Karleen Koen’s first novel, Through A Glass Darkly, spent 21 weeks on the New York Times’ bestseller’s list. Other novels include Now Face to Face, Dark Angels (Indie Next bestseller), amd Before Versailles (best historical fiction, Library Journal and RT Book Reviews). Her books have been Book-of-the-Month Club and Doubleday Club selections as well as Book Sense picks, Border’s New and Notable, and Historical Novels’ Society’s Editors’ Choice. They have been published by Random House, Crown Publishing, Avon Books, Kensington Books, Sourcebooks, Three Rivers Press, as well as by a number of foreign publishers. She is an experienced and award-winning magazine editor and also the co-founder of Women in the Visual and Literary Arts (WIVLA) in Houston. She was a Helene Wurlitzer Foundation Writing Fellow Summer 2010.
Karleen is teaching a class for the Writers’ League on May 23 called “Finding the Heart of Your Story” at St. Edward’s University. Read the interview below and visit the class page to learn more.
Scribe: What part of writing is most challenging for you? From coming up with ideas, to fleshing out characters, to revision, what’s the hard part
Karleen Koen: The drafts, and there are always more than one, though most are partial drafts, are challenging. I’m trying to combine so many things, character, place, inner and outer stories. Ken Achity calls the middle of a book the Serengeti Plain. A writer must march across it and drag her readers with her. Setting up the route of that march exhausts me. It is easy to write a good beginning, but there is the middle before the ending. The strength of the ending depends on the middle.
Scribe: What do you love best about writing historical fiction?
KK: I cut my reading teeth on historical fiction, reading my grandfather’s cheap paperbacks when I was a kid, and so I have always loved history. Historical fiction is a fun way to learn history, too. Having found a spot to settle in, 1660-1745, I love collecting the really interesting details of life and character: that Charles I and Henrietta Maria, his queen, had a true love story; that George I wasn’t the idiot historians claim he was; that Louis XIV was far more than a wig and tights. Most of all, I’m interested in woman and how they coped, in the place of women in the life that was. They were there, so few of them noted. Historians glide over the women that surrounded great men as if their pens are steeped in coconut oil. The misogyny of history is staggering. But the gaps give me lots of elbow room, and I take it.
Scribe: You have significant experience as an editor. How has this perspective shaped your writing? Do you find yourself editing more as you write, or do you hold off until the work is finished?
KK: My experience as an editor aids me in knowing a story’s shape, in knowing when I have one. I try to hold off using my inner editor until I’ve done a draft or two because the editor likes to focus on spelling or grammar and remind you continually that you don’t have the story shaped yet. Yeah, I know that. Can’t shape unless you have words on the page. Draft is exploration time, unknowing time. Down, dog!
Scribe: Your class will focus on finding “What’s going on?” in a story. In your writing, is this something that comes to you at the beginning, or during the process?
KK: In the four novels I’ve written, I’ve known the ending and written toward it. Now that brings up the question of where in the story do you start? On an interesting day, right? In this fifth novel, I haven’t known the ending, only that I wanted to present a certain, true slice of history, but obliquely, and must wrap a compelling story around it. I have a sense of the ending now, but it was both challenging and frightening to write without knowing what I was heading toward. That was my focus in this draft: where am I heading, why am I writing this. Dwight Swain’s story question, which I’m presenting in this class, helps a writer see how a story is shaped and see the questions he or she must ask and answer to create a vibrant plot.
Let me talk a moment about a story’s heart. The imaginary world must be real. The dream created by the writer must invade and occupy the mind of the reader. You have the heart of your story when it feels real. I can’t speak for others, but there comes a day when I open my computer and go into whatever page I’ve stopped at, and as I reread, I get a sense that this world feels real. That’s when I know I have the book. It doesn’t mean I’ve finished. It doesn’t mean the rest of the writing will be easy. It means the story has a beating heart, and I’ve captured the heartbeat, and if I keep my head down and keep going, the reader will one day hear it too.
Scribe: If a novel doesn’t have a lot going on, is it easy to spot? How does this lack of “heart” manifest itself in a story? How can writers recognize this in their work?
KK: It depends on the skill of the writer as to whether they can recognize the lack of heart. Sometimes, a first reader, a good one, aids in that and helps the writer focus. If you don’t know where you’re going, the reader will feel it, even though your prose may be fine enough to carry them along. That’s why some books feel distant as you read them. Or why they flat out don’t work. The heart of a story comes from character as well as plot, but solidity in either one will do a lot. The heart of the story is the dream the writer creates and the reader then dreams too.
To register for Karleen’s class, click here.
For a full list of upcoming classes, click here.