It’s time to resurrect one of my favorite bits of this blog — the Inside Track. On the Inside Track, writers stop by to share insights about how their work came to be written. I can’t think of anyone better that Stephen Leigh to offer this sort of story, especially about his most recent novel, IMMORTAL MUSE. As Stephen Leigh and S.L. Farrell, Steve has written professionally for almost forty years. He has created dozens of short stories and over twenty novels. So he knew exactly what he was setting himself up for when he came up with a complex plot spanning over 700 years…. In Steve’s own words:
My novel, IMMORTAL MUSE, will be released next week on March 4. It’s been a long haul, this one. I put the first words down on the novel in April of 2010 — April 1, to be exact. Yeah, I know… not the most auspicious day to begin a book.
In my experience, a writer learns something new with every book, because every book will present its own distinct challenges. With IMMORTAL MUSE, the largest of those challenges for me was structure. Without giving away plot spoilers, the book follows a character from the late 1300s, with stops here and there throughout time in various locations, and finally ends up in contemporary New York City.
Mind you, the book didn’t start out with that premise. No, I was originally thinking that this was going to be a contemporary fantasy about a genuine muse — nothing more. That was the plan — and it would have been easier. But as I was thinking about this muse and building her story in my notes, I realized she had a much longer (and colorful) history than just what happened in the present time, and the desire to show the reader that history became, well, overwhelming.
I think it was my own muse insisting that muses need more room.
Writing a novel is also like architecture: each novel has to have a good foundation on which the plot rests, that builds up from there into its own unique and ornate edifice. The obvious structural choice seemed to be simple chronological order: start in the 1300s, and with each section of the book, step forward in time until we hit the present day. Simple and straightforward. That was my next thought. My muse disagreed, and told me so. She folded her arms and refused to work on the book if it was going to be done that way.
The problem was that I knew the NYC present-time section was going to be far longer than any of the past sections, which made that structure feel (metaphorically) unbalanced to me. And heck (my muse whispered), simple and straightforward can also be boring. I wrestled with how to erect the framework and plot of the book even as I plunged into research for it… and there was a lot of that: by the time I finished this book, I’d read some dozen nonfiction books on the various time periods and characters I intended to borrow from history, as well as innumerable internet-based articles. (I love research, though, since doing that always rewards the writer with a multitude of little details and ideas that would never have occurred to us otherwise — that’s another “inside secret” of the trade.)
It finally occurred to me that the structure the book must have was that of a “Dagwood Sandwich”, with the contemporary NYC scenes being the slices of bread and the past scenes being the various ‘fillings’ between them. The more I thought about that, the better it felt (and the less my muse complained), and so that’s what I ended up drafting out: I started in contemporary NYC, laid in a chunk of backstory; then more NYC, then more backstory, moving forward in time with each new section, and letting the backstory shed thematic light on what was happening in the current-time scenes.
And since there were nine muses in mythology, it seemed appropriate that I’d have nine sections, each section consisting of a section of contemporary NYC, and a section from the past. As I wrote the initial draft, I felt more and more comfortable with that structure, and more pleased with the architecture of the story… and as a writer, hey, I’d learned a whole new foundational trick!
Mind you, there were other significant changes and choices that I ended up having to make along the way as well… but those are stories for another day.
Visit Stephen Leigh’s website: http://www.farrellworlds.com
Preorder IMMORTAL MUSE (until March 5, then buy the book outright!): Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s | iBooks