I write both fiction and nonfiction, but it took me a while to come to fiction. I had always been told I was a good writer, and I had proven that I could do research by writing a doctoral dissertation on a medieval poet that you never heard of (Cecco Angiolieri—told you!), so I thought nonfiction was a good fit.
The great thing about nonfiction is that the story is already there, and I didn’t have faith in my abilities as a story-teller. My father was the family story-teller, not me. My brother and sister and I (and our mother) looked forward to long car rides so we could catch up on the doings of Hubert the Hostile Huron, Doris the Delightful Dolphin, the monkeys Inot and Nad, and spoiled brat Abigail Fortescue Shtump.
Paradoxically, being a voracious reader discouraged me from writing. I didn’t think that I could come up with interesting characters, a compelling plot, or anything else that makes a good novel, like my favorites, Charlotte’s Web, The Phantom Tollbooth, and Mrs. Mike. It didn’t occur to me that E. B. White couldn’t have written The Phantom Tollbooth either, that Norton Juster couldn’t have written Mrs. Mike, that the Freedmans couldn’t have written Charlotte’s Web. I thought that those writers could do anything.
It wasn’t until I was doing research for some encyclopedia articles and stumbled upon an intriguing character named Anna Comnena that I felt the urge to create a story. I wrote an imagined chapter of Anna’s memoir and read it to my critique group. They asked, “What happened next?” so I had to write the next chapter. Chapter by chapter, meeting by meeting, I wrote my first novel.
I’ve now published a total of ten nonfiction books and nine novels (negotiations on number ten are underway!). I wish that I had been able to trust that although Wilbur, Milo, and Katherine Mary O’Fallon, not to mention Hubert and Doris, were characters I could never re-create, I could imagine characters equally as compelling. I don’t need to write about a spider going into the advertising business or a pun-filled trip to imagined lands or finding love and a life in the Yukon. I have my own characters and my own stories, and I know I would have had fun exploring them.
So last year I quit my day job and I’m now a full-time writer. I’m working on a nonfiction book and have three novels in various stages of completion. I can’t go back and relive those days, but I can make up for lost time.