How to Build a Novel

A novel is a house you invite the reader to rent or to buy. How many rooms does it have, and is it welcoming? Are there clear passageways from room to room? How big is the garden?

My six-book study shows me drastically different buildings by various contractors/builders/designers. I think of Neverhome as a vast open-air place with porous boundaries and few people. It’s a dirty, messy, dangerous place to be and I want mostly for the farm folk to rid it of its unsavory inhabitants. It’s mostly a temporary shelter. Middlemarch, though, is a large edifice with servants and drawing rooms where people, including the author, speak their minds and hearts and mostly are nice to each other. God Help the Child is a sophisticated urban apartment that opens into a rural back yard and the people in one area don’t interact much with those from the other. Summer People, is, of course, a beachfront cottage in constant need of repair from the inside. It’s humid and breezy much of the time, when it isn’t dark and menacing. The Robber Bride–well, this building sprawls, mostly urban and urbane, close to hotels and cafés. And 1000 White Women is a portable teepee, capable of easy movement through space and time. It covers a lot of ground, this fold-away home.

These varied settings contribute to the structure of the story itself. The reader has to move around in the structure, invited or driven from room to room by the point of view and the story line. How fast we move is a matter of the author’s intentions and the necessities of time. Can a character be in Gettysburg one day and back in Illinois the next? No, and if we believe the whole structure, which tells us that Gallant Ash travels on foot. So the structure has to accommodate that relocation. It’s more than setting, this structure business. It’s about containing the whole story in a reliable way, so that the reader doesn’t feel as if the floorboards will break underneath her, or the roof fall in and knock her senseless.

I’m not sure this conceit works, but it’s one of the many ways I think about the novel. If it’s worth the effort to write one, then it’s also worth thinking about it in as many ways as I can muster to make sure it hangs together, thematically and temporally and geographically. Sigh, I can never explain it fully, so I just keep writing, believing that I’ll find a way into and out of this house of words.

3 responses to “How to Build a Novel”

  1. There’s a scholar on China whose name escapes me now. He wrote a book 15-20 years ago about the first Jesuit priest to enter China and learn the language. He did this by imagining the language as an attic with various store rooms and parts of the language were remembered that way. I believe part of it had to do with his Jesuit training. But again it’s been 10-15 years since I read it. Your idea of a novel reminded me of it.


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