“A book is a bridge from a writer to a reader.” ~Megan Chance
For most of her life Megan Chance has written short stories, poetry and novels. This Washington native has written professionally over the last 14 years and has produced ten novels, most recently, An Inconvenient Wife. That’s a lot of writing for a busy wife and mother of two. With three more stories is the works I’m sure you’ll find this writer knows much about the craft and fortunately she was willing to share it with us. I hope you benefit from Megan’s words as much as I have.
Moe: Looking back was there something in particular that helped you to decide to become a writer? Did you choose it or did the profession choose you?
Megan Chance: I don’t know there was anything in particular that helped me decide to become a writer. I know I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was about six years old. I’ve always loved writing and researching, and there was never any question in my mind it was what I was born to do. So, in a sense, the profession chose me. In high school, I had a wonderful teacher who set me up to study with a published writer once a month, and the school paid for me to attend poetry workshops, etc. in the area. I was extremely lucky, and very well supported in my writing endeavors.
Moe: What inspires you?
Megan Chance: Everything. Truly–simply living in this world is a huge inspiration. Great books, movies, television, radio, newspapers, driving, going for walks, listening to my children, talking with my husband and my friends… The world is full of inspiration. All one must do is be is open to it.
Moe: Every writer has a method that works for them. Most of them vary like the wind while some seem to follow a pattern similar to other writers. On a typical writing day, how would you spend your time?
Megan Chance: A typical writing day goes something like this: I wake up at 7:45 and get my children ready for school. After I drop them off at 9:00, I either go swimming for half an hour or I go home and work out for an hour. By the time I shower and dress and take care of whatever small chores need to be done, it’s usually about 11:00. I go out to my office, which is in an outbuilding behind our house and I work until 3:15, when I go to pick up my children. After that, the rest of the day is devoted to family. If I’m on a deadline I’ll sometimes write at night or research if I need to. I try to take the weekends off but it doesn’t always work like that. I usually end up getting anywhere from 5-15 pages done in a day.
Moe: How long does it take for you to complete a book you would allow someone to read? Do you write right through or do you revise as you go along?
Megan Chance: It takes me a little more than a year to finish a book. This allows for 4-6 months of research, and then another 7-9 months to write the book. I pretty much revise as I go–sort of. I usually write 100 pages, give it to a friend of mine who is also a writer, who reads it, and then revise two or three times until I get it right. At 200 pages, I do it again. It isn’t until I hit about page 300 that I begin to really get a feel for what it is I’m doing, and I’ll revise again up to that point. The last 150 pages or so are usually written straight through. Then I’ll revise it again, give it to my critique partner and then do another revision. This is before I’ll let any other person except my critique partner read it. At that point, it’s usually ready to go to my critique group, and my agent and my editor, who will all suggest other changes. Once the book goes into editing, I’ll revise it at least once more pretty aggressively, and then do another line revision, where the words are cleaned up.
Moe: When you have your idea and sit down to write is any thought given to the genre and type of readers you’ll have?
Megan Chance: Oh, this is a rather tortuous question! My answer is: sort of, but not really. It’s something I’m trying to get better at. Generally, when an idea comes to me it’s pretty bare bones and I don’t really fill it out until I start doing research. At that point, all doors are open. Then you have to start figuring out which direction you’re going to go in. I write the books I want to read, and I try to force myself to think a bit in terms of marketing–who would enjoy it, what their expectations might be, etc. I should think about this more, and as I’ve gone more and more into the hardcover, mainstream fiction market, I’ve been forced to consider these things more strongly than I ever have in the past. But it’s not really during the inception of the idea when these considerations come into play–it’s more about making choices in telling the story, and being aware of what the ramifications of those choices might be marketing-wise, and then being smart. Unfortunately, I’m not always smart.
Moe: When it comes to plotting, do you write freely or plan everything in advance?
Megan Chance: It’s a little of both. I plot out the bare bones of the story in advance, but I never go into much detail. For example, I’ll know at the quarter point in the story, a particular thing is going to happen and it’s going to change everything. But I don’t know how I’m going to get there, so every page and every chapter is an adventure. Sometimes, I’ll get halfway or three quarters of the way through a book and realize what I’ve plotted isn’t going to work, because the characters have dictated a different course and I’ll re-plot.
Moe: What kind of research do you do before and during a new book? Do you visit the places you write about?
Megan Chance: Because I write historical fiction, I do a great deal of research. I generally try to stick to primary sources, and then read more scholarly studies beyond that. But diaries, newspaper articles, periodicals, journals, transcripts and other primary sources are my bread and butter. Generally, I have been to all the places I’ve set a book in–with the exception of Panama, which is where my first book was set. But the journals of the people who had experienced what my hero and heroine experienced in that story were so vivid I felt it was unnecessary to visit–and I don’t think it is necessary to visit the places where my books are set, it’s just I happened to have done so.
Moe: How much of yourself and the people you know manifest into your characters? Where do your characters come from? Where do you draw the line?
Megan Chance: I suppose all of my characters have some bit of me in them, but I don’t think they’re very much like me in general. What’s important is I understand what they’re thinking and feeling–I don’t need to agree with it, and it’s not unusual that I don’t. Some personality traits of people I know make it into my characters, but really, my characters become complete people and personalities in themselves.
I don’t really know where my characters come from. Sometimes I’ll read a historical account about someone, and find him or her fascinating, and some aspect of that personality or their experience makes it into the character I’m writing. I certainly draw from my own life, and other people’s lives, to make my characters real. I’m a horrible eavesdropper and I live vicariously through many different people, and all of that often makes it into whatever story I’m writing.
I’m unaware of drawing any line. My characters aren’t copies of other people, and as I write them, they become more and more individual, even if I start out by using some aspect of someone real. Everything I experience, hear or see becomes part of the well from which I draw. I’ve never had someone recognize themselves in a character I wrote, and if they did, they would be mistaken.
Moe: Writers often go on about writer’s block. Do you ever suffer from it and what measures do you take to get past it?
Megan Chance: I don’t really get writer’s block. I often have days where the writing doesn’t come easily, where I despair, or where I think I can’t write. My experience is that those days come because I’ve hit some wrong note in the story, or I’ve gone in a direction that doesn’t work. Generally, if it persists, I go back and do an edit and try to find where I went wrong, and that usually fixes things.
Certainly there are some days where I feel emotionally or physically unable to write. But for the most part, writing is my escape; it’s where I go to deal with difficult days and impossible emotions. It’s my sanctuary.
I also think working every day helps. It’s hard to get back into that chair after taking a weekend off, or after taking a vacation. But I find if I can get to five pages, I can almost always go further, and so I set myself a quota: I cannot stop for the day until I get my five pages. At that point, it’s either time to quit or the book begins to hit flow. In general, I suppose, I don’t believe in writer’s block.
Moe: When someone reads one of your books for the first time, what do you hope they gain, feel or experience?
Megan Chance: I hope they live the life my character is living. I hope they feel the things that character feels; I hope they understand a path different from their own, and perhaps gain some understanding of the road that was laid for them to follow. I write because I have a vision of the world I want to communicate to others. A book is a bridge from a writer to a reader.
I often teach writing to my daughter’s class, I tell them what I believe: you are unique, no one sees the world as you do, and communicating what you see is why you’re here. To understand how someone else sees the world is, I think, the most valuable gift we can give each other.
Moe: Can you share three things you’ve learned about the business of writing since your first publication?
Megan Chance: First and most important: publishing is a business. Editors and agents increasingly make decisions based on marketing, and not on their instincts, and it’s important to realize that even though they may love your work, they work for a company, and that company is a business which must make a profit. The days of Maxwell Perkins and other editors of his type, who would support and stay with an author regardless of their sales, because they believed in the writer’s vision, is, for the most part, gone.
Secondly, the business of writing requires incredible perseverance. The industry cycles and changes constantly–what’s hot one day won’t be the next. We’re trained to believe that publishing is above the marketing fray, but it’s mired in it, just as every other business is. Staying with it requires a nearly unshakeable belief in yourself.
Thirdly, be smart about the things you choose to write. If you have two ideas, both of which you love, and one is set in ancient Roman times and the other in Regency England, go with the idea with the most marketable setting. Don’t give them an obvious reason to reject you. Make them reject you unwillingly.
Moe: How do you handle fan mail? What kinds of things do fans write to you about?
Megan Chance: I answer it. Most of my fan mail comes through my website and I always try to answer it personally. I get a lot of historical questions–fans are often interested in knowing where my ideas come from and where I find my sources.
Moe: What’s your latest book about? Where did you get the idea and how did you let the idea evolve?
Megan Chance: I’m working on a couple different things just now: one story set among spiritualists in 19th Century New York City, one in New Orleans, and another one on the Washington Coast. We’ll see which one gains the most support.
Where do I get ideas? Everywhere. I always have ideas. I have a file folder full of them, and I have them tacked to the bulletin board in my office. When I’m researching, I’m constantly coming across interesting things I think would make a great story. I also get ideas from books, magazines and newspapers, from photographs, from movies, from radio and television, from driving down the road and wondering about a particular landmark or place or name, from dreams. Coming up with ideas is just not a problem for me. Usually, however, there are two or three that just seem to stay with me, and build in my head, and the story I decide to write next is the idea that won’t leave me alone. Sometimes I let them evolve for a long time. Susannah Morrow, for example, festered for five or six years before I decided to write it. An Inconvenient Wife, on the other hand, came from both a snippet of research I’d come across when I was working on another book, and from a dream. It seemed to come full form very quickly. So it depends. Ideas evolve as they will; I don’t seem to have much conscious control over them.
Moe: What kind of books do you like to read?
Megan Chance: I love historical fiction. Especially stuff that’s a little offbeat, dark and psychologically challenging. Historical sagas aren’t so interesting to me, but character driven books set in historical times I often find fascinating. Recently, I’ve loved everything by Sarah Waters, Joanne Harris’s Holy Fools, and Sleep, Pale Sister, Elizabeth Knox’s Billie’s Kiss, Maria McCann’s As Meat Loves Salt. I also really like some speculative fantasy, again, stuff that’s pretty dark and psychologically complex. Elizabeth Hand is an amazing author of that kind of thing. I really liked Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and the whole Harry Potter series is amazing. Tolkien is a long time favorite. The Lord of the Rings is a book I reread every year.
Moe: When you’re not writing what do you do for fun?
Megan Chance: I read! Seriously, I would rather read than do almost anything else on the planet. I like movies, though I don’t get a chance to see them much. I’m not a huge television watcher, but I love Lost and Iron Chef, and I love Discovery channel documentaries, particularly on dinosaurs, space and ancient lands. I also love to cook, and I’ve recently started sewing. Though I love making things, I really don’t have the patience to make them well.
Moe: New writers are always trying to glean advice from those with more experience. What suggestions do you have for new writers?
Megan Chance: Have the courage to have a vision, and don’t give into the pressure to follow a trend. Your voice is an amalgamation of everything you’ve experienced, and no one’s experienced the world quite as you have. John Jakes said: “Originality does not consist of saying what has never been said before; it consists of saying what you have to say.”
Also, stop rewriting the first 100 pages over and over again. Move on. Finish a book. You learn more from finishing a complete novel than you ever will from refinishing those pages.
Sometimes ideas and manuscripts need to be put aside, and the things learned from them applied to new ideas and new manuscripts. It’s very possible to edit the voice and passion right out of a manuscript.
Moe: If you weren’t a writer what would you be?
Megan Chance: Do you mean, what else do I have the talent to be? Because I’d love to be a painter, but I can’t draw at all. Realistically, I was in Broadcast Communications for a long time, and I would probably still be working in that field in some fashion. Or I would perhaps be a literature or history teacher.
Moe: What is your favourite word?
Megan Chance: Crisp. I love the different meanings of it: crisp air, a crisp apple, crisp sheets. I love the onomatopoeia of it. I love how it feels to say it, the s and then the quick coming together of the lips on the p. It has long been my favorite word.
- Purchase Megan Chance’s An Inconvenient Wife from Amazon.com.
- Purchase Megan Chance’s An Inconvenient Wife from Amazon.ca.
Originally published 1/26/2006 at Literary Fiction, BellaOnline.