As I begin work on plotting A Novel of America, I thought I would share a glimpse of what's involved from my sessions with James. A. Michener during our collaboration on The Covenant. These items come from my website archives, where the reader can view larger images.
Michener and I brainstormed core ideas for the South African book at his kitchen table in St. Michael's, Maryland. Our starting point involved i) Deciding which key events of South Africa's history we needed to cover ii) Drawing a historical time-line with rough trajectory for the 'movement' of the novel iii) Introducing the forbears of three fictional families – Van Doorns, Nxumalos, Saltwoods – and placing them and their descendants in the historical context, interweaving the imagined with the real.
These pages are from my original scribbling block with penciled notes made as Jim and I sat talking. The names, dates, lines, squiggles, scratches and scrawls were subsequently transferred to a second and tidier pencil draft, then a third "yellow page" draft, and a fourth revision of this. Each stage involved searching discussions on characters, actions and relevance to “the big picture.”
Easily twelve and closer to fifteen hours a day, sweeping back and forth across the centuries, chasing down ghosts of the past to bring back to life in the pages of the novel.
When the time came for Michener to write the first draft, some of my ideas would be scrapped but most found their way into The Covenant alongside Jim's own story-telling, as one might expect in any intimate collaboration between two writers.
Finally, there emerged as comprehensive an Outline as one needed to begin work. Many writers prefer to forge ahead without an outline, and for most this works well; with an epic spanning centuries and with a vast array of characters, a detailed plan is essential. This is not cast in stone but is constantly updated as the manuscript grows and the characters take their own twists and turns through the imagination.
My novel, Brazil, had a similar genesis, with a lengthy plotting session before I set out on my research trip and then returned to sit down and write the book. Like The Covenant, the broad strokes of the Brazil held true from first planning to the end.