Friday, August 5, 2011

The Forest for the Trees

By Kim

I started writing The Oak Lovers (then called Knight of the Brush) around the time of my youngest daughter’s birth. As you can see by this recent picture, that was quite some time ago. This snail’s pace is rather alarming considering that my past two novels were finished and ready to submit within a year. I can be prolific. Really.

Writers’ block isn’t the problem and the delay certainly doesn’t stem from lack of enthusiasm for the story. My biggest obstacle may be just the opposite. I know far more about Carl and Madonna Ahrens than I could fit into 100,000 or even 200,000 words. I floundered for years because I wanted to tell the whole story.

Over the last few years I’ve learned to see the forest for the trees. While still sometimes painful, I can recognize and slaughter my “little darlings” to make room for elements of the story that make my novel about more than a neglected artist and his muse. Many Canadians have never heard of Carl Ahrens, but I would be hard pressed to find one unfamiliar with William Lyon Mackenzie King or the Group of Seven. Carl was a friend of the former and an enemy of the latter. Better to play that up and leave out the time he made maple syrup with his kids, no matter how sweet the story. Most Americans know about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Carl and Madonna saw the damage from it first-hand. That’s surely more exciting than the summer Carl spent as a game warden in the Kawartha Lakes region. (No, I don’t expect you to know where that is.) Arts and Crafts aficionados are a passionate bunch, and will likely be thrilled that Carl and Madonna’s courtship takes place at Roycroft and that Elbert Hubbard makes several appearances. Even there I sacrificed Carl’s friendship with Alex Fournier and W.W. Denslow, fearing that few people would know who they are.

It’s been challenging to take a highly personal story and be objective enough to find the marketable nuggets, to take those nuggets and transform a life story into a believable and compelling plot. Forbidden love, betrayal, tragedy, adventure – these are things that keep people reading. I’m in the homestretch now and I hope by the time I finish, I’ll have delivered all that and more.

I’ve often wondered how other authors who write about real people decide what to put in and what to leave out. (If you’re one of them, please chime in!) If you know of authors who have successfully transformed a life story into a page turner, please show them some love and tell us about it.


  1. i just went through this process with my writing mentor, rachel simon, and as of tuesday, we said, "it's fiction time!" which, i never, ever had considered until spending so much time trying to choose the right "real-life" content to put the story's best foot forward.

  2. Helen Roth05 August, 2011

    I was holding back to "protect" the characters. However, being painfully honest made the characters so much more alive.

  3. Hello eatDEWwrite,

    I'm glad to see I'm not the only one. I made the switch to fiction three years ago, but even then I went into it with the attitude that I would tell the truth as much as possible and deviate from it only when there were gaps in information. The problem with this, though, is that there was simply too much to talk about. I have many hundreds of pages of raw material to work from and their social circle reads like a Who's Who list. I'd have had a 200,000 word book that would likely never sell due to length! Finally I realized it was more important to me that the book sell than to put everything in. Quite a liberating moment!

  4. Good for you, Helen, for letting your characters have it now! My protagonists are my great-grandparents, and so I held back to a degree for awhile. Not anymore!

  5. Helen Roth05 August, 2011

    I wasn't brave, I changed names and locations to protect the innocent, the guilty, and the incompetent!

  6. Helen,

    He was a acclaimed landscape painter in his day and I'm trying to revive his legacy, so it would have done no good to change names!


  7. I continue to eagerly anticipate the completion of this book and trust your judgement regarding when you believe it is finished. Only the artist can determine when his/her work of art is ready to be viewed by the public.

    K. Nunez


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