Connecting To Your Inner Magpie


The Winter Thief Book Jacket As part of our ongoing guest author series, WEbook welcomes Jenny White, professor of anthropology at Boston University and author of three historical-fiction novels. Here’s some background about Jenny’s upcoming novel, The Winter Thief:

January 1888. Vera Arti carries
The Communist Manifesto in Armenian through the streets of Istanbul, hoping to get it published, naively unaware of the men following her. When the police discover a shipload of illegal firearms and the Imperial Ottoman Bank is blown up, suspicion falls on a socialist commune Vera’s husband organized in the eastern mountains. Investigating, Special Prosecutor Kamil Pasha encounters his most ruthless adversary to date: Vahid, head of the secret police, who has convinced the sultan that the commune is leading a secessionist movement and should be destroyed—along with all of the surrounding Armenian villages. 

And now, Jenny’s thoughts on writing…

Jenny White Website For me, one of the oddest things about writing fiction is becoming the mouthpiece for characters who do things that—prior to that moment—I never imagined doing, feel things I’ve never experienced, and speak in idioms and cadences that I’ve never heard. This practice of writing like a human Ouija board goes against the familiar adage, “write what you know,” and can confuse readers who assume that the novel gives some insight into the novelist. My first novel, The Sultan’s Seal, contains a physical relationship between women. After its publication, to my surprise, people asked me, “Are you a lesbian?” I mean, there are murders in the book too, but so far no one has asked if I’m a murderer. The rough, wisecracking police chief Omar appears in all three Kamil Pasha books, but I don’t know anyone like Omar. At least, not that I can remember.

Writing is like dreaming—your subconscious is a magpie that picks up and makes a nest out of any glittery bits of experience and fleeting impressions—the way a couple's eyes fail to meet; a boy shielding his food—things you missed, but your sharp-eyed subconscious saved. Remember as a child when a picture on a page could envelop you, infused with life by your imagination?

Here’s my point: The setting should be something you know, or have researched—as I do Istanbul in the 1880s. The characters have to be set up like real people with family, friends, a childhood, skills, a job, likes and dislikes, quirks. But once you can visualize the scene and the characters, it’s time to let go. Some authors write elaborate plot outlines to light the way, but they too have to allow their characters liberty to forge ahead. In writing each of my three novels, I learned a bit more about the best way to let go. Plot outlines didn’t work for me. I never liked chemistry either—a formula won’t speak to me, no matter how long I stare at it.

In writing The Winter Thief, I followed my editor’s advice to let the interaction of the characters drive the plot, rather than the plot drive the characters. That worked like hellfire. The characters at times moved the plot along faster than I could write! I was inspired to take this approach by Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, a novel that takes place almost entirely in one room and follows the heart-breaking relationships that develop between high-society guests at a reception and the terrorists holding them hostage for several months. The dramatic tension of the novel is driven almost exclusively by character interaction.

Writing has a fine-tuned tempo of control and letting go, unique to each writer. But crucial to all is gaining access to your inner magpie.


Go here to pre-order The Winter Thief, set for release in March 2010. You can also read a similar post about finding the theme of your book, by Sanjay Bahadur. 

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  1. Ha, I know what you mean about the characters leading the way (sometimes too much!) All the time, plots have taken a way I really didn't want and knew people wouldn't like because it was very unpleasant (usually involving the killing off of a character, which for me was like shooting my own kid.)

  2. Glitchie Moonwillow17 February 2010 at 19:03

    Mostly, I find people asking me why I write fandom, why not write my own stories - this mainly comes from my husband who I have an agreement with that when I write my first best seller, he can quit his job, lol. And I find that I have MANY magpies or muses. I live by the book, 3 a.m. epiphany... lol my ideas for stories come from dreams, and if I wake up in the midst of one, with an idea, I pull out my computer and start typing away. I see characters interacting, hear what they say, and then write it down. They have even teased me, giving me only snippets of scenes until I start writing and then the idea that I THOUGHT would be small and easy to write is snowballed into this multichapter story. I have found that my writing instructors couldn't teach me really well because they kept saying "You are the author, you are in control of the story." Well, I tried that and all ideas went out the window, and my muses left me hi and dry. Now I sit back and let them show me what they want, and in the process I have seen ideas come forth in the form of only slight fan fiction and more original ideas - like my novel, Child of the Sun - I still consider it fan fiction because it is in the realm of Oz, as in L. Frank Baum's Oz, and is set two hundred years after the events of Tin Man with my own original characters, but a well thought formed story is revealing itself bit by bit none the less, and I am very grateful to my muses.


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