Books

Best-selling author Cathy Marie Buchanan on writing well

Cathy Marie Buchanan, author of our February book club pick, The Painted Girls, reveals how she creates such beautiful works of fiction.

The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan

The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan

In part two of our interview with Cathy Marie Buchanan the author of The Day The Falls Stood Still and The Painted Girls tells us the secrets of her writing process and what’s in the pipeline!

What’s your writing process like?

With both my books I researched extensively before I put pen to paper. I would say for five to six months. At that stage I am mostly reading and taking notes, but as you’re writing you’re turning back to get some historical detail right, to see if this particular street existed in 1880s Paris.
I write everyday and I try to write first. I start at 8:30 when my kids are out the door to school. I put the milk in the fridge but I don’t clean up the kitchen or anything like that. And then I usually stop around 12:30 and eat something. And often I’ll write for a couple of hours again or else I’ll do admin – it seems like I’ve spent a lot of time getting my website up and running and I’m quite active in social media. But I really try to do four quality hours of writing five days a week.

What’s the hardest part?

I find the hardest part is writing the first draft because you have to be super on. When I was taking a cut at the second draft, I went to our cottage for a week by myself and worked on it for 10-11 hours a day with zero distractions. And that time with The Painted Girls was really pivotal. I really moved things around in the book and that has a ripple effect. If you make an event happen earlier or decide that you’re going to cut a huge chunk out because the pacing is off you really need to be able to hold the whole book in your head and that’s hard to do if you’ve got the usual distractions happening. When you’re right in the thick of writing, it’s hard to tell the pacing. But by the time you’ve written your first draft, you probably haven’t seen those first chapters for a year. It’s almost like you’re looking at it with fresh eyes.

What part do you most enjoy?

I like the first draft best, even though it’s the hardest. I’m also inspired by the act of writing. As I write so many things occur to me, and if I wasn’t writing, the idea wouldn’t be coming to me. It’s like in the act of writing, everything is percolating – you have these little epiphanies. Monsieur Lefebvre wasn’t part of the book originally but I felt that I needed to up the tension in Marie’s story. She was meeting these people but then I made him more of a predator and that came out of the writing process – not of me sitting and plotting how it was going to work.

Writers approach plots in many different ways. How do you do it?

I do a plot outline. It’s about three pages and not very detailed. I’m probably in the middle of the spectrum of how people write. Terry Falls is a friend of mine, he does three pages of bullet points for every chapter and then I hear other writers say, “what motivation is there to write if you know how it is going to end.” Why would you bother?

I don’t believe in waiting for inspiration at all. It’s completely random when I write well. Some days I’ll get up and be hungover or I’ll have a cold and I’ll write something amazing and some days I feel very on top of my game and I’m writing garbage. I can’t figure it out so you just have to write every day.

Sometimes you’re so engaged with what you’re writing that you have these little moments when you look up from the computer and you’re dazed. It’s probably only for a second but momentarily I felt like I was in 19th century Paris. I went through a period where I had to set up an alarm to pick my kids up from school because I kept forgetting to get them.

I think that’s what we’re trying to do as writers, “essentially”, is make readers feel it so intensely that they feel like it’s happening to them. If you want your reader to feel the tension and sadness you really need them to deeply engage with your characters.

What are you working on now?

It’s very vague still but it’s set in Celtic Britain 2000 years ago, so I’ve gone even further back. There was a picture in the newspaper of one of the bog bodies  – from an exhibition they had at the National Museum of Civilization in Ottawa. There are these bodies that are incredibly well preserved in the bogs and because of the tannins and the acidity of the water, their skin becomes almost leather. These bodies exist from over 2000 years ago and yet you can still see their fingerprints and their razor stubble. I saw a really great photograph of one in the newspaper and I just started imagining this life for him. I’m slightly insane.

 

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