In 1987, when I was 35 and had two small children, I sat down one morning in September, took out my Waterman pen and a legal pad, and wrote the words, "I was fifteen when I first met Sherlock Holmes, fifteen years old with my nose in a book as I walked the Sussex Downs, and nearly stepped on him."
The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, as that book eventually came to be called, taught me everything I know about writing. Writing is fun and writing is frustrating and if one is very, very lucky, writing is a way to pay the bills without having to punch into a time clock, but most of all, writing is work. Writing is sitting in a chair and making oneself produce words, even though they’re not the best words, sometimes not anywhere close to the best words, sometimes they’re just barely adequate words, but writing is putting words on paper, so that’s what a writer does, even if every one of those words need to be pushed around again later.
Twenty years and eighteen books later, that is pretty much what I know about writing: that you have to sit down and do it in order to get it done.
But sometimes, if the wind is right and the morning coffee has been precisely the strength needed and the gods of storytelling have been propitiated correctly, the writer receives a gift. The Muses take hold of pen or keyboard and drive the story in their own fashion, and a scene, or a chapter, or a plot twist comes out exactly, gleamingly, perfectly right. The only thing the writer can do to solicit the gift is to sit at the keyboard and plug away, sweating one word at a time, churning out one dead and awful phrase after another until the Muses take pity and lift the writer’s prose into a brief and perfect flight.
And sometimes it happens early on, and spoils the writer for any other job, forevermore.
I could not have invented Mary Russell. That is to say, I could have, since I did, but had I sat down that September morning and told myself that what I needed was a character who was absolutely clear in my mind yet who gave me all kinds of flexibility in plot and development; who was young enough to grow before my eyes yet mature enough that I never became impatient with her; who was enough like me that I felt I knew her but who could go ten books and still surprise me and keep me on my toes. Who was from a time I had never seen and a country that was not my own. Who could interact with another writer’s character, a figure the whole world knew intimately yet whom I had scarcely met, and force him to reveal unexpected, yet completely reasonable, sides of his personality.
Had I told myself all that, I would have put the cap back on my pen and gone to weed the vegetable patch. Fortunately, the Muses struck and Mary Russell came to life, all on her own.
Laurie R. King is the bestselling author of 18 novels, from the Edgar Award-winning A Grave Talent to 2009's The Language of Bees. She is a third generation native to Northern California, holds a BA degree in comparative religion and an MA in Old Testament Theology, and has spent much of her life traveling, raising children, and renovating old houses. She now lives a genteel life of crime, back again in northern California. For more information, visit her website at www.LaurieRKing.com.
Image Credit: Red Bat Photography.