January 13th. As promised, the first post in my new “Julie and Julia for Novelists” blog. I’m hoping that these flow-of-process ramblings will be useful to you, or at least entertaining. They will be useful to me. They will be like footholds up the mountain: pauses for respite and added impetus to advance another step. I hope.
OK. Where are we now? We are in Washington State, on the Olympic Peninsula. For more than a decade, this book has been rattling around the back of my head like a dried bean in a gourd. Once, I came up to Seattle to start researching it. But I turned tail and fled. It just seemed too big.
The original germ of the book came from family history. One of my great-great-great grandmothers was a Suquamish woman who married a Chinese man and went back with him to old China. What must that have been like? I am Chinese. I was born outside China, but in an age when China was only a few hours’ flight away; or a good book and a comfortable chair away; or a click to the travel channel away. And yet when I first visited China, I found it such a shock. I felt so foreign. How must she have felt?
Over the last ten years, this skeleton of a book idea, banished to a dungeon, has put on flesh. Other dislocations have attached themselves. From rich to poor. From east to west. From dark to fair. From aware to blind.
You’ll remember that I thought the original book too big. How dare I attempt it now that it has swollen like Mr. Creosote?
Driving one night, my mind kept turning over how the Chinese call out the four points of the compass. Not North-South-East-West (making the sign of the cross), but East-South-West-North (clockwise, starting from the region of “most importance”). I suddenly saw how my book could be a book of four parts, each part following a different protagonist in a movement east (Seattle to China); south (China to Hong Kong); west (Hong Kong to San Francisco); north (San Francisco to Seattle). This rudimentary structure gave the book solidity, anchored it in reality for me; made it attemptable.
So, I’ve committed to the attempt. I’ve cleared my calendar (minus some editing) for the next three months and rented myself a cottage on the Olympic Peninsula where the book starts and ends. I’ve given the Suquamish Museum and the Seattle Public Library notice that I’ll be coming to pester them. I haven’t reached out to the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience yet, the one housed in my great-great-great grandfather’s shop front. I think I’ll drop in on them in person.
For the past few weeks, I’ve sketched the book’s basic outline at different holiday parties. I’ve introduced my four protagonists to my friends. With each telling, the book feels a little more gestated.
In the meantime, I’ve armed myself with Scrivener and Mind Node, programs that I’ve yet to learn to use. I’m carrying a packet of blank index cards around with me. I’ve been noting down the scenes that randomly pop into my head. I’m planning commitments and finances so that I leave huge writing blocks free through this year and the next, just in case I get any traction.
So now that I’ve settled into my writing cottage, what comes next?
I think I will start with a stock take. I want to organize what I have…and what I know I need but don’t have. I’ll share what this looks like with you next week.