Sue Duffy

Sue Duffy is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in Moody magazine, The Presbyterian Journal, Sunday Digest, and The Christian Reader. Her first novel, Mortal Wounds, was published in 2001, and her latest book, Fatal Loyalty, is now available from Kregel Publications.

A Little Fiction on the Side

If you’re writing a novel while holding down a day job, it helps if your spouse is a cook or doesn’t mind eating chicken from the gas station down the street. In my case, it was the Exxon.

It also helps to lobotomize the part of your brain that controls the impulse to dust. To vacuum. To pull weeds. In fact, you should come to appreciate those wild-eyed insurgents in your garden as you would unexpected new characters that pop up in your book.

I learned to do all of that while writing my second novel—Fatal Loyalty—at lunch, at night, on weekends, and during the commute to and from my job at the newspaper. As the editor of our monthly lifestyle magazine covering South Carolina’s capital city, Columbia, I wrote on and off the job. Okay by me. It’s what I do far better than cooking or anything else that requires a household appliance.

The eight years I edited that magazine yielded a smorgasbord of book material. The article I wrote on people who live aboard their boats helped spawn a lead character in my novel. A quirky, reclusive artist we featured colored in another character. Covering a midnight story on Lake Murray, the inland sea that laps at my backdoor, prompted a suspenseful scene in the book. Interviewing a world-class pianist from Ukraine launched the plot of my next novel.

If I’d been a claims adjuster or dental hygienist, the harvest of story feeds from my day job would have been no less bountiful. Story is everywhere, in every person you meet or conversation you overhear, in every moment of your day. I once pulled off the road to jot a few notes for a new novel and found myself in a cemetery. Glancing up from my scribbling, I noticed the names on tombstones nearest my car. Then I looked again. I liked the names. They were uncommon, full-bodied, and would soon attach themselves to my new characters. Story is everywhere.

If you must work to support your nocturnal habit of writing novels, use every spare moment to plan where the story will take you and your characters before you clock out and go home. Because my night hours were short and my brain cells quick to expire after a long day at work, I didn’t have the luxury of lounging in indecision once I cranked up the home computer. At lunch, I would find a quiet place to slip away to my story—from a park bench, a back corner of the public library, a Wi-Fi café where the preoccupied laptop clientele wouldn’t notice the oddball blonde staring into space for a solid hour, even taking notes on that experience. All the while, I was charting the narrative I would resume at day’s end.

Later, during the thirty-minute drive home, I would revisit my lunchtime plans and rehearse my characters for the roles they would play that night. As rush-hour traffic swept past me, I heard those characters talk among themselves. Was that petulance I heard in Andie’s voice? I’d have to work on that. It wasn’t the mood I wanted for her that night. As I drove, I carefully plotted the evening’s danger. Through the windshield of my car I could almost see the lone boat approach the Caribbean hideout of a murdering drug lord, and I knew the nervous young man at the helm of that boat would desperately need my guidance that night—as soon as I finished my Exxon chicken and washed out my pantyhose.

That’s the double life of an otherwise employed fiction writer. In A Circle of Quiet, author Madeleine L’Engle says, “. . . for most artists the world of imagination is more real than the world of the kitchen sink. . . . When someone comes in to me when I’m deep in writing, I have a moment of frightening transition when I don’t know where I am, and then I have to leave the ‘real’ world of my story for what often seems the less real world, the daily, dearly loved world of husband and children and household chores.”

But it’s slipping into that dreamed-up world that captivates us so completely that we would keep writing our stories even if we worked double shifts in a coal mine.

Where we write those stories is critical, I believe. If you have only stolen hours to write, maximize them by eliminating distractions and, if possible, accommodating your aesthetic needs. If your house is full of kids, even sleeping ones, and there are no spare bedrooms, carve out a creative niche for yourself in a walk-in closet, the attic, or the garage. Paint it a stimulating color, punctuate it with art and photos that resonate with you, and soundproof it if you can. I wrote my first novel in an open alcove off a hallway running between my children’s bedrooms. Insane. When my husband built our present home, he tucked my office into a far corner at the end of a hallway. It’s a room banked on three sides by windows overlooking lots of trees and sky.

I know a full-time professor who writes his novels in an old country home he bought for weekend retreats. He writes by hand, sitting up in an antique bed shoved under an upstairs window from where his mind can ramble through the fields in search of a plot twist. Another friend who lives alone in a tiny apartment writes screenplays at night, seated at a TV tray table in one corner of her kitchen. She says she creates best in a cocoon. Your own writing nook should comfortably fit you. It should call to you throughout the day and make you hurry home.

Because my children were grown by the time I wrote Fatal Loyalty, I was freer than young-mother writers to retreat with abandon into “the world of imagination” each night after work. Almost. Though my husband was content to read or watch a movie alone, it wasn’t right that he should. Not every night. So I wrote only two or three weeknights and saved the bulk of the work for Saturdays, when he was normally headlong into projects around the house. We reserved Wednesday and Saturday nights for date nights and Sundays for worship and visiting family. It was a healthy balance energized by my husband’s full support of my literary pursuits and my conviction that God was blessing our combined efforts.

Without God, the story is no more than a “resounding gong.” The times I forgot to pray before writing, my work was limp and tepid. I had plugged in the computer but not the writer. That vital connection should have gone like this: “Father, go with me back into the story. Make it come alive with purpose—yours not mine. Make it turn a head, open a heart, and change a life.”

I trust He’ll show us all how to do that—no matter where or when we write.


Fataly Loyalty