The Brickworks: River Street Writes: Power Q&A
September 26, 2023 – RIVER STREET WRITES
Lucy E.M. Black is one of our favourite writers of historical fiction. Ever. Her upcoming (and fourth) book, The Brickworks, is due out with Now and Never Press in October 2023. Told in Black’s signature luminous prose, The Brickworks tells the story of Alistair and Brodie, two ambitious Scottish immigrants to North America at the turn of the century. This is an unforgettable story of hardship and triumph from one of the most fiercely gifted writers of historical fiction in Canada. We are delighted Lucy agreed to join us for our latest Power Q & A. Here, she lifts the hood on her writing process and allows us to get a glimpse of the wonderfully intricate (and a wee bit intimidating) workings of her creative process.
The Brickworks by Lucy E.M. Black, published by Now or Never Press, October 2023.
Q: You are, by far, one of the most impressively methodical authors we know of in the writing of your books, which are largely historical fiction. But you’re also gifted with the ability to craft beautiful prose that seems anything but methodical. What’s your secret? How do you take what must be notebooks after notebooks of research—and what must sometimes be quiet dry research—and bring it to life in your narratives?
A: Thank you for those kind words. I am, as you rightly identify, a methodical writer. Unlike the brilliant Alistair MacLeod who could apparently write perfected, beautiful prose in a first draft, my first drafts are awful. Ernest Hemingway is alleged to have said, “the first draft of anything is shit,” and I definitely fall into that category of writer.
I write, edit, rewrite, edit, rewrite, edit, and rewrite a seemingly endless number of drafts. The Brickworks which will be released in October, underwent fifteen full drafts of the manuscript. It’s not that I tinker with my work so much as endeavour to ensure whatever I’m writing conveys the ideas I wish to communicate in as error-free a form as I can manage.
Writing historical fiction means that a sense of verisimilitude is crucial to the reader’s enjoyment of the text. I strive to transport readers to another time and place. To do so involves ensuring that the tiniest of details is fact-checked for accuracy, and also for what I call believability. There is no point embedding some fantastical piece of historic trivia in the manuscript, even if it’s true, if the detail will take the reader out of the text while they google the information or check references. I read a lovely historical fiction book several weeks ago and kept tripping over references that were not consistent with the period. Although I believe the author had the absolute right to utilize creative licence, the use of contemporary items and discoveries in a historical context felt sloppy to me and weakened the tone set by the tale.
There is always a bit of alchemy in what a writer writes but there is also a defined and disciplined process that I use when writing historical fiction:
- I begin my process by doing an exhaustive amount of research. Sometimes I am able to complete the bulk of the research in a matter of months but sometimes I do just enough to get the manuscript started, and then take writing breaks while I complete additional research.
- I then shape the novel’s trajectory by carefully plotting the storyline. I don’t always have the final ending when I begin, but I usually have an idea of where I hope to end up.
- After that, I develop my characters. I begin by naming them, ensuring I use a name that was common to the locale and time period. Once I have the name, I choose a birthday, key defining details (i.e., hair colour, name of parents) and physical description (i.e., hair style, shape of face, nose, height). I will often flip through magazines or books of photos, to create what I call my reference images. For historical fiction, my reference images often include clothing from the period. And then I let everything percolate. At some point after that, often when I have awoken from a deep sleep, the characters are fully formed and just walk around inside my head, speaking to me. I hear their voices, see the way they move and listen to them as they tell me what they want to have happen next.
- Once I’ve done that initial groundwork, I begin to write first draft. I’m not particularly careful when writing first draft, but simply intend to shape the story and get it down. I write furiously and completely immerse myself in the process. During first draft, I’m careful to take a break from reading so that other voices don’t intrude upon my own narrative. For a large writing project, like a novel, I section the writing up into large chunks or rough chapters. For instance, I’ve begun a new historical fiction project and have worked very hard and in a very focused way to complete the first chapter. Now I’m taking a break from first draft writing and have circled back to complete more research before I begin the second chapter.
- While I am writing first draft, as an aside, I create a scribbled hand-drawn map of the area or a floorplan of the house that I am writing about. I use this as a reference when writing directions or descriptions. If the master bedroom is at the top of the stairs on the left side of the landing, I need to keep that consistent when my character is tired and walking upstairs to bed.
- Once a first draft is complete, I read sections to a few very trusted beta readers for their general feedback. If they have questions about something that has taken place, I know that I need to do more structural work, in terms of inserting clarifying details and explanations. That’s typically the work I do in the second draft.
- Third draft is usually my time-stamped draft. I run off calendars from the period and check major plot points for sequencing and time of year. I need to ensure that all activities and weather conditions and lighting correspond to the calendar. I also make sure that certain events take place on certain days. If I have someone attending a church service, for instance, I make sure that the calendar day for that year corresponds to a Sunday. Little tiny tweaks to weather conditions, timing and scheduling are worked out in this draft. I create a timeline for the manuscript using key historic events as reference points for my work. For instance, it would be irresponsible to write a novel placed in Europe in 1940 without referencing the World War. I try to ensure that I capture the importance of key events that take place in the background of my story.
- The next draft typically focuses on lexicon and dialogue. For each of my historical novels, I create a special lexicon that I build based upon letters, diaries and books from the period. These are the key words I insert to give the narrative voice a sense of authenticity. I know that I can’t recreate the voices of the past but I endeavor to use just enough of an older language base to create a tone and feel for another time. I also attempt to use the conventions of language for the period. In the nineteenth-century, for instance, nouns were often capitalized and commas were used liberally. I mimic those small conventions in a deliberate way, along with the formality of written language as it was commonly employed at the time.
- The second part of the lexicon and dialogue drafting has to do with my character’s speech patterns. This would usually begin as a fresh draft, number five. Each of us has, consciously or unconsciously, individual patterns of speech and vocabulary that we often re-use. I create huge flip-chart reference sheets with all of my characters listed, and those idiosyncrasies of speech that are unique to them. This might include the dropping of certain vowels or consonants, favorite cuss words, or exclamations that they reuse. These lists are tricky because they must reflect, to a certain extent, the educational background, country of origin, regional dialects, and sometimes religious persuasion. I also pay attention to the development and evolution of a character’s speech. For instance, in The Brickworks, when we first meet Brodie, he is a very young man and is uneducated. His speech changes and becomes more refined as he completes his education and takes on managerial responsibilities at a steel mill.
- Draft six is about a more general use of language and description. This is where I work on those aspects of my work that correspond to and address your question.
I strive to polish my language while not compromising the energy and pacing of the story. I go back into the text and develop my descriptions and my use of language when writing those descriptions. Sometimes I indulge myself a little but generally I have to work hard to restrict colourful and lengthy descriptions. For instance, in The Brickworks, Alistair is seated next to Violet at a concert in Buffalo. Here is a tiny excerpt:
”He glanced to his right and saw the curve of her neck, the sweep of her hair, the gentle mound of her bosom. The lace sleeve of her gown was floating almost imperceptibly above her arm. He watched it flutter for a moment before it settled against the pale skin. He resisted the urge to look at her again, concentrating intently on the programme he held.”
I hope readers know that Alistair is smitten and that Violet is a lovely, feminine beauty. I had done a lot of research on clothing of the period and had originally written a long and very detailed description of her gown and jewelry. I used a reference photo from the Metropolitan Museum of a Worth ballgown in light pink silk, with exquisite embroidery and lace. You can imagine how much fun I had describing this luxurious and elegant gown. In the end, I edited out all of the extraneous detail because I felt it was slowing down the narrative and not leaving enough to the reader’s imagination.
- The next several drafts are all about editing and boiling down the story. I tend to over-write and over-explain and in these next several drafts, I slash out chunks of the story that are interesting to me because of my research but likely unnecessary to the overall piece. I edit down descriptions, fine-tune conversations, and sometimes even remove or add a character.
- The most tedious of drafts is done about this time. I call it the speech edit. Using “find” I go through the manuscript one character at a time, ensuring that their speech aligns with my planning sheets and that any changes to their speech patterns make sense in terms of their development. Depending upon the number of characters in the book, this series of checks, edits and drafting can take a really long time. In The Brickworks, there were twenty characters with speaking parts, and the speech edit took me a month to complete.
- More beta reading come next, utilizing my network of supportive writer friends. I usually ask for specific kinds of feedback that zeros in on those scenes I am worried about, details that seem too sketchy, and plot points that might not be strong. After yet another clean draft, integrating the feedback I have received, I send it off to a professional story editor. The story editor comments on the trajectory, plot points, character development, tension and quality of the writing. Quite often my characters need further tweaking. I have a tendency to make all of them nice people and that just isn’t realistic. Even nice people have foibles and bad habits, and my story editor will always call me out on this.
- Once I have the story editor’s feedback, I write another draft, addressing those things that needed work. I also do a final fact-check, often checking with an industry expert on technical points or fine details. This polished draft is then sent to a professional copy editor who catches the majority of typos, spelling inconsistencies, errors in punctuation, and other glaring oversights. Once those slipups have been corrected, I have a final draft (anywhere from draft 10 to 15) which I then use to begin the process of placing the manuscript with a publisher.
I hope I’ve given you some insight into the process I use for writing historical fiction. I’m sure other authors have perfected their own processes but this is what works for me. Many thanks for providing this opportunity to share my writing process with you.
More about Lucy E.M. Black:
Lucy E.M. Black is the author of The Marzipan Fruit Basket, Eleanor Courtown, and Stella’s Carpet. The Brickworks will be released October 14, 2023. Her award-winning short stories have been published in Britain, Ireland, USA, and Canada in literary journals and magazines including Cyphers Magazine, the Hawai’i Review, The Antigonish Review, the Queen’s Quarterly, and others. She is a dynamic workshop presenter, experienced interviewer, and freelance writer. She lives with her partner in the small lakeside town of Port Perry, Ontario, the traditional territory of the Mississaugas of Scugog Island, First Nations. Learn more at www.lucyemblack.com.