Road, Neighborhood, Sky: A Three-Layered Approach to Writing a Novel

During the launch events for Queen of the Owls, I was often asked: “What’s your writing process like?”  People wanted to know if I had a routine, method, daily word count, comfort food, or other habit that carried me from story idea to published book. Since I tend to avoid routine, I usually muttered something about ideas coming to me in the shower and the oscillation between frenzy and sloth.  In fact, “writing process” wasn’t something I thought about. I thought about what I was writing, not how I was writing it.


Later, though, I got interested in the question and began to realize that I really do have a particular way I go about writing a novel, even though I’d never formulated it—until now.


I’m calling my process Road, Sky, Neighborhood—three nouns that signify the three realms in which I work. Not all at once, and not sequentially, but shifting among them, each shedding new light on the others.


  • By Road, I mean the forward-moving path of the story, the chain of events that take the reader from the first scene of the book to the last (even if the story doesn’t follow a strict chronology)

  • By Sky, I mean the analytic or thematic level, which exists at a “higher conceptual altitude,” above the path of the story events

  • By Neighborhood, I mean all the elements that surround the story—the setting, the details of the characters’ lives, the supplementary information I need to gather (so-called “background research”) that gives the story texture and depth

I’ll give some examples so you can see what I mean, drawing from my own work because that’s what I know best.


Road:


When I worked on Queen of the Owls, I had a general vision of the road ahead, right from the start. I knew who was driving the car, where she started, and where she needed to end up—but very little else.  I didn’t know all the stops she would need to make along the way, nor the potholes and traffic jams she would encounter. I had the bones of the story, but not the details. In writer-talk, I didn’t know all the plot-points and events.


In fact, I don’t find it especially helpful to know all the details ahead of time—that would be like starting on a road trip, already knowing exactly what you’ll be ordering at every diner along the way! Nor am I someone who simply sets out and hopes for the best.


For me, it’s more like the experience of driving in the fog. You know your eventual destination, as well as the major turns and highways you’ll have to take, and you can see some of what’s around and ahead, but not everything. As you move forward, the next segment of road gradually comes into view, becoming more and more distinct as you approach. You can’t see everything that’s ahead, only as far as the next streetlight—the next part of the story, bit by bit. And then, when you circle back and drive that road again, you see things you missed. That’s the process of revision, when you catch you need to add, delete, enrich, or change.


Neighborhood:


At various points during my writing process—not just during the “advance research,” but periodically—I get off the main road to explore the surrounding neighborhood. There’s much to learn from the landscape, the architecture, the characters who lived in the houses and walk along the streets. For example, there’s an evocative scene early in Queen of the Owls when Elizabeth, the protagonist, visits the greenhouse at the university where she works. I knew I couldn’t write that scene “from the road.” I had to enter that greenhouse, see the colors, experience the sensation of the heavy moist heat. Sometimes I do that literally, and sometimes it’s in my memory or imagination. And out of that “side trip,” an important scene came to me—a key moment that could have happened nowhere else and that activates the longing that propels Elizabeth into the acts that follow.


While I explore the neighborhood, I get to know the people who inhabit the side streets—touring their homes, poking into their cupboards and closets and photo albums, sharing a cup of coffee. With Queen of the Owls, the more I got to know the secondary characters, the more they showed me what they could do to enhance the narrative and move the plot toward its necessary conclusion. I imagined what they looked like, heard their voices; in some cases, I even wrote their backstories, although those backstories don’t (and shouldn’t) appear in the final book.


Another aspect of the neighborhood, in addition to its setting and inhabitants, is its history. With Queen of the Owls, that meant learning about Georgia O’Keeffe, whose life and art frame the story. To get to know O’Keeffe, I not only read everything about her that I could find, but went to see her paintings and the places she had lived, literally exploring her neighborhood!


I’ve done that with each of my other books, too.  For my second book (coming in April 2021) which is framed by music, I found that I had to keep returning to the piano, which I play, to re-ground myself in the world of the protagonist. I also listened to a lot of music and spoke with professional musicians—which I’m not—so I could understand their struggles. For my third book (even though I’m only on the first draft), I’ve taken multiple side-trips to learn about glassblowing, the art form that anchors the story. I spent two days at the Corning Museum of Glass, interviewed glassblowers, and watched them work. I even found a Dutch glass artist whose work is eerily relevant to my book, and we’ve developed a strong virtual friendship. And yes, I tried it myself!


Sky:


In contrast to the lateral movement and sensory immersion in what I’m calling the neighborhood, there’s also a vertical movement into the “higher altitude” of the sky where I look down at the road from a more cerebral, analytical perspective. It’s here that I ponder what my writing mentor Sandra Scofield calls a book’s aboutness—its essence, themes, and motifs—as well as the “story logic” of cause-and-effect.


I keep a separate analytic document (several, actually) throughout my writing process, adding and changing them as the story evolves. They help me to think and choose. What makes this kind of document different from an outline is that items are organized conceptually, not sequentially, although sometimes it’s both.


For example, while I was writing Queen of the Owls, I had one document that mapped out the four key “peaks” in the story, each depicting a major step Elizabeth takes—something she actually does, after which things can’t be the same. Between each of these peaks, I filled in the minor steps leading up to it and the consequences that followed. I didn’t know what all the minor steps and consequences were when I began to write, so I added them gradually. Without that analytic document, I wouldn’t have known what I needed or where to place them.


I had another document that organized and tracked the roles Elizabeth plays—since Queen of the Owls is about her search for a truer self behind all those roles—and the settings in which she plays them. That allowed me to create scenes, at key points in the story, when a role intruded into a setting where it didn’t belong or two roles collided. It also allowed me to make the setting more intentional—for example, to change a neutral coffee shop to a children’s playground, where Elizabeth’s role as mother would be evoked and intrude into an erotically-charged scene with an enticing photographer, adding conflict and tension.


Another document I like to create is one that tracks the appearance of an object—an icon—that represents the protagonist’s journey. For Elizabeth’s journey from concealment to exposure, the gradual removal of her clothing and the “journey” of her nude photos (spoiler alert if you haven’t read the book yet) needed to unfold through moments of increasing visibility and intensity. I needed to track where they occurred in the book and to make sure the spacing was right. I also did that for less central items. One was hair, which recurred throughout the book in different characters and different ways, illustrating their attitudes toward their female selves.


In the new book I’m working on, the protagonist’s journey from the “planned” to the “unplanned” (from contraction and safety to expansion and risk) proceeds through literal changes in her route through Iceland. Each deviation is a bigger shift than the previous ones, bringing greater vulnerability—and greater possibility.


There are many kinds of analytic documents, depending on the nature and needs of the story.  For me, stepping away from the story to think from this kind of “higher altitude” always leads to fresh insights and a clearer sense of what is needed. It’s an important way that I become surprised and delighted.


The way these three parts of the process work together will always be different, and there are no rules for when or how often it’s helpful to shift from one to the other. For some writers, the analytic realm might not be as natural or appealing as forays into the adjacent neighborhood, or vice versa. Me?  I really need all of them! I find that each perspective has something important to offer as I seek to create the very best version of my story that I can.


What about you? Does one of these dimensions appeal to you more than the others? Does one seem entirely foreign to your way of working? Are you tempted to give it a try now? Do you go back-and-forth, as I do, or do you work more sequentially, moving from concept to detail?








About

Barbara Linn Probst is a writer, blogger, former teacher and therapist, and “serious amateur” pianist living on an historic dirt road in New York’s Hudson Valley. Her debut novel QUEEN OF THE OWLS launched in April 2020 from She Writes Press--the story of a woman’s search for wholeness framed around the art and life of Georgia O’Keeffe. QUEEN OF THE OWLS has garnered stellar advance praise and will be the May 2020 selection for the Pulpwood Queens, a network of nearly 800 book clubs across the U.S. It was also .


Her second novel is slated for publication in April 2021. Before switching to fiction, Barbara published two nonfiction books and more scholarly articles than she cares to remember. She’s proudest of WHEN THE LABELS DON’T FIT (Random House, 2008), a book to help parents raise, understand, and nurture out-of-the-box children. An out-of-the-box child herself, Barbara has a PhD in Clinical Social Work and worked for many years counseling, teaching, doing qualitative research, and advocating for people with mental and emotional challenges.