How long does it take to write a book?

Snowmobile Challenge
Snowmobile Challenge, a novel by Linda Aksomitis.

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.

Linda Aksomitis, author of “Adeline’s Dream,” “Run,” and a new historical fiction from Coteau Books in 2008 with the working title, “Longhorns & Outlaws.”

How do you decide what historical events to use in the plot of a novel?

Adeline's Dream, a 1910 prairie immigration story, by Linda Aksomitis.
Adeline’s Dream, a 1910 prairie immigration story, by Linda Aksomitis.

History provides an exciting backdrop for a novel. There is built-in excitement, tension, high points and low points. So, the trick to deciding what to include in a novel means looking at the shape of a book and considering how history can propel the story’s plot, rather than just trying to include all the historical events that actually happened.

In Adeline’s Dream I had a whole summer of community activities to choose from, plus the fall school and harvest events. I wanted to make sure the conflict in the book–that wondering what will happen–was strong right from the beginning, so I focused on events that would build conflict when examining the history book for the real events of 1910. I had several key conflicts to develop in the novel, with the main one also showing us one of Adeline’s character flaws. She’s stubborn, in fact she’s so stubborn that she just can’t forgive her father for embroidering the truth about the home they were coming to in Canada.

Another key conflict is between Adeline and the story’s antagonist, Sarah. Sarah’s an antagonist because it seems that if she would just be nice to Adeline and accept her, that all of Adeline’s problems would be over. Sarah also represents the town kids, who aren’t terribly accepting of the German kids from the soddy community called Germantown. In order to introduce this early, Sarah appears in the very first chapter of the book, snubbing Adeline when she arrives in Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan at the train station and calling her a “squatter.”

So, my challenge was to look at the community events and decide what historical events could set the reader firmly in 1910, plus build tension in the conflicts. First, I choose the 1/2 day holiday for Dominion Day, and the horse race. While a lot of the day is fun for Adeline and a good introduction to the town (also important since immigration is one of the main subject areas the story deals with), a confrontation with Sarah certainly dampens her spirits. During the day Adeline’s thoughts wander, and we learn quite a bit about Germany and the long-distance relationship she’s had with her father in the four years that he’s been in Canada, getting things ready to send for them. In fact the reader hopes Adeline is ready to forgive her father.

Tension going up and down through the plot events is what pulls the reader through the story, so every time it goes up as it does when we think Adeline may forgive her father, it must also come down a little further ahead. Some readers have asked me why Adeline doesn’t just forgive him, and there are two reasons for that: the first is that the story needs tension (once the problem is solved the excitement is over), and the second is that her inability to just say “I’m sorry Papa, I’m so glad to see you,” shows the reader that she’s stubborn. Since at this point in the story we think she just might do that, the next historical event I include has to put Adeline on the outs again with her father.

For that event I chose Sunday after church, going to the slide show with the piano music. This particular event tied many of the threads of the plot together, so it was an important scene. First of all, Adeline’s dream to become an opera singer is shown in both her singing in church and her longing to stand and sing Ruth’s story from the bible at the show. Second, Adeline has a run-in with Sarah as they’re leaving the event, so it develops that conflict. The scene also shows us, quite subtly, how Sarah’s mother is a perfectionist, so we get a peek into what it’s like to actually be Sarah. Finally, when Papa talks and laughs with Sarah’s mother, and doesn’t even introduce his family to the well-to-do lady from town, Sarah feels that while Papa might belong in the community, none of the rest of his family do, and their relationship is strained once again.

So, the historical events I chose to include must always develop conflict and character in the fictional world, showing us the realities of the character’s lives and why they respond to life the way they do.

How close do you keep fiction to real history?

Adeline's Dream, a 1910 prairie immigration story, by Linda Aksomitis.
Adeline’s Dream, a 1910 prairie immigration story, by Linda Aksomitis.

Good historical fiction requires that the author is 100% true to the time period in terms of accuracy in historical fact. Books that take their inspiration from history, but weave in details that they invent are often in the fantasy genre, like medieval fantasies. My favorite book in that genre is Guy Gavriel Kay’s novel, The Lions of Al-Rassan.

When I wrote Adeline’s Dream I based it completely on actual events that happened in the town of Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan in 1910. Continue reading How close do you keep fiction to real history?

Have you seen a horse race like the one in Adeline’s Dream?

Adeline's Dream, a 1910 prairie immigration story, by Linda Aksomitis.
Adeline’s Dream, a 1910 prairie immigration story, by Linda Aksomitis.

In chapter 2 of my novel, Adeline’s Dream, Adeline and her new friend, Kat, go to the horse race in Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan, on the July 1st half-day Dominion Day holiday. It is Canada’s 43rd birthday.

In terms of the question young readers have asked, have I been to a horse race like this one, the answer is yes, although not in Qu’Appelle. Continue reading Have you seen a horse race like the one in Adeline’s Dream?

How did you research living in a soddie?

Adeline's Dream, a 1910 prairie immigration story, by Linda Aksomitis.
Adeline’s Dream, a 1910 prairie immigration story, by Linda Aksomitis.

Adeline’s Dream was my first historical novel for young readers. It came out as part of my publisher’s celebrations for Saskatchewan’s 100th birthday in 2005.

I’ve been thrilled to visit many schools and public libraries to talk about this book and how I did my research. The events of the story are based on real historical happenings in the town of Qu’Appelle, where I went to school and live today. However, I also had to research a lot of other things. Today I’m going to answer the question, how did I research living in a soddie.

Until I was nearly seven my family lived in a tiny little house without power, or running water, or even much of a road. There was a root cellar under the kitchen floor, that you lifted a lid to get into. I remember going down into the root cellar to get things up for my mother–there were boards for shelves along the sides. In the summer food stayed cool in the root cellar and didn’t spoil, and in the fall we packed potatoes and carrots down there to stay warm over the winter. So, I still remember that place and what it looked like.

I also updated my research by going into my friend’s outdoor root cellar. She has one that is dug into into a hillside, with a door on the outside. There is a short corridor into this storage area (she grows potatoes to sell), so when you’re inside you’re really under the hill. It is cool and dark and filled with the smells of the dirt.

The final thing in my research was to find historical letters and documents written by people who lived in sod houses on the prairies in the 19th and 20th centuries. This one was interesting and had photos too: http://www.nebraskastudies.org/0500/frameset_reset.html?http://www.nebraskastudies.org/0500/stories/0501_0109.html

In order to write about how Adeline felt living in the soddie I thought about how the soddie smelt, and felt, and what it looked like, so that I could imagine her response. That’s why she says she dreampt she was a long, wiggly worm on her first night lying beside the dirt walls.