Way back in the last century, when the Internet was still shiny, Mehitobel Wilson became one of my earliest online friends. She’s a great writer (the first story of hers that I read began, “Someone was fucking with the pigeons.”), and she’s just finished a new novella, Last Night at the Blue Alice. I asked her to write a little bit about her process, and she’s revealing a previously secret part of it for the first time. I was gobsmacked, and I bet you will be, too.
Alex and I have known each other (online) for aeons, close to twenty years now. We’ve always had very different ways of doing things. For instance, he writes a lot of books and works relatively quickly. I do neither of these things. He writes novels. I’m here to tell you about some of the process that helped me write my first long-form story, which is a 30k-word novella.
When a reader asked Alex if he makes a physical map to help him write a complex scene, he said that, for his own process, he usually considers such things cheating.
I built a 1:12 scale model of my novella’s setting.
All of the action in Last Night at the Blue Alice takes place inside one house. Mollie Chandler must undergo the final test that will determine whether she may join an Order that employs time travelers. If she succeeds, she will be the Order’s first Psychopomp.
The Blue Alice is a house famously acrawl with ghosts. Mollie’s task is to travel back in time and alter the circumstances that caused each haunting. She may use any means she likes: she’s studied anthropology and psychology, comparative temporal theory, and, of course, history, but there’s never been a Psychopomp before. No method she chooses will be wrong, as long as it works, and works fast. Mollie only has one night to clear the Blue Alice. Failure ensures one of two outcomes: the Order will cast her into the past to die, if she’s lucky, or exile her outside of time, if she’s not.
The story isn’t about the Blue Alice, and though I love reading books in which the setting feels like a character itself, this isn’t one of them. The Blue Alice is just the structure that has housed many tenants since it was built in 1895, tenants who had the dreams, troubles, joys, and anxieties familiar to us all.
I’ve never tried writing a long piece before. The very notion intimidated me; I’d spent my whole writing career telling myself that my brain just didn’t work long.
My own anxieties were derailing my attempts to dream at the keyboard. I wasn’t blocked per se, but was too easily distracted by the obstacles I’d built.
So I decided to build something else, instead.
I really loved Lauren Bueke’s “murder wall,” and thought I might do something like that. Then I saw Jenny Crusie’s collage process and was completely blown away. Tactile immersion has always been helpful to me, and these approaches appealed to me a lot.
Round about then, my fella and I celebrated our wooden anniversary. He wanted to get me a cuckoo clock, but it turns out they’re really expensive. I opted for a dollhouse kit instead. “Research,” I said. “It’s work. And it’s wood.”
It was wood, all right. It was a box of die-cut sheets. Every piece had to be detached, sanded, painted, teased into sub-assemblies, glued, papered, taped, and sworn at.
While my hands smoothed 178 little wooden giblets that would eventually become decorative gingerbread, my mind relaxed into getting to know my characters. As I snipped the rounded ends off four hundred craft sticks to lay miniature hardwood floors, I listened in on Mollie’s inner monologue. She was determined to pass her test, excited to travel in time, and saddened at the understanding that her success would effectively end any relationships and life goals she’d had before.
As the miniature Blue Alice grew larger and more stable on my work table, the setting and inhabitants solidified in my head. I saw them through my giant’s eyes as I peered through the windows and fiddled with the wiring. I knew what year the wallpaper had been hung in the attic, and how long it had been there, and whose feet had trod the whitewashed boards.
One day, I sat down to fool with the house and couldn’t see it past my own imagination. I was, at long last, dreaming too hard to do anything but write. I left the house unfinished and wrote the book.
It turns out that my brain can indeed write longer stories, and really loves doing it.
Knowing the setting so intimately did help a lot with the narrative itself, by the way. I suck at spatial awareness and am just a catastrophe when asked to follow directions. I’ve gotten lost on a straight road that I lived on for ten years. But I’d been inside the Blue Alice, in a fashion, and knew how my characters would navigate it. There was no need to waste my time figuring out if a door would open inward or outward, or waste the reader’s time with too much description of place, as can happen when a writer is learning the space through their own text. I knew how the moonlight coming through the glass in the front door would fall just short of the doorway to Apartment One. I knew about the long-disused fireplace on the second floor. These sorts of details mattered to the characters who lived with them, and they informed the story.
When I was done with the book, I finished the house. Well, there’s still stuff to do, of course; there’s always stuff to do. I’m fine with that. The house is just telling me that I’m not finished with the Blue Alice.