Something in London's Highgate Cemetery spoke loud and clear to best-selling novelist Tracy Chevalier. Whether it was the romance of the crowded, crumbling monuments, or ropes of overgrown ivy in the Victorian graveyard, she's not sure. But she was haunted by the place, and "fell in love with it," she says. "I wanted to set a novel there."
To write her novels, the 39-year-old author immerses herself deep into the past. Her 1999 breakout novel, Girl With a Pearl Earring (Dutton), is set in 17th century Holland. Her 2001 followup, Falling Angels (Dutton), studies two families at the turn of the 20th century, as England moved from the strict conventions of Victorian rule to a more liberal Edwardian era.
"I like writing about the past—I feel more comfortable exploring it than I do the present," says Chevalier, who was born and raised in Washington, D.C., but has lived in London since in 1984. "Today's world is a strange place that I don't entirely understand. I don't mind living in it, but I don't feel I need to write about it."
Critics have praised Chevalier's evocation of setting and period, and that's an aspect of her writing she takes beyond scholarly research. For Girl With a Pearl Earring, inspired by a work by Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer, she took a painting class, and for Falling Angels, Chevalier did volunteer work at Highgate Cemetery. Her next novel, due out in 2003, is centered on medieval tapestries, now housed in a Paris museum, and she plans to learn the weaving craft herself.
"A reader recently told me she loved how Griet in Girl boiled her cap in potato peelings to starch it," she says. "I was glad, because I spent some time finding that out. Those little historical details are so important, because they add verisimilitude to a book. If I get those things right, the reader will trust me with the bigger issues." To the question of where she allows herself liberties, she replies with a wily, "Ho, ho—those are my secrets!"
Chevalier may have picked up some of her "secrets" at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, where in 1993 she earned her master's degree in creative writing after years of frustration as an editor for a reference book publisher. "I wrote at night and on weekends very sporadically," she says, "and sometimes it took me a year to finish a story."
Her year of study gave her deadlines, a critical audience, "and most of all, the expectation that I would write all day, every day," she says. "In terms of craft, I wouldn't say it helped me any more than simply writing for a year would. But that's a lot. ... I can see it in my novels, the improvement in craft over time, simply because the more I do it the more I learn what works and what doesn't."
Writing her first novel, The Virgin Blue, published in England in 1997 and scheduled for release in the United States next year, also was a learning opportunity, Chevalier says, though more in process than in craft.
Do you have any advice for writers starting out? Write about what you're interested in, not about what you already know. Don't write about yourself—you're not as interesting as you think! There's a whole world out there to explore. Also, be very critical—your writing can always be improved. Revise, then revise again and again.
"The main lesson I learned was to write the thing straight through, get it down, and then go back and revise. I didn't do that with The Virgin Blue—I'd get halfway through and discover something through research and think, 'Oh my God, this changes everything! Gotta go back and write it again,'" she says. "It took me much longer to write as a result, and I put myself through a lot of unnecessary agony."
Writing Girl With a Pearl Earring, Chevalier says, was an entirely different story. Lying in bed one morning, her eyes resting on a poster of the Vermeer painting she had always loved, it came to her. Within three days, Chevalier had the whole story worked out.
With that book, "I learned that it is better to know the ending early on rather than to be unsure—then you know what you're aiming for and can arc the story toward that end," she says. "I was absolutely clear about Girl from the start, not just the ending, but the length, feel and sound of the book. It came out in one long write, then I went back and revised."
Stylistically, Falling Angels was not quite as cooperative. Chevalier wrote nearly the entire book—with its seven lead characters, both adults and children—in third person, realizing late in the process that the point of view wasn't working. As a remedy, she reworked the manuscript using a multiple first-person point of view, and "now I think of style as its strongest point," she says.
"I think the hardest part is finding a way of telling the story that matches the story itself," she says. "For a book to really work, form and function must go hand in hand, just like with buildings, as any decent architect will tell you."
To conserve time for writing and revision, Chevalier has worked with an agent since the publication of The Virgin Blue—using the agency's expertise to get her manuscripts in the publisher's door and into the hands of the right editor. Once the manuscript is placed, the arrangement becomes one of mediation, which is "essential when working on a book," she says. "If I am not happy about something, it's much easier for everyone if the agent discusses it with the editor. They also have a much better sense of what I'm worth than I do, and know what kind of deal to ask for. ... I would be lost without them."
To find that first agent, she suggests, "call literary agencies and ask the receptionist if there are any agents just starting out—they are far more likely to be actively seeking clients than established agents, will answer you more quickly, and may well work harder for you."
From the August 2002 issue of Writer's Digest.