On August 5, 1999, I reported to Betty that I felt I was nearing the end of my research for my biography. Most of what I have left on my Read list, I told her, is fairly peripheral, so I think I should just get going on the thing.
It’s always a tough call for a writer, knowing when to keep reading and searching, when to slow down (or quit) and begin the writing. I heard Russell Banks talk about this concerning his John Brown novel, Cloudsplitter (1998). It was on May 9, 2000, not long after the novel’s publication. He was speaking at Western Reserve Academy that evening, part of Hudson’s ongoing bicentennial celebration (our town was founded in 1799). The topic of his speech—“Fact to Fiction: John Brown and the American Artistic Imagination.” The subject was a natural for Hudson: John Brown had spent his boyhood here (his parents are buried here), made his famous declaration here about devoting his life to the eradication of slavery.
Anyway, I remember Banks talking about how he’d had to do a tremendous amount of research for the novel—including lots of travel, of course—and how he realized one day that he could spend the rest of his life charting the river John Brown and its many tributaries. So he made himself stop, made himself start writing the novel.
On a much more modest scale, I was experiencing the same thing. As I said earlier (probably a couple of times), I had read all of Mary Shelley’s works, the writings of her parents, her husband, Lord Byron, and numerous others she associated with. I had read every biography of her, her mother, her father, her husband (and many others—like Coleridge and Wordsworth). And now I was reading books about English carriages in the nineteenth century, about burial practices, about the history of the parachute (when Mary was a little girl, she’d seen one of the first demonstrations in London; the guy had sailed right over their neighborhood), about comets and volcanoes and clothing styles and … And, of course, I’d just spent a month in Europe visiting all the relevant sites—from Wales to Switzerland to Italy and Germany. I was a scholarly drunk on a bender.
It really was time to stop (or slow down) and start writing the story. I just checked my computer files and saw that I began writing the book on April 2, 2000. So eight more months went by between my note to Betty about time to get started and my actually doing so. Here’s an edited version of my journal entry for that day (nothing added, but some quotidian matters excised):
2nd, Sun: 8:45; over to [coffee shop] while [Joyce] worked out; read NYTimes in much detail; returned crow book to Hudson Library [this was for another project]; home: checked a few things on computer, then headed over to Starbucks to read more about Crimean War for Kirkus; light over [my] chair was out, so it was a strain on the old orbs, but I read today about the Charge of the Light Brigade (a “blunder,” I here learn); home: fussed around a bit (ordered new J C Oates novel about M. Monroe [Blonde] from Learned Owl [local book shop];…began organizing 1st chapter of MWS bio; wrote several pages, then, after supper, drove to Hiram with [Joyce] to drop off library books; read some about [Queen] Caroline [married to George IV, one of the four monarchs who reigned during Mary’s lifetime] as I waited for [Joyce] to come over from her office; stopped at S’bucks on the way home (briefly); finished about 1200 words for the day; watched The Sopranos with [Joyce]; ….
So … Day One I wrote 1200 words, and off I went. My notes tell me I finished that first draft on May 24, 2001—a little more than a year after I started. I just checked my journal to see what profundities I recorded about the occasion, but, alas, May 2001 is incomplete: No entry for the 24th. I growl and gnash teeth and vow never to miss a journal-writing day again!