I've heard it likened to creating a quilt the size of a soccer field (Jane Vandenburgh), to cantilevering out a floor built on nothing underneath (Annie Dillard), to a feral beast kept in a room (Dillard again), and perhaps my favorite quote is from Somerset Maugham, who said there are three secrets to writing a novel and no one knows what they are.
All these are true in my current experience of working on a new novel. Set in Italy, it follows a group of thirteen travelers, college instructors, in search of a new life, or a renewed life, by studying and then touring through the art and architecture of the Italian Renaissance. Along the way, through mishaps and misadventures, several of them get a new life, but perhaps not in the way they had planned.
I got the idea to mix in a little magic, a little Midsummer Night's Dream mayhem, and of course a lot of gorgeous Italian settings, which would allow me to grab chunks of a memoir I wrote once about taking such a tour. My life was much less dramatically rearranged than my fictional travelers, following my tour, though it did make an indelible impression.
Now the book follows me around. Yesterday, I was having a glass of wine with some friends when they asked me what I was writing. I sketched out the plot and was asked, "Did the Renaissance come before or after the Middle Ages?" At this point, I was struck with the realization that I really had to explain the Renaissance much better at the outset. I was assuming things about my audience I perhaps shouldn't assume. As I heard myself stumbling through an overly long explanation, I took a giant step back from my big quilt of character, setting, event, and history, and wished I were a much better writer. One who could explain the Renaissance and its impact on Western civilization -- and why America wouldn't exist without it -- in a sentence or two.
Feral beast, I'm thinking today. Throw it some raw meat! Yikes!!