Deborah Jackson

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Extremist . . . of Novel Writing (or How My Ideas and Characters Were Developed)

Your book ideas come about . . . how, why??

The twelve year old at your next workshop asks: how do you get your ideas? Are they floating around in the air and you just pluck them out of the sky? The journalist eyes you during that long, unnerving interview and says, "Interesting topics," or more like, "Rather bizarre adventures you cook up there, Ms. So and So? Where in the world do you get your ideas?"

Well, I'm an extremist. No, no, not the way you think. I seek out the most extreme environment on earth, or elsewhere—Antarctica, World War II in the midst of Nazi oppression, the barren desert dunes along the Nile, a cave, but not just any cave—the most treacherous cave that ever existed (or in my case, a combination of the most treacherous caves that ever existed rolled into one) or the moon—and I leap into true tales about real life adventure. The idea begins with what I'm interested in, but the idea expands when I begin to read . . .

Caves turn to cultures. History is whittled down to the bare bones of history—the people who lived it. I explore environments, then I explore people.

J. K. Rowling mentioned in her speech to Harvard graduates that empathy is essential for every human being, particularly those from a more privileged background. In order to write about people from history (and the current age) I need to understand them and empathize with their struggles. That is why I begin to understand the issues of poverty the Maya face in Mexico, the plight of the Jewish people hiding in cellars, attics and under chicken coops during World War II, the alternate reality of pharaohs and slaves, even the difficulties of a young girl forced to endure the divorce of her parents and having to move to a new city with no friends. I empathize, I create characters close to the real thing. My ideas spring from a jumble of setting, potential plot, and an explosion of adventure, but they really boil down to people, and that's when I start to write.

So is the extremism really about ideas and unique environments, or is it that authors dig too deep, sometimes, to generate a believable character?

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