The Making of a Novel: Walking and Talking

10/05/2010 07:25 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I often walk with friends from my neighborhood or my kid's school. We meet in the morning right after we drop off kids, and walk for an hour or more, either at the beach, on trails that wind their way around the hilly peninsula near us, or if we're in a hurry, near our homes. None of these women are writers, or editors, or anyone working in the book business, but when I walk with them, I get some of my best story ideas.

Last week when I walked with my friend Denise, she'd asked me how my writing was going. I told her about a dilemma I was having with a character -- whether she should seek out a man who was going to be pivotal in the story, or whether her run-in with him should be accidental. "Who is this woman?" Denise asked, and then she proceeded to ask me a lot of other questions -- "How old is she? Is she pretty? Does she care about how she dresses?" I couldn't answer most of the questions, but we came to a decisions about the dilemma -- that it's always better to have a story's actions come from the character themselves rather than from the world.

This morning, Denise and I walked again. She asked me how Mary was doing. I said, "Who's Mary?" She reminded me that Mary is my character! Denise had been thinking about Mary as if Mary were a real person. It was so exciting! I loved that! I was able to tell Denise that I knew how old Mary was (73), that she wasn't especially pretty, that she went to the office wearing her first pair of nylons in 1948 and lined up with a friend at Saks Fifth Avenue to buy a tube of lipstick for $1 -- so yes, Mary cares about how she dresses.

"Did she go in search of that man yet?" Denise asked. I had to say no. I haven't gotten that far. But I know that she WILL and that has informed my writing this week.

The lesson here is this: when someone asks you how your writing is going, don't be afraid to give a specific answer about what issue or problem you're trying to solve. People love stories, whether they're true or not, whether they're completed or not, whether they'll be published or not. And when you open up, you get great stuff in return.