The Last Sentence–For Now: Thoughts on Finishing the Rough Draft of a Novel

On Easter Sunday I did something I’d been fantasizing about for a long time:  I wrote the last paragraph, the last sentence, the last period of my novel.  As it happened, the day was warm and sunny, and I wrote this long awaited conclusion (long awaited by me, that is) with a pencil, sitting at an outdoor table drinking coffee.  It was about as idyllic a literary moment as one could wish for. 

Then I got up, went to my non-idyllic laptop, typed the conclusion into the huge Word file that contains my novel, and I thought, “Okay, 610 pages to revise, chop, edit.  But not today.” 

This has been a long project.   The novel is set in Hungary in 1951 and is tentatively titled Voice.  I have been writing this novel for about three-and-a-half years, although if I include research in the calculation, five years might state it more accurately.  The preliminary chapter I wrote back in the beginning has long since been thrown out; I once read a quote from an author that said you basically have to sacrifice the first 100 pages to figure out what you’re doing, and that certainly was true in my case.   After dumping a lot in the electronic trash I came up with a beginning that sort of worked as a launch point, and I managed enough of an outline that I could at least aim at something as I wrote.  Along the way I continued to do more research.  Historical details and the needs of the story began reshaping my original vision:  I ended up changing the age of the male protagonist, Péter, and deepening his problems; and I threw more challenges to Katalin, the female lead, than I had first planned for her.  Subplots arose and in some cases ended up going into the trash like my original first chapter.  But this is all part of improving the work.  If I weren’t willing to make adjustments—sometimes big ones—I would be wasting my own time.

Rory and Connie in Peru

Connie and Rory Connally in Abancay, Peru (a far cry from the setting of the novel)

The finished manuscript is pretty ungainly.  The second half, not surprisingly, is a lot more focused than the first half, because by the time I had written 300 pages I was doing less wandering in the dark.  Now the daunting task of revision lies ahead of me.  Some of my writer friends, as well as a professional author, will be reviewing the manuscript for me and helping me refine it.  (My husband has already read the manuscript, and like a loyal husband, he loved it.)   I know that in some parts of the book the revisions will need to be pretty deep, and I don’t expect this work to go quickly.  But I’m very excited to have come to this point.  The diamond is still rough, but there is enough sparkle there to keep me hoping and honing.

The problem with having finished the rough draft is that I miss my characters.  I was so used to dealing with them on a daily basis, checking in with them and handing them more aggravations.  Well, there is always the revision stage.  Péter and Katalin, see you soon. 



Writing Historical Fiction: The Challenge of Vivid Details

When I decided to undertake writing historical fiction, I thought that the hardest part would be finding all the facts I needed and getting them right.  That actually turned out to be doable, though very time-consuming.  More difficult has been finding the small details that make a setting or a scene ring true.

Garden outside a house in the Hungarian folk park of Nyiregyhaza

In some ways writing a scene is like painting.  When you paint, you work with the subtleties of light; you see something, and you show it to the viewer.  When you write a scene, you work with the subtleties of sensory detail, inviting the reader not only to see but to hear, touch and smell.  Doing this well is challenging enough, even when you’re working with a setting as utterly familiar as dinner in your own home.  In writing historical fiction, the difficulty of this amps up like crazy.  Say you’re writing a dinner scene set in Puerto Rico a hundred years ago.  What are your characters eating?  How did they cook it?  What room are they in, and how does it look?  What are they sitting on?  Etc.  Many, many details like this will not occur to you while you are reading the history books that are a large part of your research (and even if they do, you probably won’t find them there).  The need for these details will only surface as you write.  You find out to your dismay that the research you thought was finished . . . isn’t. 

The fiction I am writing takes place in Hungary between 1944 and 1951.  So I am writing about a place I have never lived in and a time period before I was born.  I was fortunate enough to be able to travel to Hungary in 2006 and 2007, and this was essential:  you just can’t get a feel for a place without going there.  But during these all-too-short visits I couldn’t see the whole country, let alone absorb it all.  I took as many notes and photos as I could, but the time came when I just had to go home and try to create scenes with what information I had.  This was not easy.  I found that the more I wrote, the more I discovered I didn’t know.  So often when I opened a new scene, I wasn’t sure what to picture.  Even if I had been living in Budapest for twenty years and the city were seeping into my pores every day, I would still have difficulty knowing what to picture on each of its corners during the time period of my novel, World War II and its aftermath. 

Village church with separate steeple in the Hungarian folk park of Nyiregyhaza

But when I realized that my writing was deficient in sensory details, I became determined to make up for this in whatever ways I could.  I looked at all the photographs I could find from that era, if not from Hungary then perhaps from Poland or Germany, and I scrutinized details in them:  wagon wheels, window frames, clothing, anything.  I read and reread memoirs and novels.  These helped to fill in details not mentioned in history books—things like food availability, common expressions, weather.  I took copious notes on things that would bombard my senses if I were in Hungary during and after the war.  Even if I didn’t know exactly which buildings were burning, could I still describe a smoky sky?  How did it smell?  What would I hear?  After the war, what would it be like to wait at one of the few functioning stretches of railroad track, try to squeeze onto an impossibly crowded train car, and then climb onto the only place there was room—the roof?  What would the view be like from up there?  What would I see growing (in spite of all the destruction) in the fields between towns?  

Image of King St. Stephen on the Basilica of St. Stephen in Budapest

Even aside from the changing setting created by a war, I found that by really watching for details in Hungarian novels and memoirs and (less easily available) appropriately set movies, I could create scenes of European rooms, markets, farms, shops.  It has taken an enormous amount of attention, however.  I have to remind myself constantly to create a vivid setting—because the milieu of a place I don’t live in will not arise in my work unless I intentionally call it forth. 

But that sense of exploring a different world is part of what makes historical fiction so satisfying—to readers, yes, but especially to the writer.

 P.S.—–BTW to readers:  if any of you can give me information on WWII damage to specific buildings and areas in Budapest, I would love to hear from you.  Thanks!