Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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October 21, 2011

Guest Blogger: Bestselling Author Karen White - Living with Both of Me

We are very excited to have with us at WITS today, NYT bestselling author, Karen White. If you've been on vacation in Atlantis for the past ten years and haven't read her, you're missing out - hers are some of the best novels we've ever read.  Seriously.

Here's Karen:

I was putting laundry away today in my teenage son’s room and paused in the threshold, unsure of the best way to navigate the floor strewn with books, school papers, empty water bottles, shoes, clothes (dirty and clean, from what I could tell), and unpacked suitcases from last weekend’s trip.  I’d take a picture to include here, but I don’t want DFCS calling on me.  Whose child is this?

I’m a far cry from the character of Melanie Middleton in my Tradd Street series—the anal-retentive real estate agent who even schedules her potty breaks on a spreadsheet.  But I do like everything in its place. 

I like neat piles of paper on my desk (my version of a “to do” list), and I like my countertops and bathroom sinks clear of clutter.  A cluttered house means a cluttered mind—at least that’s what I’ve read.  And since I work at home, I consider the entire house my workspace, and everybody had best keep it neat and clean!  I’ve been known to collect items without warning into a large garbage bag and place in the garage.  It’s amazing how seldom they miss anything.

I manage to keep things tidy in most parts of the house, but in my children’s rooms I’ve simply given up.  I just don’t have the energy anymore.  My daughter is now in college, but when she’s at home, both kids are required to straighten up everything when the cleaning people come, but then it goes right back to requiring yellow tape across the doorway.  I’m thinking of reporting them to that A&E show, Hoarders

I have an iPhone that keeps me organized—with every event color-coded by family member and subject.  Even the dog has his own color.  I set an alarm for each event just in case I’m distracted and forget.  Even better, when I sync with Outlook I can send reminders to various family members, too.  But not the dog, of course, as he doesn’t have thumbs and finds operating a handheld device too much of a challenge.

You’re probably thinking that my organization spills over into my writing.  And there you’d be wrong.  I don’t outline.  I don’t do character sketches.  I don’t even do a first draft.  I just sit down somewhere with my laptop and start writing a story about characters I want to know more about. 

I’ve been told it’s the “wrong” way to write a book, but I figure after fourteen published books (including one that debuted at #14 on the New York Times list), I can keep doing it the “wrong” way.

I started out being a reader, and I write the way I read—without really knowing what’s going to happen next.  How excited would you be to read a book that you know how it ended?  Part of the fun of writing is discovering what my characters are going to do next.

The only “organized” thing about my writing is my research.  Even though my stories have contemporary settings, I always use some kind of historical context—or some kind of passion that I know nothing about. 

In The Memory of Water, the main characters were sailors, so I had to learn how to sail.  In The Lost Hours the protagonist was an Olympic equestrian, and in The Strangers on Montagu Street and the entire Tradd Street series, the heroine has to restore an old house.  This means lots and lots of research to make sure I get it right.

I do most of my writing in a chair in my sitting room.  Next to the chair is a bookshelf where I keep all of the current project’s research books and notes within easy reach.  Since I don’t always know what I’m going to write, I don’t always know what I’m going to need in terms of research material, so I make sure I have a good supply just in case. 

For my November release, The Strangers on Montagu Street, I had to know about all things Charleston:  where somebody would buy an antique wedding gown, what’s the hottest restaurant, what do interiors in Charleston’s historic district look like, who made miniature dollhouse furniture in the early twentieth century, and what colors can my heroine paint her historic home among other things.  I also needed to know what her fabulous garden would look like for a large outdoor birthday party that happens halfway through the book.  

I had everything organized by subject (including pictures and articles torn from Charleston magazine), and my notes stuffed neatly in folders.  I read and researched as I wrote, sometimes writing new scenes to accommodate something interesting I’d learned.

Now with the book done, those books have been cleared off and filed downstairs in my study on the large bookcases for future reference, and now my St. Simons Island books are filling the shelf by my writing chair to help with the writing of my book due out next summer.

Sure, writing this way probably does take longer.   But I just can’t imagine doing it any other way.  I think that after a writer finds the process that works for her, she should stick with it.

My children are trying to convince me that the cesspools of their rooms are part of their learning process, and it works for them.  I don’t buy it.  I think it’s just laziness.  When my daughter headed off to college last month, all I could think about was seeing her clean room, day after day.  Friends told me I’d miss the mess once she’d gone.  Ha!  I didn’t miss her dirty diapers when she was potty-trained, after all. 

Maybe HGTV will be interested in a “before” and “after” show about children’s rooms after they depart for college.  I’m already envisioning the neat and tidy bins I’ll have stacked in my son’s now unreachable closet, the sharply folded clothes in the drawers of his dresser that right now can’t be closed.

Or maybe I’ll write a book with a mom and two messy teenagers.  I wouldn’t have to go very far to research, and the time saved might allow me to reorganize my office.  And my kitchen.  Or maybe I can just catch up on the sleep that I’ve been missing for the last nineteen years.

Do you live with people who "organize" differently than you? Where do you write and what is your process?

After playing hooky one day in the seventh grade to read Gone With the Wind, Karen White knew she wanted to be a writer—or become Scarlett O'Hara.  In spite of these aspirations, Karen pursued a degree in business and graduated cum laude with a BS in Management from Tulane University.  Ten years later, after leaving the business world, she fulfilled her dream of becoming a writer and wrote her first book.  In the Shadow of the Moon was published in August, 2000.  This book was nominated for the prestigious RITA award in 2001 in two separate categories.  Her books have since been nominated for numerous national contests including two more RITAs, the Georgia Author of the Year Award and  has twice won the National Readers’ Choice Award for Learning to Breathe and On Folly Beach.

Karen currently writes what she refers to as ‘grit lit’—southern women’s fiction—and has recently expanded her horizons into writing a mystery series set in Charleston.  Her fourteenth novel, The Beach Trees, was released in trade paperback by New American Library, a division of Penguin Publishing Group, in May, 2011 and debuted on the New York Times bestseller list at number fourteen.     

Karen hails from a long line of Southerners but spent most of her growing up years in London, England and is a graduate of the American School in London.  She currently lives near Atlanta, Georgia with her husband and two teenage children, and a spoiled Havanese dog (who appears in several of her books), Quincy.  When not writing, she spends her time reading, scrapbooking, playing piano, and avoiding cooking.  Her next book, The Strangers on Montagu Street, will be published on November 1st, 2011 and she is currently contracted with Penguin for four more novels.

Facebook: www.facebook.com/karenwhiteauthor
Email: AuthorKarenWhite@aol.com
Website: http://www.karen-white.com

0 comments on “Guest Blogger: Bestselling Author Karen White - Living with Both of Me”

  1. Karen, I have read your work and love it 🙂 That being said ... you have settled a long standing debate here at WITS ... to research, outline or go by the seat of your pants. To find the character or the plot first and what to do about setting. None of these matter. You can go from the middle and head east or west ... you write good books and in the end the process is unimportant. Thanks again and I look foward to your next book !

  2. Thank you so much for your kind words. But you're right about the writer's process---process varies in the same number of ways as the number of writers there are! Find out about other authors' processes, then pick and choose and use what fits you best. That's my best advice to any writer!

  3. Any woman who loves Gone With The Wind can't be all bad 🙂 I haven't read any of your work but I think that will need to be rectified.

    I'm also not a planner when I write. I have a couple novels begun and they have mostly been written in bits and pieces to writing prompts. So I have gone off on weird tangents when the mood has struck me. It's fun, not knowing where you might end up but tying it all back together can be difficult!

    1. Yep--I've been a GWTW addict for a long time. And guess what my ring tone on my iPhone is? 🙂

      As far as writing disjointed things....just make sure you take the time to put them all together so that you will end up with a book! When I'm not careful, I end up with LOTS of written pages that don't go anywhere. Occupational hazard, I guess!

  4. Hey Karen....you already know I love your books! In my opinion, a great writer is one who;
    "captures place so well I'm there in the book and dying to go there when it's finished". Your books do this for me. Since I live 70 miles from Mississippi's Gulf Coast, " The Beach Trees" was a given! We have a Spring trip planned to Charleston and Folly Beach and yes, I have a "bottle tree" now ! "Do it your way" woman, it's working great!
    Loved the post but not the memories of the days when I had to shut the kids rooms doors to keep from screaming! HA!

    1. Thank you, Carol---glad to see my books are following you around and kudos on the bottle tree!

      Thanks also for giving me hope that you can survive the teenage years without ending up in a looney bin... 🙂

  5. I just love Karen's work. I also had the pleasure of meeting her a few times. She is such a pleasure and I cherish the post she did for my blog on 'Paranormal Grit-Lit." I love her Tradd Street series and having lived in the Charleston area for a few years, I can attest to her research skills. Can't wait to did into her newest "The Strangers on Montagu Street."

    By the way, this blog looks lovely, I think I'll have a poke around.


  6. I'm laughing, Karen, because we have the same children. My daughter's room is usually a science experiment, and definitely a safety hazard. LOL. In fact, she just tripped on a water bottle this morning. There isn't one drawer that can completely close, one inch of shelving that isn't overflowing with things that don't belong there. I push on the floor issue, she picks it up before I threaten to do it "my way", but then the next day it's back. She says she likes living that way. I've told her I can see her future in Hoarders as well!

    And I don't plot either. I'm a character writer, and all I know when I sit down is who my characters are. The story comes in pieces. I'm honored that my process is kind of like yours, because I was compared to you in the Berkley Winter Catalog for my debut novel coming out in April. 🙂

    And I have to say that my daughter and I are planning a trip to South Carolina next summer, to Charleston, because I've read so much about that area and just have to go. Dorothea Benton Frank has me wanting to go to Charleston and Sullivan's Island. And after reading On Folly Beach...I want to go see it for myself and see the lighthouse! And now with your new book coming out, I know I have to get it and read it before my trip to Charleston!!

    1. Obviously, we were separated at birth. 🙂 Congratus on your new book!!! I'll look forward to reading it.

      Enjoy Charleston--one of my favorite cities in the whole world. Make sure you start with THE HOUSE ON TRADD STREET (the first in the series)---and so you'll understand why Jestine's kitched has the book framed on the wall. And you MUST get the coconut cream pie at Jestine's while you're there--amazing!!!!

  7. SO excited to have you here with us, Karen. I have a closet in my son's old room, with bookshelves. It's the ONLY space I allow for my books (or I would end up on "Hoarders".) I only have room to keep my VERY favorite author's books. I'm fanatically (read: anally) orgainized, so all your books are after Anne Rivers-Siddons'!

    1. LOL! Does that mean your books are store alphetically by author's last name? 🙂

      My guilty pleasure: once a month I have a professional organizer come for 3-4 hours and we clean out something. It's the best day of the month! Maybe I'm more like my character Melanie than I thought... 🙂

  8. Please excuse my horrible typos! My son's on homecoming court tonight and I'm trying frantically to get everything ready for the tailgate and post here, too--sorry!! I DO know how to spell ALPHABETICALLY. 🙂

  9. Karen, it's heartening to read that you're a seat of your pants writer and so successful too! I subscribe to your approach. I've tried plotting and, for me, it stifles creativity.
    We're a bit disorganised in my household, but my partner tends to binge tidy - when the cleaner's due, when someone is visiting. We (me and the kids) expend a lot of energy trying to find stuff in the illogical binge tidy destinations. It's hereditary. My mother-in-law once tidied away my winning lottery ticket and it was never seen again. My father-in-law tidied his Traveller's Checks to a safe place in our apartment - the rear of a picture frame. We only found them when we moved home five years later. But when it comes to writing and version control, I'm completely OTT. The last novel reached v134!

    1. Wow, Ruby--that's a lot of drafts!!! Sometimes it's better to start a new project for a while and then go back to the old project. I have found that giving my brain a rest makes for the best writing. That's why I don't do major revisions to earlier chapters until I'm partway through the book. Of course with my next deadline looming, all bets are off and I'm steaming to the finish line any way I can get there!!

  10. Hi Karen!

    We're delighted to have you here at WITS and I laughed over your post. Those kids will eventually get clean. My mom used to joke that when we moved my carpet was like new because the air had never hit it in the 8 years I'd had it. I reformed and so will they. 🙂

    1. Thank goodness!!!! I'm practically bald from pulling my hair out over this... I'm dreading visiting my son in college. Anybody know where I can purchase a HazMat suit???

  11. Karen, you're an author after my own heart. My crit group calls me Mrs. Clean but I'm like you when it comes to writing. I have a general idea what the story is about and how it will end but that's about it! It's nice to know my writing doesn't have to be as organized as the rest of my life. On the other hand, maybe it's because my life is well organized that I'm able to just sit down and right. 🙂

  12. Unlike you, I like to be organized in both my household and my writing, even to scheduling out how many words I plan to write or pages to edit each day. I also outline everything, even short stories I plan to write before I start that first draft.

    But my housemates, including my husband and three grown sons, are not neatniks at all. I don't care what my sons do in their own rooms, but I like the living areas and my bedroom neat and uncluttered. I just can't think straight--so can't write with a clear head-- in a cluttered house. And I let them know it! It doesn't seem to do much good, though. Sigh.

  13. Greetings Karen from a born and bred Charlestonian. I don't live there now, but just like anyone who has lived there, it's home and I want to go back. Definitely a different pace, and a high degree of civility among it's citizens. Nothing like the smell of pluff mud to let you know you're home.

    1. I loved the smell of pluff mud from the very first sniff. 🙂 I've written books set in McClellanville, Pawleys Island, Folly Beach and Charleston. I think it's time I move there to save me money on all of my "research" trips to the Lowcountry!

  14. Thank you for this wonderful post! The part that hit home for me was when you said: "I think that after a writer finds the process that works for her, she should stick with it." That is so very true. I've written several novel length works and I'm STILL trying to find my own process. I've written the first 20,000 words of my current WIP, the end point for the "first ACT" (if my book is following a 3 act structure), and I'm debating with myself... should I go back and edit what I have so far, or keep plugging away? That's for me to decide and whatever I decide is RIGHT for me.

    Three cheers to Pantsers, by the way! When I tried outlining, I lost the passion I have for writing. I love the discovery of the story by just sitting down and writing to see what's going to happen. Trust the process. And as James Thurber says - "Don't get it right, just get it written." That's my mantra right now. 🙂

    Thank you again for the wonderful post!

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