I’ve been talking with T.H.E. Hill, the author of Voices Under Berlin: The Tale of a Monterey Mary, the Military Writers Society of America "Book of the Month" for September 2009. (Read the reviews of Voices Under Berlin and the interview with Hill on Blogcritics: Review 1, Review 2, Interview.)
Hill is currently working on his next novel, Reunification: The Tale of One GI's Return to Post-Wall Berlin, quite an appropriate topic for the twentieth anniversary year of the Fall of the Berlin Wall which led to the Reunification of Germany. I asked him to talk about how he goes about the creative process of writing a novel. The comments below are gleaned from a lively eMail exchange on how it works for him:
A novel starts out in my imagination as a single sentence that begins with "What if?" The answer to that question is the novel. Reunification began as "What if a GI who had been stationed in Berlin in the 1970s went back today and met his old German girlfriend?"
I'm one of those writers who lets his characters tell him what to do. I just put them on-page in some situation, and let them start talking. Once they get going, it's really hard to get them to shut up. That's not to say that I never get writer's block. Every now and again my characters go "on vacation" and things grind to a halt.
I have two ways around writer's block. One is that I'm a compulsive outliner. I let the characters do the talking, but I have a list of situations to put them in that forms the outline of the novel. If they quit talking in one situation, I move them to another. Most of the time that gets things going again. The other is that I never only work on one project at a time. I normally have another novel and a non-fiction project in various stages of completion in addition to the "active" project I'm working on. If the characters in the "active" project develop 'lock jaw,' I move to one of the others, and come back when the characters have started talking again.
That fits in with the way I write. I write everywhere: at the computer, on 3X5 cards, old paper napkins, and scraps of paper; at home, walking down the street, on campus, and in restaurants. For some reason, however, I can never write while I'm on or in a mechanical conveyance; a bike, a car, a train, or a plane.
I am an inveterate editor and writer who tinkers with the technical elements of the text, so the final product is always done on-screen on a computer. It is so much easier to make changes and move blocks of text around on the computer. Also, when my characters start talking, I have to write really fast to keep up with them. I can type 60 words a minute, 80 when spelling doesn't count. You can always go back later and run spell-check.
All the "How to write a novel" books I've ever read say to start your story out in the middle of the action, and then explain how your characters got there. That's what I did with Reunification. My "What If?" has two characters in it — the GI and his German girlfriend — so I put them on-page at a party in Berlin where they meet again for the first time.
There are certain biographical elements to Reunification, and I'm doing a first-person narrator, so I began with the GI. The first page starts with:
“I walked up to her and said, ‘Ilse?’ I couldn’t think of anything else to say. ‘Long time no see’ seemed too casual. ‘I know I hurt you’ seemed too cavalier.”
When I started this paragraph, I had no idea what would happen next, but by the time I typed "too cavalier," I knew that Ilse wasn't speaking to him. She was an "actions speak louder than words" type of girl. She hit him. As soon as she hit Mike, her grown son came running over to find out why she'd hit one of his guests. He hadn't been there when I typed "I walked up," but by the time his mother refused to speak to him, I could see and hear him. That's how the action of the novel got started, but the characters are still very flat. After I finish the "action" pass on a chapter, my next step is to flesh-out the characters a little bit. You don't want to do an information dump on the reader. You want to dish out the information little by little until your characters are real people. The first sentence shows that Mike is a thinking character, so between recognizing her and the slap, he needs to say more about himself, and about them: