How I write: Jacquelyn Mitchard
Published: July 29, 2005
|Bestselling novelist Jacquelyn Mitchard has found some fame and fortune, but it hasn't made her characters behave any better. "My characters don't take over and lead me on fabulous journeys like my friends' characters. Mine are slobs," she jokes. "When I leave the computer, they just pop open the Dew and the Doritos and they're in worse shape when I come back; they don't do anything. So I have to have a rigorous schedule for them, too." The Deep End of the Ocean, the veteran newspaper columnist's first novel, was published in 1996 when she was 40; it became the first Oprah's Book Club pick and a movie. Her latest novel is The Breakdown Lane, a family-breakup story about an advice columnist who gets multiple sclerosis. Mitchard, the mother of six (ages 2 to 21), lives near Madison, Wis.|
Credits also include Christmas, Present; Twelve Times Blessed; A Theory of Relativity; The Most Wanted; and three children's books.
Why: This is pretty much what I can do. If I could sing, I would be a singer.
People learn things through stories much better than if you simply tell them what you believe is true. A story is the best way you can convey what you believe to be a universal truth. It's why, though I'm not particularly spiritual, I've read the Bible twice through.
Ideas: Every novel starts with a question. What if there was a woman who gave advice for a living and all the while, unknown to her, her own life was be-coming one of the letters? Or what if a child witnessed a crime and it involved her family, and her parents were able to forgive the criminal but she wasn't?
So I always start with a question, and the answer is the novel. And I find that in "the moment when everything changes, for good or ill," as someone once said, that's where I find the story.
Characters: The nicest thing reviewers say about my books is that the characters are living, breathing people you already know, because they aren't spies or CIA agents or forensic odontologists. They're your neighbor; they're behind the lighted window you pass at night-that's a novel. In there, things are happening with a drama you probably wouldn't believe were you a fly on the wall. I write about ordinary people because their lives fascinate me, and also because I'm one, too. I'm a plumber's daughter from the west side of Chicago, and I haven't got a pedigree.
Research: I'm a little bats about research. Fiction is an invisible world, but it's a real world. And it has to have windows and closets and blue jeans, and they have to be the correct size. You have to know what a person's height is and what music they listen to and what side of the bed they sleep on and why. I couldn't just say [in The Breakdown Lane], "Julieanne had MS; oh dear, it was very debilitating," or, "Gabe had a learning disability and, oh dear, that made other kids ostracize him." I had to know exactly what kind and how it affected him on every level, even if I didn't use all that information. The research is like having powdered milk during a blizzard-if you need it, it's there, and you can draw on it.
Every book I've written has its own Tupperware tub full of research. Tupperware is a very underrated container in fiction writing. When the tub gets up to about three-quarters full, I know I'm about ready to start writing.
Advice: Read your betters and copy them. Do not copy them literally, but I spent many hours taking Truman Capote's sentences and writing in his beautiful, one-word-will-do-if-it's-the-perfect-word style. He defined elegance in writing, and I copied and copied those sentences until out of copying his, and others', I found my own way.
I know people who have splendid stories in their heads, but they won't sit down because they don't know where to begin. You can begin with "Once upon a time" and go back later and find out where the story truly begins, because it will show you where it truly begins.