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
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!