Memory Is a Slippery Mistress

Reality: Travellers and the casual animal cruelty I witnessed.

Reality: Travellers and the casual animal cruelty I witnessed.

By Lisa Alber

Jet lag, my friends! I’m living it right now. I returned to Portland from an Ireland novel research trip last night, so I’m really eight hours ahead of myself. It had been thirteen (13!) years since I’d last visited. That shows how long it took me to get my debut novel, Kilmoon, published.

A lot can happen in thirteen years, especially when it comes to our memories. I arrived in County Clare with pictures in my head, with the reality of the place crystal clear, I thought. I ended up driving around for the first few days feeling shell-shocked, disillusioned, disappointed, aghast, and outraged.

Some of the changes to my so-called reality of County Clare were due to what most would refer to as “progress,” which I didn’t like. Not at all. My ideal County Clare ruined by improved infrastructure! I liked it wild, wooly, and rugged. I liked the narrow roads with no painted whites lines on them telling us when we’re allowed to pass. I liked feeling like a race car driver at a whopping 80 km/hour (50 mph). I liked the Neolithic and Medieval ruins sitting in cow fields without any indication of what they were.

Reality: Lots of empty shopfronts. Clare hasn't recovered from the recession.

Reality: Lots of empty shopfronts. Clare hasn’t recovered from the recession.

And the tourism. Well! Never mind that I’m a tourist—I was appalled that the Cliffs of Moher charged a fee, sported a gigantic parking lot and paved walkways and guard rails along the cliffs. I preferred the slippery dirt paths and rusty little signs that depicted a man falling over the edge and a message that went something like: Warning: Unstable Edge.

I was just, I don’t know, weirded out by the whole thing …

But then I got to thinking about why I’d returned to County Clare. It wasn’t to relive some grand memory, which I’d mistaken for reality. I’d returned to research the novel I’m writing now, the third in the County Clare series. This meant seeing Clare as it really is. It meant yanking the rosy-tinted memory glasses off and taking a look around me with an open heart.

I saw the gravel quarries (those weren’t there before, I knew they weren’t … but was that true or just my memory talking?) and the clear-cutting of the forestry lands and all the new houses along the main roads that diminished distances and the tourist signage that trivialized the wondrous and the new big hotels and the summer homes …

Reality: Need I say more?

Reality: Need I say more?

I was thirteen years out of date in my notions of life in County Clare. My books need to reflect some semblance of this reality.

It took a few – three, four, five – days, but I acclimated. I started to see the beauty again. Rolling hills with their drystone walls. Fabulous vistas on the coast. Spring lambs jumping around green velvet fields. Quaint storefronts in a town called Ennistymon. Vibrant yellow furze growing along the roads.

Before I knew it, I was no longer seeing the quarries and the clear cuts. After awhile, they didn’t exist for me anymore, and, I suppose, this is how memory works, doesn’t it? Whatever imprints the most, moves us the most, is what sticks for the long term.

After another little while, I realized that my dissonance wasn’t all due to progress. My brain played its part all on its own.

Reality: Falling apart, abandoned houses everywhere.

Reality: Falling apart, abandoned houses everywhere.

Memory is a slippery mistress for sure, and the dissonance between reality and memory might be worse when you’re a fiction writer. You go from reality to memory, and then from memory to the imaginative. And let’s face it, we novelists may base our novels in a contemporary world, but we amp it up in different ways to suit our stories.

No wonder I was so disoriented at first. The Clare of my memories had become the Clare of my fiction, another gigantic step removed from real reality.

As the outrage and disorientation dissipated, I fell in love with Clare all over again. I’m already in danger of losing touch with real reality, and I’ve only been home for about twelve hours. Ah well, I expect the next time I travel to Clare, I’ll revisit the same weirdness. On the up side, I’ll rediscover Clare all over again, in a new way.

Have you ever faced the dissonance between reality and memory? I remember

Reality: Gruesome meat delivery

Reality: Gruesome meat delivery

feeling the same disorientation when I visited my first childhood home. Everything about the neighborhood felt so small somehow.


So, How’s the Novel Coming Along? Muddles and Middles

By Lisa Alber

Commercial interruption: I’m honored that KILMOON was nominated for the Silver Falchion Reader’s Choice Award (Best First Novel–Cozy, Traditional, Historical)! If you so desire, please vote here. I appreciate it, thanks! (If using a mobile device, first click “Switch to desktop site” on the bottom of the page.)


plottentaclesWow, a lot can happen in six weeks. I read my previous post, in which I was very much the tortured writer as I began writing the first draft of my third novel. I was having a hard time feeling my way into the story. I probably had around 5,000 words written (approx. 20 pages) at the time.

I wrote:

I’m getting words down on virtual paper every day and trying to maintain faith that at some point (please, let it be within 50 pages!), I’ll feel a surge as I realize what the heart and soul of the story really is. In other words, I’m faking it a little bit right now–at least that’s what it feels like.

Now I have exactly 33,101 words. Pretty good! That’s about 132 pages. So, did the story’s heart and soul open itself up to me?


Amazingly, the process works. I’ve once again re-learned this lesson and found my faith in the process. It’s not that what I wrote is stellar. I can go back to any scene and fix dozens of typos, jot notes about missing descriptions, and growl because the story has already changed since I wrote that scene. But that’s OK because this is only a first draft. I continue on, knowing that I’ll return to the fixes later.

So now I’m approaching the dreaded muddle in the middle. Well, I’m officially in it I suppose. I’ve got plot tentacles waving around in every direction, a subplot that feels stupid and useless beyond words, and mishaving characters.

Like, eh hem, sex!!!! I don’t write novels with sex in them, I really don’t. Now, I might have been thinking about an interlude between two of the characters but not until later, AFTER the midpoint. Not yet, for god’s sake.

I was just a little surprised is all. However, after letting the scene sit a few days, I’ve decided that these two upstart characters knew what they were about better than I did. The fact that they sleep together so quickly is a surprise to them too and not without some fallout, which is crucial to the overall plot.

So there we go: crisis averted!

This pretty much sums it up.

This pretty much sums it up.

I wrote my first two novels without thinking about story arc and three act structure and all that jazz. At least not consciously. For this novel I did something different: I thought about structure before I started writing. Nothing elaborate, you understand, because I’m not organized enough to write actual outlines. But I had an overall arc, including the all-important midpoint game changer.

To get all mathematical about it, the midpoint would be about, say, 45,000 words in. I know what’s going to happen in a general sense. I don’t know how I’m going to get there, but I can feel my brain working on it in the background. My scenes are rising to that occasion because I’m setting the intention for them to do so.

I’m thinking the surprise sex scene is part of that. (To clarify: No sex on the page. It’s a Captain-Kirk-pulling-on-his-boots scene with waaay more drama.)

The best part is that unlike my previous two novels, I’m not drowning in the middle muddle. I’m splashing around a bit, but I’m afloat. Having that midpoint to work toward is saving my hiney!

I can’t tell you how jazzed I am overall … even though … Never mind, this is only the first draft!

What a difference six weeks make, that’s for sure.

So tell me about you. Whatchou been up to these past six weeks? How did summer treat you?

And Now, The Truth: I Don’t Like Starting New Novels

By Lisa Alber

This picture doesn't represent my writing life.

This picture doesn’t represent my writing life.

I hereby declare that I don’t like starting new novels. What? you might be thinking. How can that be? Are you not a novelist creature? A person who loves the process, whose nature it is to gush via the written word?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. But here’s a corollary truth: Within any process there’s always that one task you can’t stand but have to do anyhow. For some novelists it might be copyediting, for others, research. For me, it’s getting into the danged first draft. I dislike it even more than the dreaded muddle in the middle.

You’d think I’d be in the infatuation period with my story right now. Everything about it ought to be bright and shiny and new and on its way to happily ever after, like, for sure.

I wish.

It’s more like I’m dangling over a precipice without a net. The other day, I realized that knowing my characters, their arcs, and the overall plot isn’t enough. There’s some indefinable something missing. I barely know what I mean by that either. It’s just a feeling that’s not in my body. A feeling of rightness even though I’ve had inklings and a-ha moments during the pre-writing development stage.

Right now my writing feels flat, uninspired. And I wonder, is that because for the first time in my life I’m writing under a strict publishing deadline?

It's more like this.

It’s more like this.

Publishing deadlines being what they are, this novel isn’t due until a year from now. Believe me, I’ll need the whole year. I can’t procrastinate. And, more importantly, I can’t wait for the “rightness” to sail me out off the precipice on its gossamer wings.

I’m getting words down on virtual paper every day and trying to maintain faith that at some point (please, let it be within 50 pages!), I’ll feel a surge as I realize what the heart and soul of the story really is. In other words, I’m faking it a little bit right now–at least that’s what it feels like.

So what do I mean by “heart and soul of the story” anyhow? I mean the hook. Not the hook for the reader. MY hook as the writer. No one ever talks about that, but for me it’s uber-important to feel an “in” with the story, as if it’s an organic being and I need to find my way into a relationship with it. This might come about when I finally see the shape of the story in my head. Or when I understand the story’s essential truth in five words or less. Or maybe it’s about the theme. Or maybe it’s about discovering the voice for the first-person protagonist. It’s different for different writers, different stories.

There is no answer here. I’m where I am in a process, and I’ve been here before (though not exactly like this). I’ve set a rule for myself, which is 1,000 words per day. Some days it’s like climbing up prickly branches (see picture). Other days, it’s just a job; get ‘er done. Other days, it’s sheer joy.

I can bitch with the best of them, but in the end, I’ll finish my novel by the deadline.

What part of the writing process (or any process in your life) do you not like? How do you work through it?