Writing advice from Tracy Chevalier

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I’ve read all but one of Tracy Chevalier’s novels (I’ll get to it soon enough, I’m sure), and I’ve been a fan of each and every one. If you like historical fiction chances are you’ve read her books, or at the very least her most successful one, Girl With a Pearl Earring. Her award-winning writing style is very visual and she’s able to draw you in to whatever subject she chooses, whether it’s a famous painting, a renowned poet, or fossils on the beach. I’m so happy to hear that she’s working on a new novel. It’s apparently about apple orchards in 19th-century America and I can’t wait to read it.

Aside from being a talented writer, Tracy Chevalier also has really interesting things to say about art (watch her TED Talk, “Finding the story inside the painting”) and tweets cat-related links just like the rest of us. This video shows how she decorates her office to match what she’s writing (love that idea!), and according to her website, if she were to open a restaurant it would be a tea & cake shop. Clearly we were meant to be friends. But until that day comes, here is some advice on writing that Tracy might give me (or you) over a plate of lovely desserts.

On the importance of research.
“…it all starts with researching, taking notes. I start to write without having completed the research, because once you start writing, it opens up a lot of other questions that you need to do research on, and so I feel like my research process is never complete. In fact from each novel I’ve worked on I still have books on my bookshelf that I ought to have read!”
(Source: Fiction Writers Review)

On knowing when to stop researching.
“After a while, when I’ve read a lot of books, taken a lot of notes, been places and talked to people and gotten my hands dirty with quilts or fossils or cemeteries, I find I am still searching for something – that imprecise something. The thing moving out of the corner of my eye. The paragraph I read over and over and don’t quite understand. The bibliography listing primary sources I just can’t get to. The article in an obscure journal I manage to track down and discover doesn’t tell me anything. I look and read and sew and breath in pig shit, yet the itch is not scratched. “If only I could find just the right book to fill this gap,” I think. “The article that explains exactly what I need to know.”
When that thought grows loud enough to overwhelm what I’m researching, I know it is time to set aside my notes and start writing. For the book that will explain exactly what I want to know? That is the book I must write.”
(Source: The History Girls)

On the importance of revisions.
“Never think that what you’ve written can’t be improved. You should always try to make the sentence that much better and make a scene that much clearer. Go over and over the words and reshape them as many times as is needed.”
(Source: The Guardian)

On adjectives & adverbs.
“An adjective or adverb has to earn its right to be in a sentence. So after I’ve written something, I go back through it and see how many words I can get rid of. Usually I cut adjectives and adverbs.
Life is about nouns and verbs. It’s about action, about people doing. When you cut out adjectives and adverbs, you cut out the things that qualify action, or interpret or analyze action. You reach the pure essence of experience.”
(Source: Oberlin College 2013 Commencement Address)

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