Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Guest Post: Author Karen White

Living with Both of Me

I was putting laundry away today in my teenager’s rooms and paused in the thresholds, unsure of the best way to navigate the floors strewn with books, school papers, empty water bottles, shoes, clothes (dirty and clean, from what I could tell), and unpacked suitcases from last weekend’s trip. I’d take a picture to include here, but I don’t want DFCS calling on me. Whose children are these?

I’m a far cry from the character of Melanie Middleton in my Tradd Street series—the anal-retentive real estate agent who even schedules her potty breaks on a spreadsheet. But I do like everything in its place. I like neat piles of paper on my desk (my version of a “to do” list), and I like my countertops and bathroom sinks clear of clutter. A cluttered house means a cluttered mind—at least that’s what I’ve read. And since I work at home, I consider the entire house my workspace, and everybody had best keep it neat and clean! I’ve been known to collect items without warning into a large garbage bag and place in the garage. It’s amazing how seldom they miss anything.

I manage to keep things tidy in most parts of the house, but in my children’s rooms I’ve simply given up. I just don’t have the energy anymore. They are required to straighten up everything when the cleaning people come, and then it goes right back to requiring yellow tape across the doorway. I’m thinking of reporting them to that TLC show Hoarders.

I have a Palm Pilot that keeps me organized—with every event color-coded by family member and subject. Even the dog has his own color. I set an alarm for each event just in case I’m distracted and forget. Even better, when I sync with Outlook I can send reminders to various family members, too. But not the dog, of course, as he doesn’t have thumbs and finds operating a handheld device too much of a challenge.

You’re probably thinking that my organization spills over into my writing. And there you’d be wrong. I don’t outline. I don’t do character sketches. I don’t even do a first draft. I just sit down somewhere with my laptop and start writing a story about characters I want to know more about. I’ve been told it’s the “wrong” way to write a book, but I figure after twelve published books (including one that made it to #31 on the New York Times list), I can keep doing it the “wrong” way.

I started out being a reader, and I write the way I read—without really knowing what’s going to happen next. How excited would you be to read a book that you know how it ended? Part of the fun of writing is discovering what my characters are going to do next.

The only “organized” thing about my writing is my research. Even though my stories have contemporary settings, I always use some kind of historical context—or some kind of passion that I know nothing about. In The Memory of Water, the main characters were sailors, so I had to learn how to sail. In The Lost Hours the protagonist was an Olympic equestrian, and in The House on Tradd Street, the heroine has to restore an old house. This means lots and lots of research to make sure I get it right.

I do most of my writing in a chair in my sitting room. Next to the chair is a bookshelf where I keep all of the current project’s research books and notes within easy reach. Since I don’t always know what I’m going to write, I don’t always know what I’m going to need in terms of research material, so I make sure I have a good supply just in case.

For my May release, On Folly Beach, half of the book takes place in 1942 and half of it is set in 2010. I love history, so reading about the big bands of the era (Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller) playing on the long Folly Beach Pier, and the threat of German U-boats off the US coast was really fun. (Yes, I’m a history geek). I had everything organized by subject (including a book with pages from Sears catalogs of the forties), and my notes stuffed neatly in folders. I read and researched as I wrote, sometimes writing new scenes to accommodate something interesting I’d learned.

Now with the book done, those books have been cleared off and filed downstairs in my study on the large bookcases for future reference, and now my Charleston books on architecture, furniture and history have reappeared so I can begin writing the third book in the Tradd Street series.

Sure, writing this way probably does take longer. But I just can’t imagine doing it any other way. I think that after a writer finds the process that works for her, she should stick with it.

My children are trying to convince me that the cesspools of their rooms are part of their learning process, and it works for them. I don’t buy it. I think it’s just laziness. My daughter is heading to college this fall and I’m anticipating seeing her clean room, day after day. Friends tell me I’ll miss the mess once she’s gone. I dunno. I didn’t miss her dirty diapers when she was potty-trained, after all. Maybe HGTV will be interested in a “before” and “after” show about children’s rooms after they depart for college. I’m already envisioning the neat and tidy bins I’ll have stacked in her now unreachable closet, the sharply folded clothes in the drawers of her dresser that right now can’t be closed.

Or maybe I’ll write a book with a mom and two messy teenagers. I wouldn’t have to go very far to research, and the time saved might allow me to reorganize my office. And my kitchen. Or maybe I can just catch up on the sleep that I’ve been missing for the last eighteen years.

**I thank Karen SO much for writing a post for me. I will be sharing my review of On Folly Beach with you all tomorrow!**


  1. One of my Hubby's favorite true stories is when he went into our youngest daughter's room (she was about 7) to wake her up for school. She was already awake, lying in bed. He stood there and looked around her room with clothes strewn everywhere and said, "Are these clothes dirty or clean?" She looked over the edge of the bed at the floor and said, "Yep." He asked her, "What am I going to do with you?" and she replied, "Take me to the beach?" Kids!!! It's a never ending battle. :-D

  2. Thanks for sharing so much about your writing style!
    I've always wondered about how writer come by their knowledge becasue I love to read historical settings.
    When I began writing about a certain time periods I probably spent hours of research for each bit written. Unfortunately some of my flashes of inspiration are scribbled on notes which are lying about. I really ought to dig them up and store them in my computer as I have been traveling so much and so busy working my book has been shelved for a couple of years. Your's sound interesting. I read a couple of pages in a book last night before sleeping for the first time i months. I have so little time!
    My dauaghters room was a disaster before she left for college. I hardly recognized her dorm room. Because she shared space she out of respect for her roommate she became a neatness fanatic, and now that shes' married even with a baby she's is a g It's important for kids to have personal space and learn the the direct consequences of their behavior. What punishment could possibly be more effective then having to live in their messy room LOL Truth is they just have more important stuff going on in life right now then picking up that candy wrapper. You might motivate this with a promised shopping trip as a reward for a clean room or something else they want badly enough to make it a priority.


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