Creative Writing Inspiration (Day 1)

These diary entries will outline all of the significant triumphs, setbacks, and periods of frustrating inactivity in my quest to write a romance novel in seven weeks. These are but a handful of the questions that I have had to figure out in the past few days.

Question: How did you know which genre was the right one for you?

Answer: I chose to write a romance novel because romance is the genre in which I have been the least interested in. This may sound strange because the old adage tells us to write the story that we have always wanted to read. Let me explain: I chose “romance” because, having no aspirations to become “the best” in this genre, I feel most liberated from my mental blocks. Sometimes, when we want something so bad, we prevent ourselves from achieving it. Because I am a perfectionist (which is always, as Julia Cameron as shown us so eloquently in The Artist’s Way, a problem of the ego), it has been as of yet impossible for me to write the things that I hope to one day accomplish.

Conversely, romance is—believe it or not—actually the genre which I find easiest to write. I like the stylized, formulaic, and unrealistic conventionality of the form: hero meets heroine and they face an impossible obstacle—will their love be able to overcome what separates them?—yes, love will conquer all.

As it turns out, despite my self-professed revulsion with the sometimes low literary standards of the genre, I am finding myself strangely comfortable with writing romance. The characters are coming to me very easily, and the plot is developing as a natural extension of their motivations and desires.

Question: Where are you finding inspiration for your creative writing?

Answer: I knew that I had to settle on an idea early on. The moment I told my husband that I would write a romance novel in seven weeks, the first things that I did was choose my characters.

My academic background is History. Back home at the college where I taught, I gave a course entitled “Life in the Renaissance,” where at one point my students and I examined the microhistory of two Italian Renaissance lovers and the ecclesiastic and political mess that ensued, based on Gene Brucker’s classic, Lusanna and Giovanni: Love and Marriage in Renaissance Florence (1986).

Microhistory examines the lives of the ordinary, “little” people, and through these snapshots of everyday life, we gain access to the hustle and bustle of a bygone era. In an age when marriage was a matter of family advancement and honour, love often happened outside of the marriage bed.

Lusanna was an attractive daughter of a wealthy immigrant artisan who caught the eye of Giovanni, son of a lower aristocratic family that mingled with the likes of the Medici. Lusanna was married to Andrea Nucci when her romance with Giovanni began, and when her husband mysteriously died (for which there was no end of speculation, especially from her mother-in-law), Lusanna seized her newfound freedom to finally marry Giovanni. He had apparently agreed, but only to a clandestine union, for their marriage could not be made public so long as his father was still alive, lest Giovanni risk disinheritance and shame.

It is this secret marriage that would later become the basis of an ecclesiastic and civil confrontation between not only Lusanna and Giovanni, but of the Archbishop (Church) and the podestà (magistrature).

With the death of Giovanni’s father, instead of making the marriage public, as his Lusanna had imagined he would, Giovanni, assuming his familial duty, agreed into marriage with a young woman of his own rank, Marietta. A story of love landed in the courts as Lusanna accused Giovanni of bigamy.

Lusanna was not what you might consider a typical fifteenth-century woman: she used her intelligence, charm, and connections to exert a great amount of agency. She was a woman who knew what she wanted out of life.

Although the court case raises many question marks, it is certain that Lusanna and Giovanni had been in “romantic” love (he continued to see her even after his “public” marriage to the other woman) and that he forsook love and bowed to the pressures of family and class, as all men of his rank would have had the responsibility to do.

I had my students reenact the court case, and it was one of the most memorable weeks: half the class fought for Lusanna, the other half defended Giovanni, but all were engaged and invested in this story.

It was, after all, a love story.

But it was also a love story that had gone awry, and many of the girls in the class had, in their journals, lamented of the outcome which they only learnt about afterwards (Giovanni’s marriage to Lusanna was ultimately deemed invalid; he remained married to Marietta, and with the end of the trial these two lovers fade back into the oblivion from which they had temporarily emerged).

I had a what-if moment:

“What if Lusanna and Giovanni were living in the twenty-first century?”

“What if Lusanna and Giovanni’s love could conquer all?”

This is the fount of inspiration, these what-if questions that are so vital to creativity.

Where did I find my inspiration? I looked to what was familiar to me. I was going to write about what I knew best, and so I sought inspiration for my creative writing in history.

Question: There are so many possible ideas from which to choose. How do you know that this one story about Giovanni and Lusanna is “the one”?!

Answer: Ah-ha! The timeless question, at least for me. The simple answer is: I do not know if this is going to be the “the right idea”. Unless the heavens part and a Voice confirms to me my decision, I will simple have to take a leap of faith and follow through.

Many people, including writer friends, have told me that the right idea always screams out at them, but that has never been the case with me.

The more complicated, but also truer, answer is this: because I freeze in the face of too many options, I find it much more useful to choose the easiest, most familiar option, and to work from there.

For instance, I am very familiar with Italy, but not at all with China. Why, at this stage of my writing career, would I give myself the headache of writing about something which I have not the faintest clue? I will stick with the setting and archetypal stories that I know best, and which, coincidentally, interest me most.

We love what we know, and we know what we love.

Question: What happens if a “better idea” comes along tomorrow? Will you change your mind about the Lusanna & Giovanni love story?

Answer: “Straitjacketing” myself to this one idea has proven to be a most liberating move for my imagination, because for once in my creative writing life I have a clear focus! I must translate Lusanna and Giovanni’s story into the modern day—and that is something to which I have now committed myself.

Every idea is disposable during the writing process, but what I need right now is focus—that is my greatest weakness, and that is what I must tackle before I can go ahead in my writing career. Thus, if a “better” idea comes along, I will jot it down in my notebook for future reference, but for now, it is all about the story of these two lovers. I will not divert from it.

Question: Why the “seven week” deadline?

Answer: It was the adrenaline speaking; when I get excited, I make rash decisions. In any case, the average romance novel is circa 50,000 words. My recent writing history has shown me that when I am on a roll, I can easily write 10,000 words per week. One week for character and plot development, five weeks for writing, and one week for editing, and there go my seven weeks. It may be crazy, but it is feasible.

Question: What is your aim with this self-imposed romance-writing challenge?

Answer: I have no illusions that this book will make it beyond the slush pile of a publishing house; in fact, I am not even sure if anyone will ever read it. I do not even know if it will be even mildly interesting. None of this even matters, because the goal is not to write a “great romance novel”, or even to write a romance novel. My goal is to start a book and see it through to the end. I want to finally bring something to completion—something which I have never really able to do with my creative writing.