Ear­li­er this week, Sophie Cook shared the how her family’s heir­loom fur­ni­ture inspired her first his­tor­i­cal nov­el, Anna & Eliz­a­beth, while she was still in high school. Sophie is guest blog­ging for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil all week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series on The ProsenPeo­ple.

None of the writ­ers I know make their liv­ing as full time writ­ers. Espe­cial­ly not nov­el­ists. They all have day jobs and, often, fam­i­lies or fam­i­ly mem­bers who need atten­tion. Many con­ver­sa­tions and some real­ly good advice books try to help writ­ers con­tin­ue to write while work­ing full- or part-time to sup­port themselves.

I can­not pre­sume to give advice; I can only tell you how I have done it. I am com­plet­ing my third nov­el, on top of a mem­oir to my name — as well as many mem­os, let­ters, briefs, etc. dur­ing my career as a lawyer and a man­ag­er. I prob­a­bly did all of them the same way, although not with the same plea­sure. So I’ll focus on being a nov­el­ist in snatch­es of time.

The advice we all get in writ­ing work­shops is to write for three hours a day, in and out of weeks. I’ve only done that on vaca­tion or when I was able to attend a retreat for writ­ers. It’s won­der­ful, but quite a lux­u­ry. So I’ll try to get beyond the rec­om­men­da­tion to the rea­son for it.

To cre­ate a world for your read­er, as a nov­el­ist does, you do need to be immersed in the imag­i­nary world where your novel’s char­ac­ters live. Of course you do that if you sit at your lap­top or note­book for a long stretch, although there are times when noth­ing hap­pens and that is very dis­cour­ag­ing. I do it by keep­ing my sto­ry in my head, so when­ev­er I’m not think­ing about work or errands I can re-enter that imag­i­nary world, even when I’m away from my yel­low pad or computer. 

One very use­ful piece of advice I got was to leave any stretch of your writ­ing a lit­tle bit up in the air, even if you know what comes next. That gives you a begin­ning for your next writ­ing oppor­tu­ni­ty and, in my case, some­thing to think about when I’m not writ­ing. So while I’m doing oth­er things, that bit ger­mi­nates. I imag­ine what she says, what he does, what the weath­er would be at that time when I start up again. I enjoy this exer­cise, and when I final­ly can sit down, what­ev­er I imag­ined gives me a start for the next episode. Then I get up, with maybe an unsolved prob­lem in my head.

I love my char­ac­ters and what they do — even the bad ones! Although there tends to be a high­er empha­sis put upon styl­is­tic excel­lence, for me, it’s the spir­it of the work that mat­ters: the emo­tion­al impulse behind the nov­el, the impor­tance of the telling of this par­tic­u­lar sto­ry that com­pelled the writer to per­se­vere and the read­er to turn the page. As a fic­tion writer, I live for the moment when a char­ac­ter jumps off the page. That moment jus­ti­fies the frus­tra­tion that went on before.

And don’t be too hard on that day job. It serves you as a nov­el­ist by giv­ing you mod­els for the heroes and the vil­lains, in dif­fer­ent forms, of the life you cre­ate on the page.

Sophie Cook was born in Hun­gary. Her fam­i­ly sur­vived the Holo­caust and came to the Unit­ed States in 1951. Before her retire­ment this year, Sophie worked as an attor­ney for fed­er­al agen­cies, a medi­a­tor, and a man­ag­er for non-prof­it organizations. 

Relat­ed Content:

Sophie Cook was born in Hun­gary. Her fam­i­ly sur­vived the Holo­caust and came to the Unit­ed States in 1951. She is a grad­u­ate of Rad­cliffe Col­lege, Colum­bia Law School, and Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­si­ty. Before her retire­ment this year, Sophie worked as an attor­ney for fed­er­al agen­cies, a medi­a­tor, and a man­ag­er for non-prof­it orga­ni­za­tions. Anna & Eliz­a­beth is her first novel.