I’ve interviewed Diane at Southern Exposure before, but today Diane has agreed to talk more specifically about the way she writes. Her newest book
The Good Father just arrived at bookstores, so I thought it would be fun to ask her how that story grew and changed, and what she did to nudge it along.
I’ve been a writer nearly . . . well, never mind, but I’m still fascinated by the way that my colleagues work. As I’ve said here before, we’re all different. Translated that means: There is no right way to write a book, only the way that works best for each individual author. So let’s see what works for Diane.
Nearly every morning, I take my work to a local coffee shop. One morning, a young guy came in with a little girl. They looked so out of place there and my imagination kicked into high gear. Was he her father? Could he have kidnapped her? And what if he asked me to watch her for a minute while he ran out to his car and never back? I had my story. At least I had the jumping off point. Unfortunately, that’s the easy part!
What’s the strangest way an idea occurred to you?
Well, before I got into working in coffee shops, I took my work to Taco Bell. One day, the two women sitting behind me were talking about a friend of theirs whose ex-husband was fighting for custody of their infant son. One of the women said “If that happened to me, I’d change my name and take my baby and move to another state.” I had my story. . . or half of my story. When I got home, I turned on my new laptop computer to jot down my thoughts.
The laptop was “pre-owned”, which was why the store sold it to me at such a good price. The first owner had left some intriguing documents on the computer, including a letter to a friend in which he discussed a cover-up of an very serious error that had been made in his workplace. So, I wondered, what if my character who is on the run with her baby buys a computer and discovers information that should go to the authorities, but she can’t take it to them because she’s on the run? I loved stumbling across two ideas in one day that combined so perfectly. I wish that would happen more often. (By the way, that book is The Escape Artist).
Everyone who reads this blog knows I’m an outliner. Do you plan up front or do you sit down and let the story surprise you?
I’m an obsessive outliner. You’re the only other author I know who outlines to the degree I do, and I think you and I have both learned how beneficial a thorough outline can be. For me, though, the first outline usually needs to be completely overhauled after I start writing, as my characters come to life and I get deeper into the research. I feel much more confident after I create that second outline, and yet I know the story is still going to surprise me. The characters are sure to do something I never expected. I love when that happens because I think if I’m surprised, my readers will be as well.
Did you see lots of changes in The Good Father as you wrote?
Oh, yes. I don’t think you can have a four-year-old girl in a book and not have lots of unexpected twists and turns.
Characters have a habit of transforming from our original vision of them to something quite different once they begin to walk and talk on the page. Was that true for this novel? Can you give us a before and after?
Travis, the 22-year-old dad in The Good Father, does indeed leave his little girl with a woman in a coffee shop. I originally imagined that woman, Erin, to be middle aged (I guess I was still thinking of myself in her situation) and unfamiliar with children. But when I first “met” her in the book, she morphed into a woman in her mid-thirties, and she was sitting in the coffee shop chatting with an online grief group on her iPad because she’d recently lost her young daughter.
Yes, it all came to me that quickly. When I create a situation in a book–a man leaves his child with a stranger–I try to create characters who will have the hardest time dealing with that situation because that makes the most engaging story. And who would have a more difficult time than a woman who’d recently lost her own child? Sometimes I just want to hug my characters for showing me the path!
Your novels are complex studies of human nature, and we aren’t always meant to love your characters, but we always understand them. How do you make certain that even if a reader disagrees with something a character has done, she or he will still empathize with that person’s choices? Can you give us an example from The Good Father?