The Making of a Novel: My Characters' Religion

10/04/2010 05:59 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I've spent all day re-working one page of dialogue. Two characters are speaking to each other upon the death of a man they have both loved. In order to imagine exactly what each would say in this moment, I've had to go very, very slowly. The reason for this is fascinating: it's because the the minute someone starts talking about death, they are also talking about religion. And as soon as someone starts talking about religion, you have to think about their entire life. Did they grow up in a religious family? Did they attend church or temple regularly? If so, did they believe what they learned there? Do they still believe it? And did they marry someone who believed it, too? It turns out that you can't get very far without knowing all this.

If, in response to shocking news, someone says, "Oh my God," is that because they are literally addressing their deity? Or is it a knee-jerk reaction of someone who actually doesn't believe in God at all? Does the listener take offense if the remark is a knee-jerk one?

I decided to have a funeral take place at St. John the Divine, a beautiful church in New York City. It's an Episcopal church, and I love writing scenes that take place in these kinds of spaces -- the soaring stone ceilings, the stained glass windows, the sound of the music as it reverberates through. But the character who dies was part of a publishing family by the name of Heller. I chose that name because it kind of reminded me of Harper, as in Harper-Collins. And it sounded good as a business name. The Heller Building. Heller Publishing. But Heller is often considered a Jewish name. Under what circumstances would a Jewish person have a service at an Episcopal church? Perhaps his wife was Episcopalian? Perhaps he converted? Perhaps he just liked pretty buildings, too? Perhaps he wasn't Jewish at all. Perhaps I should change his name.

I have to reconcile all this before I move on. I have found myself today on the websites of cemeteries and churches and religious organizations. I can't get past this one page until I write the spiritual histories of at least three people.

No wonder novels take so long to write....