Beginnings Can Be Hard

I'd forgotten how hard starting a new novel can be.

Until this week when I was staring at a blinking cursor on a blank Word document.

While After Her Death is getting an initial edit under the fine, wise hand of Lee Ann Bisulca (aka, Italian Motorcycle Babe), my brain was begging me to start writing a new story. The idea for this story came to me while I was deep in research for After Her Death. I kept bumping into the little researched, little publicized (at least here in the States) situation of WW2 Polish refugees in Tehran.

At first it was this article.

Then it started cropping up elsewhere. Unfortunately, it was early 2018. I had just started seminary and was trying to finish up Meghan's story in After Her Death. Two years later, thanks to my new baby and COVID-19, my seminary studies were on hold this spring and summer, giving me breathing space to wrap up After Her Death and devote some time to this other story that has claimed my heart.

The past two weeks I've been digging up my old notes and discovering recently published non-fiction books (namely Tehran Children) that pertain directly to the focus of my new novel. I even found an old Iranian documentary from the '70s that had resurfaced on YouTube. These sources, which provide the necessary historical framework, plot direction, and details my story needs, did not exist when the seed idea for this story was implanted. Sometimes it's good to wait and let a story brew a bit.

Also, since I am neither Jewish nor Polish, I want to treat the material as sensitively and carefully as I can, which means probably spending a lot of time in research, and with sensitivity readers from theses cultures as much as possible. Honestly, I've quibbled over whether I'm the right person to tell this story, but I've concluded that sometimes stories just need to be told. Maybe with the right tools, we can give voice to a story outside our experience--especially when aimed at our own subcultures which might not have otherwise paid attention to the story. It is my hope that through this novel, I can point my readership to those from the Jewish community who can speak more authoritatively and empathetically on the issues. I plan to write more on this in a later post.

As I'm doing research for the historical storyline, I'm taking a stab at drafting the contemporary story. Yes, that means this the story has two narratives and yes, I know this is plot device is incredibly popular right now--perhaps has even peaked--but I have always written in this style (After Her Death has a contemporary narrative and a historical one). I don't think I could hack a purely historical novel, and I love seeing how our current worlds informs our interpretation of the old.

Anyway, I've drafted a rather rough first chapter and fleshed out somewhat of a plot outline for moving forward. I'm a pantser, though, so if I plot too much, I lose interest. But wow, I spent a lot of time recently staring at this blank page trying to figure out where to start. Do I start with a little background? A little setting of the stage? Or should I jump in medias res?

I always like a little bit of information about the main characters or setting before getting to some action-otherwise, I have no context, no reason to care about the conflict. So that's where I am at right now. I just wrapped up a family conflict about religious identity over Christmas Eve dinner. We'll see if that scene survives the rest of the story. I'm pretty sure some version it will make it to the final draft, but I don't know if it will be at the start of the story. As I've learned from my writing buddy, Sara Roberts Jones, novel beginnings are hard, and sometimes you have to rewrite the start of a story many times before finding your stride. Regardless, it's still productive labor as snippets of these opening drafts often influence the story downstream, making it a tighter, more complex, more compelling work over all.

But you've got to start somewhere, right?

What about you? How do you like the novels you read (or write!) to begin? What have you started new recently? Quarantining has certainly given us plenty of time for new beginnings!


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