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.
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.
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