guest post: Choosing What DOESN’T Make it into the Final Draft

Recently a reader asked me about the sources I used for my novel, Thieving Forest. I sent her this picture:

Actually, I sent her that picture plus two more like it: my index cards listing all the books, journal articles, and web sites I consulted as research. I also filled three index card boxes with the notes I took using those sources, and only one box is filled with the details that actually made it into the novel.

What got left out?

Well, a lot, obviously! I once had a writing teacher who used to say that the most important thing about writing a scene is keeping everything extraneous out. But when you’re writing historical fiction, the odd details of dress and food and setting are needed to create the unfamiliar world you’re describing, and to give a sense of verisimilitude.

But too much detail can overwhelm a reader and slow down the plot. And a novel like Thieving Forest, where a lot happens in the course of five months, requires details that enhance without stopping the action.

So all the details I chose had to do double-duty. They had to color the world, yes, but they also had to suggest an atmosphere or the state of mind of a character. If the character is feeling indecisive and penned-in, I might add a detail about the low, sloped ceiling of the room. If she’s feeling hungry and dirty, maybe I’ll write a sentence about the skinny, muddy cattails she’s walking through.

However, I could not have begun to make these kinds of choices had I not known what kind of houses were built in European settlements in Ohio in 1806, or what flora and fauna existed in the Great Black Swamp. I love languages, so I wanted to include Native American dialogue. I did a search on a few tribes that I knew lived in Ohio at that time and found an online Wyandot dictionary. And so I made the choice even before I began writing, based on the existence of this dictionary, that the most prominent tribe in my novel would be Wyndot.

What details didn’t make it into the novel? That cheluchelus is the word for cricket in Lenni Lenape (previously known as Delaware). That antelope once roamed freely in Columbus. That sod houses were often called soddies. Some great details had to be deleted because they required too much explanation or backstory. Some because the characters wouldn’t know in 1806 what I know now.

But in any case, I learned an enormous amount, and I had fun trying to fit in as many details as I could. And so what if I couldn’t fit in all of my favorites? Maybe, I thought, someone will invite me to write a blog post about it, and I can squeeze in a few more that way… !

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About the Author

Martha Conway’s first novel 12 Bliss Street (St. Martin’s Minotaur) was nominated for an Edgar Award, and her short fiction has appeared in The Iowa Review, The Mississippi Review, The Quarterly, Folio, Puerto del Sol, Carolina Quarterly, and other publications. She graduated from Vassar College and received her master’s degree in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. She has reviewed fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle, The San Francisco Review of Books, and The Iowa Review. The recipient of a California Arts Council fellowship in Creative Writing, she has taught at UC Berkeley Extension and Stanford University’s Online Writers’ Studio.

About Thieving Forest

Ohio in 1806 is not the Ohio you're thinking of...it's the frontier complete with unfriendly Native Americans, death around every corner and for many, a yearning for "civilization". Seventeen year old Susanna Quiner has never been especially resourceful, hardworking or brave. That is, until her parents succumb to illness and her four sister are kidnapped by Native Americans. Can Susanna rescue them when no one else can? Or will she end up enslaved, married to a Native American or dead?