How To Write A Novel

Fifty years ago, when I was going through Training for Peace Corps/Ethiopia at Georgetown University, I heard Katherine Anne Porter was speaking at a creative writing program, also taking place on campus, so I cut my classes and went to hear one of the most famous writers of the South. Katherine Anne was not part of the Agrarian movement, (men like John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, etc.) but she was a great short story writer and had that year (1962) published her only novel, Ship of Fools.

Talking about her novel, she made two points that I still remember, fifty years after sneaking into the lecture hall. One point was that she had written the last chapter of her novel first, and that was 20 years before she finished writing and publishing the book. She said that she had to write the last chapter first as she needed to know how the novel ended before she could begin. And two, she was now going to rewrite that last chapter, if there was another printing of her book, because it ‘didn’t work.’

I was reminded of that this weekend while re-reading The Life of John O’Hara, a biography by Frank MacShane published in 1980. No one reads O’Hara these days. Nor do they read such great writers from my teenage years, Irwin Shaw, J.P. Marquand, Robert Penn Warren, or even Hamilton Basso (I know I must be one of only a few in the world who still remembers, or even liked, Basso)….But back to O’Hara and the way he wrote a book. Remember what Katherine Anne Porter said? Okay, well…

The way O’Hara wrote (and he wrote a lot of novels beginning with Appointment in Samarra in 1934) is useful to anyone of us plotting a book.

O’Hara began by writing profiles of each of his characters and making charts for each one, recording dates of birth, dates of marriages, dates on which children were born and dates of anniversaries,  how old they were on each of these occasions. He made other charts that showed how old each character was in relation to the others as of a particular date, so as to make sure they grew old at the same rate. In the pocket biographies of his characters, he included the names and dates of schools, colleges and post-graduate universities attended.

For his more important characters he also listed such bits of information as the names of restaurants and clubs they would be likely to visit, sports events they might have seen, theaters, with addresses, names of plays and actors seen, news events, funerals, famous crimes, books published, including names of especially popular books of the times, names and addresses of schools in New York, descriptions of clothes, shops, where they were bought, prices, musical events, society events and storms, droughts or floods. He also kept a journal called, “So Far” in this he would record what had happened to each character in order to avoid repetition.

How’s that for details before beginning?

I think that ‘somewhere’ between these two extremes there is a path to prose for all of us!

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