I tend to read novels set in whatever time period I am writing about. I like to see how other authors tackle the tricky problems involved in writing historical fiction: authenticity vs. info dumps, history vs. imagination, how they invent the past.
During the years I worked on the medieval books, I read a heap of Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael books. Fabulous books.
I also read a lot of middle grade novels since that’s what I write.
At the moment I’m reading the delightful Bob by Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead about Livy and her friend, Bob, a short, greenish creature dressed in a chicken suit, and Catherine Gilbert Murdock’sThe Book of Boy, in which a Medieval child named Boy discovers his courage, his skills, and his wings—literally. I’m loving it.
My question to several writers I admire: “I find it profoundly difficult these days to be a writer. My inspiration and enthusiasm have been buried so far below an onslaught of awful news headlines and downright hate, trauma, and tragedy that I struggle to reach them. What’s a girl to do? In a world so woeful and broken, how can I dig beneath the heartbreak and create? Do you have the same thoughts? If so, how do you free yourself to write during these confusing and troubling times?”
I have received thoughtful and inspirational answers. I’m happy to share them with you here over the summer. I’m posting them in a random order, as I received their responses. If you have your own thoughts about these questions, I hope you’ll comment.
Susan Cooper writes:
Dear Karen, dear Anywriter,
This is certainly an awful time, but I’m old enough to remember other awful times: the terror of nuclear confrontation over the Soviet bases in Cuba; the fury that sent us thronging the streets about the Vietnam war and the million-plus deaths it caused. We survived those as writers and we’ll survive this one, if we can avoid despair.
How? We’re writers, we have always led a double life. The writer’s mind has always been split between the rational life in the real world, and the story life that he/she creates. Times like today, we have to work harder at the first so we can escape from it into the second.
Here’s the only advice I can give to myself, and to you: First, focus hard on real life, on yourself as citizen. Do what you can to change or protest our present dangers: march, write, spend money, beg, nag, implore, shout. However little you achieve, you’re taking positive action, which releases pressure, lessens guilt—and frees the imagination.
Then the imagination, which made us all writers in the first place, will be waiting. It’s fed by real life, by that compost heap that’s made of everything and everybody we have met or done or read or thought, but it has an absolutely separate life of its own. We know that. Our stories come out of it, and they reach out to the imagination of the reader, and the two connect. Those of us whose stories connect with children probably have the same quality of imagination that we had when we were children ourselves. (“It seems my child-self is alive and well,” said Maurice Sendak.) The imagination is the place where we live. Half the time.
Go there, the way you always do when you’re between books and don’t know what to write next: go there, do nothing, listen to wordless music, walk to nowhere, read something, anything. Real life has not gone away, but it is a noise in the background. The imagination wants you to write, it will tell you what to write. It will take some of us into the past, some into a future dystopia, some into fantasy. It is the antidote to despair—especially if you are published for children, because the one thing your book must not offer that young connecting imagination is despair.
Hang on to hope. Write.
Susan Cooper is the author of the classic five-book sequence The Dark is Rising, which won a Newbery Medal, a Newbery Honor Award, and two Carnegie Honor Awards. Born in England, she was a reporter and feature writer for the London Sunday Times before coming to live in the United States. Her writing includes books for children and adults, a Broadway play, films, and Emmy-nominated screenplays. Her most recent books for children are Ghost Hawk, King of Shadows and Victory, and for adults a portrait of Revels founder Jack Langstaff called The Magic Maker. In 2012, Susan was given the Margaret A. Edwards Award and in 2013 she received the World Fantasy Award for life achievement.Susan lives and writes in Marshfield, Massachusetts. Visit her website.
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