A Lesson from My Daughter
In my WIP, Malcolm and Suzanne have a second child, Jessica. I set the book in October 1817 with Jessica ten months old, so that at one point at least while I was writing it, she would be the same age as my daughter Mélanie. For once I wouldn’t have to try to remember what my friends’ kids were doing at the particular age of the children in my books or ask my friends to remember age-appropriate details only to be told it was all a blur.
So this month, the parental wonder of watching of a child’s growth and development has had an added focus for me. I’ve written scenes with Suzanne nursing while I’ve nursed myself. I’ve sat in the play park and taken notes on my iPad or my phone about how Mel pulls herself up on the edge of a bench and bounces on the balls of her feet, the little squeals and outstretched hands with which she greets other children, the great interest with which she snatches up and studies a leaf.
And in the process, I’ve made discoveries both as a parent and as a writer. As Mélanie’s mom, I’m reminded of how important it is to savor every moment. The weight of her in my arms, the tiny hand grabbing my hair or the bodice of my dress when she’s nursing, the way she crawls with one foot tucked up under her. And as a writer, I’m reminded of how important it is to observe people. I often find myself writing “He drew a breath” or “She adjusted the folds of her gown” endless times in the course of a book. There’s such a rich wealth of gesture, inflection, and intonation to be observed in everyday life. In settings as well, even when one isn't in the location of one's book. Today I was taking note of the sun gilding fall leaves and the sound the leaves made underfoot. At a friend's wedding last summer, I looked at the candlelight on the gilding in the dining room and realized this is the kind of lighting ornate baroque interiors are designed for. Suddenly all the white and gold is a lot less garish and a lot more subtly elegant.
Particularly now with Mélanie, it’s easy for me to get caught up in needing to be glued to the computer screen or research books when I have writing time. It’s really hard to remember that just sipping a latte and looking around at other people in the café where I’m writing can also be “work.” There's world of research that can be done not in books or archives or on the internet but by looking up from the computer screen and glancing round a café, taking a walk, visiting a park or a museum or a shopping mall. The smallest specific detail can set a scene, bring a character to life, define a relationship.