Building a character's world

The following comes straight from my newsletter, Lo & Behold, which I send out once a month. If you haven't subscribed yet, here's an example of what you could get in your in box. Read to the end to find out how you can win an advance copy of my next novel, too!

A dragonfly I photographed in early July

A dragonfly I photographed in early July

It's mid-July, and summer is finally here in Massachusetts.

This year, summer has meant sudden, booming thunderstorms; rain drenching the grass every few days. On sunny days I go for a walk first thing in the morning, so I can get my exercise in before the humidity steams up, sticky and salty. On cooler nights we open the windows and turn on the fans to blow in the air. I fall asleep with a breeze on me; I wake up to a cacophony of birds in the trees that surround the house.

I've been purposely quieter on the internet this summer because I've felt like I needed a break from the noise. I probably follow too many political pundits and not enough calming voices. But I'm also sort of defensively taking some space for myself as I approach two things: the publication of A Line in the Dark in October, and the start of drafting my next novel.

I know that when A Line in the Dark comes out, I will need to be out there full throttle for a little bit, and I want to shore up some inner reserves of me-time before then. When you're a writer, you do most of your work alone, and even if you enjoy public events (which I do — and I'm really excited about the stuff in the works for this fall!), the sudden change from writing at home to talking about yourself and your book in public can be quite disorienting — even a little surreal. After years of thinking about this thing in your mind, all of a sudden you have to vocalize your thoughts about it out loud in front of audiences.

At the same time, I'm deep in research mode for my next novel, Last Night at the Telegraph Club, which is set in 1950s San Francisco. I'm reading about gay bars, Chinatown beauty pageants, vice raids, McCarthyism, and juvenile delinquents. I have lesbian pulp novels on my nightstand, documentaries about nightclubs waiting on my desk, and stacks of academic articles to read.

Recently, someone asked me when you know you've done enough research, and I probably gave them a terrible answer because I didn't really know. But I'm beginning to feel that I'm almost ready to start writing. I think that for me, I'm can't begin until I have a firm grasp on the world of the book. Maybe that's because I started off writing fantasy. I don't feel that I can really get into a character's head until I know what the world she lives in is like. That world shapes who she is; it both limits and challenges her. I'm getting there with 1950s San Francisco. That world is coming into focus in my imagination now, and I can't wait to walk down those streets with my main character.

Similarly, before I started writing A Line in the Dark, I spent some time fleshing out the world that the main character lives in. The novel is set in West Bedford and East Bedford, Massachusetts, two fictional towns that are inspired by real-world places. I visited the physical locations that approximated the places in the book, and I tried to translate them onto the page through the eyes of Jess Wong, the main character. She sees a darker world behind what many others would see as quaint New England.

If you'd like to get an early glimpse into Jess's world before A Line in the Dark is published, stay tuned! I'll be giving away three advance review copies of the book next month, via my newsletter, Lo & Behold. If you're not already a subscriber, you can subscribe here. The next issue will come out in mid-August with instructions on how to enter the giveaway. Meanwhile, I hope you're enjoying your summer, wherever you are!

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