Same Writer, Different Voice

When I began the Hamline MFAC program back in 2008, my goal was not to be a published author. I’d already done that. I had six nonfiction books already published and two more in the publishing pipeline. But I had an idea in my head for a novel, and I knew I needed help. I was well-practiced at researching and writing nonfiction, but writing fiction was a very different pursuit. My intended project was historical fiction, and I already had done quite a lot of research in the historical period for a nonfiction book. This should be easy, right? Wrong.
I started this novel in much the same way I began those nonfiction books: Preliminary research followed by more detailed research, an outline (mostly based on historical events) with notes for the plan of the book, an intended word count for the project, and plans for back matter. Now that I think about all that, it makes me laugh at my naiveté. I thought I was writing a novel, but I was really writing a history book with characters sprinkled in.
I struggled with the book on my own for several years before my first semester at Hamline. I was used to the methods I used for writing nonfiction. When I wrote a history book, I knew how the story would end before I ever wrote the first chapter. I could work from my outline and write chapters in order. It was systematic, ordered, and relatively tidy (except for the books and notecards strewn around the house). I knew when I was finished. There is a degree of safety and comfort in that routine.
I had one big goal for myself in the Hamline program: find my novelist’s voice. My first semester, Jane Resh Thomas took me on a journey—but it wasn’t really a journey into my main character, it was a journey into myself. When I explored my own emotions and experiences, I found out more about my main character as well: what she loved, what she feared, what she hated. And I found out that my character was searching for the same thing I was: her voice. And I discovered that I was her major obstacle, not any antagonist in the story. I needed to get out of her way and let her speak for herself.
Transitioning to writing fiction was not easy for me. When I sit down to write, I often feel like Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade, where he steps out into thin air and solid rock appears beneath his foot. It is both scary and exciting at the same time.
Here are some things I love about writing fiction:
  • Sometimes my characters come up behind me and whisper in my ear. They tell me things only they know—things I’ve never thought of before. They speak to me in their own voices, and it’s like music.
  • Sometimes I begin a new chapter with absolutely no idea of what will happen next. If I sit there staring at the blank screen, nothing happens. If I begin to type, dialogue and action will appear on the page.
  • Once in a while a character will totally surprise me with a line of dialogue or a twist that I never saw coming. I’ve been known to laugh out loud when this happens.
  • The line between sanity and delusion may be pretty blurry for a fiction writer. That’s not necessarily bad.
  • If I find myself really “stuck” and can’t move forward with the story, it’s a signal that I made a wrong turn somewhere in the last couple of chapters. I have to retrace my steps and find out where I imposed my own will on my character instead of letting him/her tell the story.
  • The characters I love the most are the ones on whom I inflict the most misery. But I’ll always give them some hope, too.
And here are a couple of things I’ve learned: 
  • No matter how fascinating the historical era (or fantasy/sci-fi world, etc.) of the story is, it is still the setting, not the story itself. Great stories are the stuff of all human life: love, longing, redemption, etc. 
  • Readers may be interested in the world of the story, but they will only love the story if they really believe in the character. 
Will I ever go back to writing nonfiction? Maybe. If I do, I hope that some of the magic of my fiction writing will come along for the ride. And I hope that my novelist’s voice will add a dimension that will make the nonfiction more engaging for the reader.
Debra McArthur is a 2010 graduate of the Hamline MFAC program. She is the author of eight nonfiction books on subjects of history, biography, and literary biography. Her novel, A Voice for Kanzas (Kane Miller, 2012) was her creative thesis at Hamline. She lives, writes, and works in Kansas City, MO. For more about Debra, visit her website.