This is a story of how I turned an idea, that could fit in two sentences, into a novel. If you want to write a novel, and you’ve only got a tiny smidgeon of an idea, but you’re passionate about it, this might be helpful.
I really did start writing my novel Light Keeping with the absolute bare bones of a story. There was a tragic accident, a lightkeeper and a lighthouse. I wanted to write a story about generations of one family, and I wanted it to be about storytelling. That’s the two sentences!
To expand a little, the novel is about two children who go to live with their grandparents (a lighthouse keeper and his wife) when their parents are killed. They grow up in this wild buffeting environment, deal with love and loss both, and as adults try to make sense of it all.
Learning from other writers
I’m a fan of learning from other writers. Particularly about structure – how the story fits together – because it’s not my strength. The challenge in Light Keeping was how to write a novel that shifted between two time periods, 1977-85 and 2019, and do it well. Plenty of novels move between time periods, but some are more successful than others. So I turned to a novel I greatly admire, No Great Mischief, by Canadian writer Alistair MacLeod, for a model. I charted the development of the novel – a bullet point for each chapter – and used it as a starting framework for my novel. Did I feel as though I was plagiarizing something? Not at all – the two stories were completely different, and very quickly MacLeod’s structure fell away as the momentum of my novel took over. But it gave me a sense of the shape of the story.
Writing a first draft
When I write, I get a first draft down on paper quickly. I don’t worry whether the writing is good or bad, because I know that at least 50% of the work happens in the rewriting. It’s very freeing to write a first draft in this way.
I write the first draft by hand, in pencil. I’m a fast typist (if not very accurate) and for all other work, I write directly onto the keyboard. But writing fiction, or poetry, is a different matter. I think there’s a different relationship between the head and the hand, and the head and the keyboard. Also, when I’m typing, I tend to look at the screen and want to make corrections. When I write by hand I never look back, because I’m totally focused on getting the first draft down.
Research is not only about finding out what you need to know; it’s often about adding layers to a story. Plenty of fiction doesn’t require any research, but I knew writing about a lighthouse would need a lot. I’m not a natural researcher – I tend to research just what I need to know – but doing research for fiction has taken me down all kinds of fascinating roads. With Light Keeping, I expected to spend the first few months of 2020 visiting lighthouses – I love hands-on physical research – but then there was the lockdown. So books and the internet became key resources.
But I also depend on people. Although a lot of writing has to be done individually, I’ve always seen it as a collaborative activity. For example, Ashton McGill, from Maritime New Zealand, read parts of the novel that had to do with the internal construction of a lighthouse. He corrected errors. In one chapter, the child, Jess, knocks on the metal wall of the lighthouse and it rings. Ashton pointed out the metal walls are so thick they won’t make any sound at all. This is the kind of detail you only get from physically visiting a place, or mining the knowledge of someone who knows it well.
Is it important to get details like this right? I believe it is. John Gardner, in his classic book The Art of Fiction, famously writes ‘a true work of fiction… creates a vivid and continuous dream in the reader’s mind.’ In part this means not making mistakes. When the reader encounters an error, just for a moment they no longer believe in that continuous dream. Most readers won’t notice an error like an iron wall not ringing, but the knowledgeable reader will, so I want to avoid those mistakes. Of course, there will be mistakes in this novel – and it is a work of fiction after all – but as much as possible I want to get the underlying reality right.
I started this novel with much less of a plot than I would normally. An advantage of this is the novel grew organically, I think largely because I wrote much of it during the lockdown, which gave me an expanse of free time, and an uncluttered head. The characters slowly fleshed out, and formed histories and opinions. I constantly asked myself questions: what did Jess and Robert, as adults, really think of their parents who had died when they were young? And I made discoveries, for instance, the 1970s was a crucial decade in the process of automating and de-manning lighthouses. The threat of automation worked its way into the heart of the novel, and in fact became a defining part of the family’s history. Now I can’t imagine the novel without that thread.
Raiding my family history
Early on, when I was writing a story in the novel about the ‘singing captain’ as he was known, I realized I was writing a story very similar to part of my family’s history. So I decided to deliberately pull into the novel some family stories – about my seafaring great grandfather, about the Jansen family (my in-laws) and about our own family. It became almost a game, to see what I could sneak in next, and it’s made the novel very personal.
Writing the difficult stuff
Writing a novel can take us down some hard roads. There’s a chapter in Light Keeping I dread reading, even though I wrote it. So why write such a difficult chapter? Because it was inevitable. The story was powering towards this point, and if I was going to be true to it, I needed to write it in that way.
But I also think a writer can choose – to a certain extent – where the story will finally land. I’m not a pollyanna-ish kind of person, but I’m an optimist, and I like to finish with some kind of hope, and Light Keeping does that. For these two adults, deeply affected by events in their childhood, there is a possibility of a different future.
I’ve been writing for the last few hours, getting down this first draft. I’ve written it in pencil, and it’s way too long and all over the place. Now it’s time to type it, cut out chunks, and hammer it into the version you’ve just read. I owe it to you to make it the best I can. Just like a novel.
Light Keeping by Adrienne Jansen, Quentin Wilson Publishing, RRP $37.50