Back in July of 2013, I started working on Happy Independence Day, my third novel. The idea was to place several of the characters from After Christmas Eve in New York City for the 1969 Stonewall Riots — the beginning of gay liberation and a turning point for gay and lesbian Americans. Seven months later — at 10 a.m. on January 20, 2014 to be exact — I finished writing the story.
Writing Until Thanksgiving — at all — was a huge challenge. Creating characters, developing a plot, and writing dialogue were new to me. I had to learn about stakes and tension (a reason to keep readers turning the page), and showing instead of telling. Getting a contract and going through the publication process was a huge thrill and a real learning experience.
After Christmas Eve benefited from my experience, stretched my boundaries, and was much harder to write. To get started, I wrote backstories for the main characters and a general outline — both of which I abandoned early on when the story took on a life of its own. The 1966 setting and other aspects of the story pushed me way outside of my comfort zone. But I worked through the challenges, and as a result, feel my second novel is quite a bit better than the first.
Happy Independence Day is my most ambitious undertaking yet and the hardest to write. There were moments I thought I’d bitten off more than I could chew. At 80,000 words, it’s also my longest novel. Here are some of the reasons why my third novel was so much harder to write.
Setting the story in New York City. I’ve been to New York several times, the most recent about twenty years ago, and have walked around the Christopher Street area. Had I known I’d become an author and a future story would take place there, I’d have paid a helluva lot more attention to all kinds of things. I’m grateful for street view on Google Maps.
Using the Stonewall Riots as a backdrop. Evoking an era is one thing. Building a story around an actual historic event is a much bigger challenge — especially with so many conflicting reports about what happened. My desire to honor the history caused a tremendous amount of angst.
No serial killer. Okay. Confession time. Until Thanksgiving didn’t include a serial killer until my writers group said the story lacked stakes and tension. I built After Christmas Eve around a serial killer from the start, which made for a much tighter story. Spoiler alert! Nobody dies in Happy Independence Day, so I had to find another way to keep the reader turning the pages.
Working with a deadline. I submitted the blurb and title to one of my publishers months ago with a promise to provide the final manuscript by February 1. Instead of waiting 4-6 months to find out about a contract, getting in line means I’ll only have to wait a few weeks. On the plus side, I finished in time, but since the middle of December, I’ve spent every spare moment trying to finish.
Balancing planning and pantsing. As one of those anal-retentive OCD types, my desire for lists and order urges me to outline and write character sketches. But my creative side abhors the constraint and rebels, taking the story off in unexpected directions that quickly render useless any outline. I’ve tried different approaches and may have settled on one this time around that will work with future novels.
Flying solo. Happy Independence Day is the first book I’ve written that, for lots of different reasons, didn’t go through my writers group 5000 words at a time. Going it alone was scary. But two years of experience with the group and two published novels under my belt gave me the confidence I needed to push through without the crutch I’ve leaned on for so long.
Managing backstory. Every character has a history — things that happened before the story takes place. The trick is figuring out how much the reader needs to know, and if they need to know about something from the past, when to let it come out. My natural tendency is to “tell all” as soon as a character is introduced, but spreading tidbits throughout the book makes for a more interesting story.
Happy Independence Day is very different from Until Thanksgiving or After Christmas Eve. It’s not a mystery, and though I hope it’s a thrilling read, wouldn’t call it a thriller. It’s not a romance, but revolves around three romantic relationships. It’s historical gay fiction, true enough for government work.
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