When I do author visits, students always ask me how long it takes to write a book. I don’t have an easy answer, either.
The actual physical act of sitting down at the computer (I never write longhand) and typing the story goes very quickly, as I normally write 4000 to 5000 words in a day. However, this activity is rather like sitting down to Sunday dinner, which may take just fifteen minutes or half an hour to eat, while the cook may have spent five or ten times that amount of time preparing everything.
Before I can write, the story has to live in my head and build, one theme and scene at a time, until it’s all in place. This has taken me anywhere from six months to ten years, depending on the project. I know I’m ready to start writing the book when I can do a full outline with all of the plots/subplots, character development, motifs, symbollism, and other story elements that I deem important for the project. If I can’t put it all on paper that way, it’s not ready to be written.
Then, of course, there’s the research that goes into a story, which I do as I’m thinking about the idea. For example, in my new novel, Longhorns & Outlaws (working title), I knew that the main character was an orphan, but until I did extensive historical research I didn’t know that his family had died in the worst hurricane in the history of the United States in 1900 in Galveston, Texas (more people died in that one than died in Katrina).
Many of my writing friends tell me they write to discover what is happening in the story, whereas I write to get to know the characters. While I’ve already “met” the characters before I begin writing, as I write they tell me about themselves, where they’ve been and what they’ve done, plus share their hopes and dreams.
I am what I would call a setting or plot driven author, since my initial idea always begins with a place and a thing/happening. From there, I think about who the characters are in this place and how these events are going to change them. This approach to writing seems to work well with historical fiction, as history provides me with so many interesting events to choose from that I’ll never be able to write them all.