My good friend Craig Lancaster, a Billings-based author who conjures a poignant and hilarious novel every few months, tagged me as part of a blogging exercise that’s been going around. I’ll chat a bit here about my writing process. (That probably should be “writing processes” because I work in several categories: anthology, narrative history and historical fiction.) Then I’ll answer four questions about my work and then tag author friends whose work I admire (and whose methods I’d like to know more about). I’ve learned a lot from reading previous entries and recommend them to you. You can start with Craig’s entry. and then follow it back to David Abrams’ entry. Have fun surfing, then come back to compare my answers when you’re done.
1. What are you working on?
Like most writers, I always have several projects at various stages of development. At the moment I’m:
- Basking the in the glory of my article on the Montana Gin Marriage Law of 1935, which just came out in the summer issue of The Montana Quarterly.
- Working on page proofs for my next book, The Stories of Yellowstone, that Globe Pequot will publish in November.
- Planning to publish my mid-grades novel, Macon’s Perfect Shot, about the adventures of a 14-year-old boy who visits Yellowstone Park in the 1870s.
- Researching my next book, Encounters in Yellowstone, that will tell the stories of tourists who ran afoul of Indians in the park in 1877.
Of course, dozens more ideas are swirling around and trying to coalesce in the cosmic muck of my mind.
And, I’m always monitoring my haiku catcher.
2. How does your work differ from others in its genre?
Most of my work fits in the category of narrative history, and I dabble a bit in historic fiction. I focus on early travel to Yellowstone National Park. They say you should write about what you know and after a decade of research on early Yellowstone travel I’m getting to know that topic pretty well. I do branch out to aspects Montana history, and now and then I work on a memoir about growing up on a Montana cattle ranch.
I am not a historian but a collector and teller of stories. I don’t try to document important facts about the past; instead, I try to recreate how things used to feel. I try to explore the ways universal themes manifest themselves at different times. For example, many of the people I write about were fortune hunters, but they tried to make their fortunes in different ways. The stories of mountain men who sought their fortunes trapping beaver and those of prospectors who wanted to strike it rich panning for gold have interesting similarities and differences.
For me, the story is the thing, but I do care about the facts. Sometimes I work very hard to discover details that explain the motives of the people I write about. After all, it’s the details that bring stories to life. I don’t care if the people and events I write about are important as long as they’re interesting. I don’t care if the people I write about embellish the facts as long as they tell good stories. I don’t fret about verifying every assertion my sources make. Instead, I leave it to my readers to understand that we are all heroes in the stories we tell about ourselves. Of course, I warn my readers when I discover outright fabrications, but I’ll still use a story with caveats. The lies we tell that may say the most about us.
3. Why do you write what you do?
When I left my job as a journalism professor at the University of Tennessee and returned home to Montana in 2003, I started looking for something to do. I always wanted to write, so the questions became “write about what?” I remembered my grandmother’s tales about her trip to Yellowstone Park in 1909 and her grandfather’s trip there in 1883. All I had were dim memories of stories I heard when I was a little boy, so I decided to research early travel to Yellowstone. People have always thought the park was special and many of them left accounts of their trips there in journals, letters, diaries, reminiscences, newspaper articles, books, government reports, etc. At first, I thought the Yellowstone experience was universal, but I soon discovered things changed enormously across time. I’m still mining this rich vein of delightful stories.
4. How does your writing process work?
Haiku: I always keep myself alert in case a haiku happens. It goes something like this:
An idea occurs.
I take it captive with words.
Then I set it free.
Collecting: Because my writing is rooted in the past, I spend a lot of time looking for material in libraries, archives and museum. Also, lots of historical material is now available on the web, so I’m spending a lot of time looking there. I have a collection of more than 400 first-person accounts of early travel to Yellowstone Park that I use a lot. I focus my research on looking for stories, that is, situations where a person faces adversity and deals with it (or sometimes fails to deal with it.) The adversity can be something life-threatening like being attacked by hostile Indians, or humorous like an impatient tourist soaping a geyser to make it play. Sometimes, I read through thousands of words before I find a story I can use. I’ve learned to forge ahead because you never know when you’re going to find a gem on the next page.
Editing: I harvest accounts in their original form and then excerpt the stories I’m going use. How I edit depends on how I’m going to use the stories. If a story is going into an anthology, I work to retain the author’s original voice because that conveys personality and emotion. I edit to correct factual errors and to make the stories accessible to modern readers by doing things like getting rid of archaic vocabulary. Sometimes I condense things as much as 80 percent. For my book, Adventures in Yellowstone, I condensed N.P. Langford’s account of the 1870 Washburn Expedition from 60,000-words to a 10,000-word chapter. For my blog, I cut Lewis Ransom Freeman’s account of running a wooden raft down Yankee Jim Canyon from 7,500 words to 1,500.
Drafting: After materials have been collected and edited, putting together an anthology is mostly a matter of organizing and writing introductions. I try to arrange things so stories flow smoothly together and complement each other. I treat introductions like a fiction writer would and provide just enough context so readers can understand the story. The point of an anthology is to present authors on their own terms, but when I write narrative history or historical fiction, I assert my own voice. In fact, I’m extra careful to avoid being accused of plagiarizing. I try to follow Kurt Vonnegut’s “Eight Rules for Writing,” particularly number 3: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” This keeps things focused on people, their desires and emotions.
Polishing: After I’ve finished a draft, I scrutinize it looking for different things. I focus on one thing at a time because there more important things than I can keep track of at one time. I read through once just for mechanics like spelling and grammar. I read another time just to make sure I’ve used vivid verbs. (I used to tell my writing students: “make things do things to things” and I follow that rule myself. It keeps my verbs simple and in active voice. I read another time checking for what I call “desire lines” (Vonnegut’s rule 3) to make sure it’s clear in every scene what the characters want. I read for coherence, flow and rhythm. I check plot points. I read over and over until changes don’t seem to improve things. If I’m lucky, I have time to set he draft aside for a few weeks before I submit it and go through the process again. Sometimes I go back and read things I wrote years ago. That shows me how I’ve grown as a writer and usually I’m pleased with my work.
That’s it for me. Here are the authors I’ve tagged for next week. Bookmark their blogs so you can see how they do things.
Max is a San Francisco-based author whose trilogy of literary thrillers: Sendaro, Who Sings for the Dead and Lethal Dispatch, gripping tales set in the Amazon rain forests of Peru during the Shining Path uprising of the 1980s.
Blythe’s young adult novel, Black Helicopters, is a chilling tale of a girl raised by survivalists in the Montana wilderness. It was a 2013 Montana Book Award Honor book.
Brad’s 2013 Montana Book Award Honor Book, Opportunity Montana, blends the story of the attempt to restore a river damaged a hundred years ago by industrial pollution with a personal narrative about his relationship with his father.