Monday, April 26, 2010

I'm Erin Hart, and I write slowly.

By Erin Hart

My name is Erin, and I’m a slow writer.

We’re talking tortoise-speed. Molasses-in-January slow.

I don’t suppose that comes as a complete surprise to anyone who knows me well. In medieval history class years ago, each student had to come up with an emblem for a personal coat of arms. Mine featured a snail couchant (how else?), and the motto, “L’escargot, c’est moi.”

I could make up a whole lot of excuses, or tell you that I work slowly on purpose, deliberately honing and shaping language, setting up a strong sense of place, developing three-dimensional characters, gathering up and tying all the disparate plotlines into a delightfully satisfying knot. I’d like to say that I’m just that choosy about what I put down on the page.

But the plain truth is that I have no idea how to write any faster.

One of the main reasons that I’m so slow is that I have no idea who the killer is when I begin writing a book. Seriously. (And by the way, that’s true of about ninety percent of crime writers I’ve polled over the years.) I may have some theories about whodunit, but sometimes I’m completely off the mark.

As a result, my novels develop at a pace that is somewhat leisurely (some might even say glacial), but it’s a fact that seems quite beyond my control. So when people ask, “What’s your typical writing day like?” I’ve taken to quoting Oscar Wilde:

“I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.”

Some days are like that. Or worse. All right, so a lot of the agony of creation is just second-guessing oneself, riding the see-saw over every adverb and pronoun, endlessly tweaking dialogue and description, tossing out page after page of drecky first, second, and third drafts, and re-reading prose that seemed so brilliant yesterday only to find that it’s turned to absolute rubbish in the space of twenty-four hours.

I first heard the story that inspired my first novel, HAUNTED GROUND, in the summer of 1986: two brothers cutting turf in the west of Ireland stumbled upon the perfectly-preserved, severed head of a beautiful red-haired girl. Although my first instinct said that I’d just been handed a perfect opening for a mystery, I didn’t write a single word of that story for a full decade. In my own defense, there was a hurdle. Just a minor thing, really—I wasn’t a writer. Had never written anything except a few angst-ridden songs as an angst-ridden teenager, plus all the usual term papers for school. I never had dreams of becoming a writer. I always read like a fiend, but somehow writing books was outside the sphere of possibility. Until I heard the story of that red-haired girl. She continued to haunt me, eventually forcing me to try my hand—even ten years later.

I began writing HAUNTED GROUND in 1996. As I recall, Frank McCourt had just published ANGELA’S ASHES, which won huge critical acclaim and became an instant bestseller. And as I also recall, my wonderfully patient agent kept urging me to hurry up and finish my novel before all things Irish went out of fashion. (Not realizing, I guess, that thanks to the Famine and resulting diaspora, Irish-ness has never gone out of fashion, and probably never will.)

So HAUNTED GROUND came along at its own pace, which turned out to be roughly sixteen years from initial idea to publication. There are probably several main reasons for its long gestation: I was pretty busy, working full time, and freelancing as a theater critic and writing teacher. I had never written a novel and had to learn how to construct a mystery as I went along. (In this one respect, ignorance was my friend—I didn’t know that I couldn’t write a novel, because I’d never tried.) On top of all that, I also had to do an awful lot of research—reading dozens of books, interviewing experts on wetland and dryland archaeology, forensic science, museum preservation, antiquities, Irish history, architecture, police procedure—the list goes on and on. Finally, there was that pesky streak of perfectionism that made me re-work the manuscript over and over again, trying to make the story on the page at least approach the complex, utterly brilliant story that existed in my imagination.

Some writers can actually make a plan and churn out so many hundred words a day. Or they schedule six months for research, three months for a first draft, and three months for revision, and voilá—at the end of a year they have a finished manuscript. Although writing is my full-time job these days, my so-called “process” is completely unpredictable and organic. The initial idea generates the first few chapters, and (ideally) a setting and a theme to explore. The setting and theme in turn trigger the research; the research scours up all sorts of interesting details and connections that go back into the story through the plot and characters. Eventually, the process becomes ever more circular: one thing feeds the other, to the point that the writing and the research become virtually inseparable. For me, there’s no other way to fashion the many layers necessary for a satisfying story.

“Surely it gets easier with the second or third book?” hopeful readers sometimes ask. “Once you get the hang of it.”

In fact, LAKE OF SORROWS, my second book, seemed to follow directly on the heels of the first—it was published just eighteen months after HAUNTED GROUND, even though it actually took three years to write, most of that time that was invisible to readers, since it was masked by the two full years of editing, design, promotion, and marketing that it takes to launch a debut novelist these days.

FALSE MERMAID, the third and latest in the series, also had quite a long gestation—five and a half years from inception to publication. To be honest, the third book was a real struggle—partly because it was such a different animal from the first two: much more psychological, and much more focused on the experiences of a single character, pathologist Nora Gavin. I struggled with the fragments of backstory I’d set up in the previous books—Nora’s sister Tríona had been murdered, most likely by her husband, but I didn’t want to make it an open-and-shut case. If it were that simple, I told myself, the crime would have been solved long ago. No, there had to be something extra mysterious about Nora’s sister and the circumstances that led to her terrible death. And then there was my own penchant for parallel mysteries, one contemporary and one historical, that would somehow come together at the end of the book. It also didn’t help that most of FALSE MERMAID was set in Saint Paul, Minnesota—my wonderful home town, but far from the exotic and other-worldly Irish locales that usually get my creative juices flowing.

So it took a while. And people started to get impatient. In the last few months before FALSE MERMAID was finished, I was out weeding the garden, and a neighbor’s car came screeching to a halt at the curb. She rolled down the window: “Where’s the new book?”

A few weeks later, just before the first frost, I was painting the trim around our new garage door. Another neighbor, out walking her dog, stopped to ask, “What are you doing out here? Why aren’t you inside writing?”

When at last I had galleys in hand, and began making calls to bookstores, Sara Barnes from Booked for Murder in Madison, Wisconsin, said she got questioned fairly often about when I’d have a new book out: “I try to explain that you probably have a personal life. No one gives a rip. Sorry, but they want you chained to that desk.”

After FALSE MERMAID was released on March 2, the most wonderful (and depressing) reader response went something like this: “I gobbled it up in a single sitting! When is your next book out?”

I guess I still don’t have the hang of writing novels on a tight schedule. I’m beginning to get the feeling that I never will. For now, I just have to accept the way I work (see escargot reference, above) and continue to forge ahead.

I’m thinking of starting a support group for slow writers.

Here’s hoping that in Book Four, I’ll find out whodunit sooner rather than later. I’ve got a killer opening: a man driving a backhoe discovers a car buried in a bog... with the body of a ninth-century monk in the boot. “How on earth did a ninth-century monk get into the boot of a car?” I hear you ask.

Honest answer? Right now, I haven’t the foggiest. But I’m planning to have fun figuring it out!

Before straying serendipitously into crime fiction, Erin Hart worked as an arts administrator, editor, copywriter, journalist and theater critic. Her debut novel, HAUNTED GROUND (Scribner, 2003), introduced Irish archaeologist Cormac Maguire and American pathologist Nora Gavin. In addition to being included on several "Best" lists, HAUNTED GROUND won the Friends of American Writers award and Romantic Times' Best First Mystery, was shortlisted for Anthony and Agatha awards, and translated into eleven foreign languages. LAKE OF SORROWS (Scribner, 2004) was shortlisted for a Minnesota Book Award and also published around the world. FALSE MERMAID, third in the series, was published by Scribner in March 2010 to broad critical acclaim. Erin and her husband, Irish button accordionist Paddy Orien, live in Minnesota and travel frequently to Ireland. Visit her website at:


Marcia Talley said...

Thanks, Erin. It's nice to know I'm not alone, moving those commas in and out!

Fab cover, BTW.

Ann Best said...

I write slowly too. Very slowly. Which may be why I am publishing a book quite late in my life. Though I have published some poems and stories. I'm glad I found you - a new writer and blogger. I am putting your books on my wish list and hope to read at least one soon. I will be back to read more on your blog and website.

Sheila Connolly said...

Whatever you're doing, it works--I love your series.

I'm on the other end of the spectrum: I write fast. I tell other writers that and they want to hit me. Sorry--that's just the way it comes out.

Can't wait for the new book. A car in a bog and a monk? What more can one ask for?