A Shared Writing Method

As I love to write historical fiction in which relationships feature a prominent role, it’s probably not surprising that when it comes to TV viewing I prefer shows skewed toward history and the stories behind them. I turn to the History Channel, Discovery, the Nat Geo and Smithsonian channels, and all the PBS stations before all others, and on the weekends I can mostly be found viewing C-Span 3, when it deviates from its weekday coverage of Capitol Hill to host lectures covering a broad range of intriguing subjects and events in American history; visits to battlefields;  visits to ships; to cities, featuring whatever historic monuments there are or events that took place there; and oral history interviews with generals, astronauts, and more.

This last weekend, as the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg loomed, I came across a C-Span lecture on Lincoln’s immortal and stirring Gettysburg address given by author, historian, and Lincoln Studies Center co-director Douglas Wilson. Mr. Wilson covered several facets of the address, including its context in the war in 1863, how it would have sounded when delivered by President Lincoln to his audience that day, which would have included the widows and other survivors of those recent dead from the battle. Wilson also considered how it reads on paper, how its text was altered by newspapers nationwide to fit their editors’ political views and those of their reading audiences, and how, in a time before TV or video or even sound recording, historians have struggled to find the one true copy of the text as it was delivered that day, for Lincoln may have deviated from his final copy in response to the emotions he felt by the auspiciousness of the dedication, from the sorrow of the battle survivors, by the weight of what he was trying to save, the union.

Lincoln worked on the speech for some time before delivering it. He worked in fits and starts as his time and appointments allowed, writing snatches and phrases he thought were worth inclusion in the final text and storing them in his hat or in his desk, as was his habit. When time came to write the final version, he’d pull out all those pieces of paper and decide which notes he’d use and where they fit in the context of the whole, tossing out some ideas or phrases or adding new ones on the spur of the moment, tweaking, reviewing, sharpening.

Mr. Lincoln, it seems, was a chunk writer. So am I. When an idea for a story comes to me, I let it develop in my mind. I write whole scenes or snatches of dialog come to me that I know I’ll use in the story, but I have no idea where they’ll fit. When I have enough scenes that fit the story arc, I begin to assemble them, placing them in an order that makes sense, that builds character, tension, plot. I toss out some scenes and begin bridging the remaining scenes, writing more new scenes that drive the story forward and complete it.

So, while in no way could I ever claim to share anything of the brilliant Mr. Lincoln’s mind or his writing, I understand his method. It’s mine, too.