping pictures of relevant artworks nearby. While writing her book on Cleopatra, she even obtained perfume that she felt evoked the character and wore it while she worked. For "Sunflowers," I wallpapered my writing corner with van Gogh paintings cut-out from old calendars, and while I can't listen to music while I write, I did play something from Debussy or other composers from Vincent's time just before starting to work. Getting into his head, though, was easily done through reading his letters. That's how I really started to hear him speak. As for Rachel, she appeared quite naturally, and once she did, I couldn't keep her quiet! There's something magical about it, really, when your creative mind is so active and engaged that the characters' voices flow without prodding. (Writing arguments, I found, is especially fun--suddenly somebody lets loose a real zinger, and you think "Ho! She did NOT go there!" and chuckle with glee as you type the line.) And in some ways, it can't be forced, no matter how many tricks you use. Relaxing and *listening* is the key. They'll talk. Just give them time.

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