This past week, I received a reminder that April is National Script-Writing Month. Now, I have no intention of becoming involved with that project -- I am not tempted to try my hand at visual media. But the hype leading up to the month did bring back memories of my two attempts at the November exercise in speed-writing. So I thought I might re-cap those two writing adventures for newcomers here, and to remind myself of the struggles it takes to write a good book.
I'm now far enough away from my first year of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) to look back on the experience without feeling stressed out. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this exercise in self-torture, the idea is to write 50,000 words of a novel during the 30 days of November. You are supposed to charge ahead, not re-reading or making corrections until it's all over. And nobody seems to take into account the fact that there's a major holiday right there at the end of the drill. Just plop the turkey in the oven and head back to the keyboard!
I made it. Actually I finished two days ahead of schedule, which should have made me feel very good about myself. But if I'm being honest, I have to admit I was not brave enough to go back and see what I wrote. Oh, I violated the rules left and right. They are not designed for an old English teacher who cannot stand to see a spelling error and let it pass. I also backed up to correct silly details like whether a period belonged inside or outside a closing quotation mark. So I was pretty confident that what I produced was in passable English. But did it make sense? That was a whole different question.
My 50,000 words (50,626 to be exact) were the finishing chapters of a much longer novel that had been stalled in the middle. After letting it just sit there for six months, I signed up for NaNOWriMo, which forced me to jump in and finish the darn thing. I’d been feeling pretty smug ever since I completed the NaNoWriMo competition. The 50,000+ words I wrote there nicely finished off my historical novel. I thought all I had left to do was polish it up a bit. Hah!
For those of you who are new to this blog, I had been working on the life story of a woman by the name of Nellie Chase, who had an amazing experience as a Civil War nurse. Her story is compelling. She was a teenage runaway, the "wife" of a musician who turned out to be "a drunkard, a liar, a gambler, a forger, and a thief." She escaped from his degrading lifestyle by signing up as a nurse with a Union regiment and traveling with them for a year. During that year she faced the usual hardships, compounded by a vengeful Presbyterian chaplain who thought she was a prostitute and by challenges to her understanding of what it would mean to put an end to slavery.
For that year, I had abundant information in the form of letters from the members of the regiment, all of whom found her interesting enough to talk about at length. But I didn't know who Nellie really was, or what happened to her after the war. That lack of information led me to turn her story into a novel, rather than a biography, and I had great fun creating a life for her before and after the war. NaNoWriMo was perfect for me. I had let my imagination fly and had created an exciting and plausible end to the story. So far so good!
Then one night I received an e-mail from someone else who works on the same regiment. He had found two small tidbits of information about Nellie. One letter suggested that she was related to a prominent national figure. The other was an obituary that listed the man she married after the war and told of her heroic death during the Yellow Fever epidemic. My "exciting and plaudible" ending was nowhere near as good as the real story. This was definitely a case of the "truth being stranger than fiction."
It also meant that I had to discard much of what I wrote in November, as well as segments throughout the rest of the book. So back to the records I went, armed with a new set of names and dates to be checked. It's a good thing I enjoy historical research. The historian in me was excited; the writer, a bit discouraged.