The Debutante Ball Welcomes Nichole Bernier!

It is with great pleasure that we welcome author Nichole Bernier to the Debutante Ball today!

Nichole is the author of the novel THE UNFINISHED WORK OF ELIZABETH D, and has written for magazines including Elle, Self, Health, and Men’s Journal. A Contributing Editor for Conde Nast Traveler for 14 years, she was previously on staff as the magazine’s golf and ski editor, columnist, and television spokesperson. She is a founder of the literary blog BeyondtheMargins.com and lives outside of Boston with her husband and five children. She can be found online at her website, on Facebook and on Twitter.

Nichole’s debut novel THE UNFINISHED WORK OF ELIZABETH D has recently released to rave reviews and she’s joining us today to talk a bit about voice in her novel.

But first, here’s a bit about her book:

THE UNFINISHED WORK OF ELIZABETH D is about a woman who inherits the journals of a friend, and realized she didn’t know her nearly as well as she thought, including where she was really going when she died. Set in the anxious summer after the September 11th attacks, this story of two women —their friendship, their marriages, private ambitions and fears — considers the aspects of ourselves we show and those we conceal, and the repercussions of our choices. 

And not only is Nichole here to share some wonderful thoughts with us, she is also giving away a copy of THE UNFINISHED WORK OF ELIZABETH D to one lucky commenter (US only, please!) so make sure to leave a comment at the end of the post to be entered to win!

Finding the Unfinished Voice of Elizabeth D

By Nichole Bernier

When I began writing my novel, and trying to craft the voices for my characters, I had two strikes against me. First, I’d never written fiction, not even so much as a short story. Second, one of my main characters was dead.

But I knew she would express herself through journals, and that I just needed to find my way in. I’d kept journals most of my life, and I knew there was a rhythm to an authentic journal writing. Only I didn’t think it was something I could develop in a choppy way, on and off throughout the plot’s timeline. So I did what any good journal-keeper does. I picked up my pen, and one entry at a time, wrote out a life.

I spent several months writing the life of Elizabeth, and it felt odd, like I was posing as someone else. I started with the childhood tragedy that started her writing, and wrote through what she wore in high school, and who she had a crush on. Why she chose the college she did, and why she left. How her husband proposed, and how he lost her faith early on. And finally, whether he succeeded in winning it back.

It felt more like playacting than writing a novel, because Elizabeth wasn’t part of a plot yet. It was a one-sided profile, because I needed to get to know her better than she knew herself. She had a penchant for privacy and didn’t have many close friends, so I had to figure out why: her lonely childhood, the difficult circumstances that formed her, the steely will that transformed her, one journal entry at a time. I don’t know how many pages I had in the end. But what I do know is — well, just about everything else. I knew Elizabeth because I’d written her life in 100-odd pages. And then I threw most of them away. Because I didn’t need them all, not really. I knew what I needed in order to bring her to life after death. I didn’t need all the details, but I needed to know which were critical for the reader needed to know. And then I wrote the novel around them.

This is probably not the most orthodox or efficient way to get to know a character, particularly because the bulk of the story belongs to the other main character — the living one, Elizabeth’s friend Kate who inherits the journals, and with them, the unexpected portrait and mystery. And though you have to put your eggs in the basket of the living character, or so my agent advised, developing Kate’s voice was a struggle for me. I knew Elizabeth first, and I knew her better. So I went back to the Elizabeth drawing board and took a page from that playbook: I wrote a synopsis of what Kate’s journals would say, if she’d been inclined to keep a journal, though it wasn’t in her temperament. Finally, I let Kate see what Elizabeth wrote about her —  how Kate had let her down and underestimated her in a million small ways — and let Kate respond in her own journal. And then I threw those away too and wrote it at a remove, with the authority I needed all along. But had to develop it through letting the women speak for themselves.

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Thank you so much for visiting with us today, Nichole! And remember to leave a comment to be entered to win a copy of THE UNFINISHED WORK OF ELIZABETH D!

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22 thoughts on “The Debutante Ball Welcomes Nichole Bernier!

  1. Hi Nichole! Thank you so much for giving us such a wonder “dancing lesson” here at the Ball today. I love getting insights into how other writers work, and your method for THE UNFINISHED WORK OF ELIZABETH D sounds perfect for the book. I can’t wait to read it!

    Best of luck with this, and all your future books. 🙂

    • Thanks Linda! It was such a learning process, and leaves me so curious about whether it’s transferable to the next book, or if each book has its own techniques, and lessons. I suspect the latter.

  2. Hi Nichole! Thank you so much for being here today! Finding the voice for a character is such a personal journey–it’s always wonderful to hear how authors navigate those waters, and so often it’s a process that we can only describe–or understand–when we are on the other side of a novel.

  3. I never believe that any writing is wasted. That which doesn’t end up on the page deepens the characters or enriches the plot. (I have to believe this, or I will go crazy. I throw away as much as I write, lol). The point is that it *worked*. This is a gorgeous book, cover to cover, and as a reader I felt I knew both characters intimately by the end of the book.

    Please don’t enter me in the contest as I already have a copy. I just wanted to tell Nichole how much I loved her work.

    • Thank you so much, Kerry. I’ve become a full-blown convert: I believe in cutting, cutting, cutting. That we do not keep makes us stronger. Or like you, so I hope.

  4. Congratulations! I love debut novels. There is so much heart and soul poured into them. I’m really intrigued how you used the journaling aspect to bring your character to life. It also sounds a bit emotional, with the whole complicated friendship-thing. Excited to read it!

  5. Hi Nichole, thanks so much for being with us today! And I love hearing about your process in developing the voices of your characters. It’s true that we really need to know our characters so well to be able to portray them authentically on the page. And like Kerry says, nothing is ever wasted, even if it doesn’t make the cut. Congrats on the release of THE UNFINISHED WORK OF ELIZABETH D, which sounds like a truly fascinating read, especially knowing the work you put into your characters!

    • Thanks! I truly didn’t know how to do it otherwise, and often found myself wondering how real writers do it. You know, ones who surely don’t rewrite five sentences for every one moving forward.

  6. When I read THE UNFINISHED WORK OF ELIZABETH D I got to know Kate. As Kate read the journals, I got to know Elizabeth through Elizabeth’s eyes instead of Kate’s, as is usually the case when we learn of one character through the second person. In Nichole’s story, we were right up there in that attic room reading those journals with Kate, hearing Elizabeth’s own words and from them, learning who Elizabeth really was, all the while trying to equate this Elizabeth to the Elizabeth Kate had told us about. How often do we think we know someone, only to find out there is much more to them or that they have hidden their true identity from us in varying degrees.
    Nichole’s use of journals to create her characters is pure genius! What better way to develop a character than through his/her daily thoughts.
    I am anxious to read more from Nichole, a tremendously talented author.

  7. Hi Lady! So glad to see you all over the net posting and being interviewed. I live in hope that my debutante experience will be something remotely as fun and satisfying as yours. Your book was so rich, and yet haunting. I enjoyed it thoroughly and the experience has stayed with me. I wanted to run out and buy a copy for each of my dear friends but most especially for the 3 that hung out with me through Mommy and Me classes and even through an experience where my own son was violated at age 2. Those are some of the most profound times and teach us much. Your work made us love Elizabeth as much as we did Kate and grieve for her when the book was done. Bravo! Now get to work and write another amazing book for me to read! LOL

  8. What a unique writing experience. I’d love to read it and see how the characters turned out. I’m also a huge sucker for debut novels. They only happen once you know 😉 Congrats on the success so far!

    • That was such a daunting thought throughout the process, the growing appreciation that you can only set your reputation on its debut course once. I couldn’t stop thinking about the story about Amy Bloom who, months after she’d sold her first novel, became dissatisfied that it didn’t represent the best she could do — and bought it back. She paid back her advance, and drawered it. That kind of commitment, and courage, is staggering.

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