New York Times bestselling authors Karen White, Beatriz Williams and Lauren Willig have collaborated to write a rich novel of love and loss that spans half a century in The Forgotten Room. This complex mystery connects three generations of women to a single extraordinary room in a New York Gilded Age mansion. They just wrapped up their book tour—with a stop in my town—so I just had to ask how they did it! You can connect with the authors at beatrizwilliams.com, karen-white.com, and laurenwillig.com. To purchase The Forgotten Room, click here.
This guest post is by Kristen Harnisch. Harnisch is the award-winning author of The Vintner’s Daughter, the first novel in a series about the changing world of vineyard life at the turn of the twentieth century. Her next novel, The California Wife, will be released in 2016. Harnisch has been a speaker at the Writer’s Digest Conference and currently lives in Connecticut with her husband and three children. Connect with Kristen at kristenharnisch.com, on Twitter @KristenHarnisch, and on Facebook facebook.com/kristenharnischauthor.
#1) Beatriz, how did you, Karen & Lauren decide to collaborate on the historical novel, The Forgotten Room? What are the most important factors to consider when choosing one or more writing partners?
Well, like most great ideas, our collaboration started out over a bottle or two of red wine! The three of us had met on the writing conference circuit, and we quickly developed this wonderful rapport with each other. Though we write in different voices and different settings, our books all have the same common element — a kind of dialogue between past and present, between history and the modern day, and that shared passion just easily flowed into a close friendship. So when one of us suggested over a late dinner that it would be great fun to do some kind of book together, such as anthology, we instantly knew this was going to be the Best Idea Ever! Over the next couple of years, the anthology concept transformed into something completely different, and that was our real breakthrough: a single novel written (as we do in our stand-alone books) from the perspectives of different characters, over different periods of time, all woven together in alternating chapters. Karen then chimed in with a terrific prompt for the novel’s plot—three women all linked together by a mystery at a single New York City mansion—and we plotted it all out with detailed chapter outlines and sold it to Penguin, which also publishes (or has published) all of us separately.
It’s funny, though — we really had no idea that we were attempting something technically challenging, or even suspected that our editor wasn’t quite sure how we were going to pull this off! We just started out from a position of deep trust and respect for each other’s writing, and our common knowledge of how to put a multiple-narrative book together. Each of us took one of the narratives (the 1890s, the 1920s, and the 1940s) and created those chapters based on our detailed outline, writing in round robin so that we took turns building on the previous chapters. So the seamless quality of the storytelling is no accident — we paid attention to what the others were writing and took those cues into our own chapters, and the texts and emails flew back and forth with ideas and research notes and “aha” insights. The whole experience actually strengthened our friendship. We became (as Karen says) like a single author with three heads, and I don’t think we could have done this without all that trust and respect, without that common element to our natural storytelling styles, and most especially without a spirit of generous cooperation. In this business, you hear so many “author behaving badly” stories, and I just feel so lucky to have found two writing sisters who are the opposite of that, and who inspire me to become both a better writer and a better person.
#2) Karen, what do you most admire about Beatriz & Lauren’s writing styles? Once you finished outlining the novel, how did you manage the actual writing process?
I think what made the writing process run so smoothly was the fact that Beatriz and Lauren both approach writing as a serious job and not a hobby. It made me sit up straighter and focus more on the task at hand because in a way I didn’t want to disappoint my co-writers by doing less than the best job possible. Not that I’m not serious about my writing, but when you don’t have a co-writer (with deadlines of her own) waiting for your next chapter, it opens up a lot of “dithering” time. I think this whole process made us much more efficient writers.
It also taught us how to outline a book, which is something we don’t do for our stand-alone novels, but was definitely a necessity for a coauthored novel. Each author had a character and time period. We wrote the book “round robin” with one of us writing our character/chapter and then passing it on to the next author. The truly wonderful thing was that we all have so much respect and trust in each other’s writing that it wasn’t necessary to edit each other. We were confident that each author would handle her section/character with the same love and attention we gave our own. We are also relentless self-editors, which helped as well–and the non-ending texts and emails to clarify or bounce ideas off each other eliminated any problems before they could be put on paper.
#3) Lauren, on average, you each publish one to two books every year. What’s your particular writing routine? What advice do you have for writers who struggle to find a balance between writing time and the demands of marketing/publicizing their books?
As Karen said, the trick is to remember that even though you get to work in your fuzzy pajama bottoms and truly ancient t-shirts (sorry, UPS guy), it really is still a job. There are days when other bits of life—family obligations, speaking engagements, brain freeze—get in the way, but as much as possible you just have to plunk yourself down in that chair, turn off the phone, and make yourself get words on the page, even when it feels like those words might have been better pounded out by a pack of hyperactive monkeys let loose in an Apple store. I have a highly nap-resistant toddler at home, so my day is bounded by the arrival and departure of the babysitter. When the babysitter arrives, I take myself off to Starbucks, order a grande, non-fat caramel macchiato, and try to disappear into the world of my story for those few hours I have to myself. That’s my writing time and I have to make the most of it.
Marketing and publicity is insidious. It’s a little procrastination devil sitting on my shoulder, whispering, “It’s okay…. You can open Facebook now…. It’s only for a moment…. And this is work, too, mmm?” Except that it’s never just for a moment, and once I’ve fallen down that publicity rabbit hole (with a few random news articles and maybe a bit of internet shopping along the way), my brain feels like scrambled eggs and my writing day is shot. I’ve learned that I need to start the day with writing and push the marketing and publicity off until later in the day, since it doesn’t require the same concentration as spinning a world out of words. Because no matter how pressing all of that can feel in the moment, there’s nothing as important as writing that next book.
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.