Saturday, January 17, 2009

Bill Was Writing

By John Ramsey Miller

There is an oft-told story about William Faulkner and I’m not sure if it’s true, but it probably is. One day he was walking near the downtown square in Oxford, Mississippi and someone who knew him socially spoke to him, but he didn’t so much as turn his head to look in her direction when she saluted him. Later she complained to Mrs. Faulkner, who said, “Don’t take it personal Honey, Bill was writing.” It’s a great story, and it applies to so many authors I know. It’s quiet where I live, and I have the luxury of not being interrupted through the days and nights. I do my best writing when I’m using a chain saw, building something, or driving, and when I’m plotting in my head I am oblivious to everything.

We fiction authors are a group of individuals who have so much in common. What we do is ninety percent mental and ten per cent physical. Kate Miciak, my editor at Bantam, told me that good writing requires deep thinking, and I think about what I’m going to write a lot more than I write. I think that’s true for most of us, and if it isn’t it should be. If you are writing without planning where you are going, your work could probably be a lot better.

I’ve had a long-running discussion with Gilstrap over many a cocktail ….many, many a cocktail about process. We’ve discussed this and I think John may have blogged this one, and if so I apologize for repeating it. I heard an author say recently that he creates his characters and follows them around recording what they say and do. My characters don’t write the books, I do, and I can’t imagine how much LSD I’d have to eat so that I could follow them around and record what they do. It seems absurd to me that you can let fictional characters dictate to you, but it may be true. I create my characters and I dictate what they will do on my pages, and by God they do it. Unless my editor says they can’t, or they shouldn’t oughta do it, or that it couldn’t happen in a hundred million years, not even if we’re talking California. And I never talk California, nor do I allow my characters ever to go there. They can go as far west as Las Vegas, but no farther. A character off on their own could get stuck in California, and I’m not about to go way out there to fetch them back, or follow them across Death Valley with my pen flying.

I haven’t been writing much for the past few days because I’ve been winterizing my pump house, and the chicken coop because the Yankees are sending their damned cold weather down here. Heated water bowls, brooder heat lamps, thick layer of sawdust on the floor, covers on the outside faucets, stacking firewood close to the house, and gathering chestnuts to roast. I don’t want my rooster’s comb to get frostbitten and turn black, which can happen and could seriously diminish his sex appeal although he’s the only rooster in the yard and the hens have no choice in mates. Cold is an unwelcome export and definitely not a Southern thing and from here on out none of my characters will be allowed in the North in winter, although my villains might well come from there.

I am going to try to write a few hours every day on my new book, regardless of the weather. It’s hard to write on a book that’s set (at its beginning) in the Louisiana Lakes area south of Houma in August. Think par-broil. I fish there a few times a year, and there isn’t a more beautiful place on earth and although I’ve used the locale in other books, I’ve never had a Cajun protagonist before. I like Cajuns. They talk funny but there’s nothing funny about them if you piss them off. How do y'all feel about Cajuns?

That’s it for this week.


  1. "I do my best writing when I’m using a chain saw . . ."

    It's the shower for me. It seems that the mindless repetitive chore of taking a shower releases my subconscious and the ideas flow. Most of the time is spent dealing with solving plot problems.

  2. A good friend of mine, Charlie, has Cajun roots, being a Louisiana native and such. He uses the word, "coon-ass" a lot, as a descriptor for a wide variety of people. It's an odd word, with vaguely racist overtones, and when I asked him about it, he told me that it doesn't have a meaning, really, it's just a term they use.

    Later that day, while hanging out with some of his associates, I used the word in an attempt to fit in. Conversation stopped and people looked funny at me. As my host and protector, Charlie said, "John, people from Virginia best not talk like that around here."

    And I still don't know what the damn word means.

  3. Love that story about Faulkner. That's always my trick, to go for a nice long walk when I'm stuck on a plot point.
    Barring your characters from California, though, that's just cruel...

  4. I totally understand about not letting your characters into California. I moved to California and all sorts of strange things happened. But speaking of strangely great, I love the idea of a Cajun protagonist. Since large portions of my family are still in southern Alabama I have to include a link to a clip of Cajun and Zydeco dancing in Huntsville, AL.

  5. The term "coonass" is thought to haev been derived from the continental French word "connasse," which means "stupid girl/woman" (the qualifier for a male is "connard") There are others who say it comes from Cajuns who fought in the Battle of New Orleans and wore coonskin hats. Lower class Cajuns refer to each other that way, but when used buy outsiders it is aking to using the "N" word in Watts.

    Hope this helps

  6. Where was my editor when I needed him?

  7. My best writing tends to come in long spurts while I am in the middle of working...downside is my job is prone to interruptions that I must answer, since that is what they pay me for.

    I used to live near and work with a whole family of Cajun's all the way up here in the Alaska bush. Couldn't understand two thirds of the words they said, but man could they hunt...and fish...and ride horses.