Last night I had the pleasure of listening to author, Stewart O’Nan, speak. I had never actually heard of this particular author before, but some of his book titles were familiar to me. (And I’ll be familiarizing myself with him soon. I think I’ll start with Snow Angels, but don’t be surprised if my book search leads me in a different direction.) The excerpts he read sparked my interest, especially when he read from his upcoming work.
The best part of an author event, though, is the Q&A portion (READ: the chance to get a window into the author’s process), and his was enlightening.
Some of the most helpful advice I heard was:
ON BEING STUCK: When you’re lost for where to go with your MS, it’s tempting to go to your nightstand reading for inspiration, but O’Nan says, “Stay there” in front of “your machine”. He illustrated this by telling us that he goes so far as to tie a piece of yarn around his leg and attach it to his chair so he can’t get up, but I have my doubts. I just don’t think something as sinewy as yarn could hold him. Rope, or a strong twine, but you get the idea. I’m thinking of investing in Velcro.
ON INSPIRATION: O’Nan says he’s inspired by curiosity. The question he repeated was “How do you do that?” – “How does love turn to hate?” “How does a parent kill their child?” It made a lot of sense to me, since that’s where most of my stories come from. Let’s face it, the greater question that we are always asking is, “What is the human condition, and how would it present in these set of circumstances?”
ON RESEARCH: When describing something unfamiliar, O’Nan says you have to “know [what you’re writing] at least as well as your character”. From this I gathered that if your character has lived in New York City all his/her life you’re probably goIng to have to be pretty familiar with it – at least talk to someone who has lived there. If s/he takes summer trips to Charleston each year, you might want to check out a few local hangouts in the tourist district – the kind of place you wouldn’t try on a first visit, but by the third or fourth would switch to for a change. Here again, I agree. Sure you don’t necessarily have to follow the old “write what you know” adage, but you should know what you write. So look it up, talk to people, go there if you can. It will help make your story that much more real.
I’d like to thank Stewart O’Nan for speaking and UNC for hosting the event. I hope you will look him up, and I hope that some of these notes will help you. I think they are going to help me.