The very individual journey of novelists

by Stephanie Cowell

It strikes me what great individual journeys each and every novelist has had…different joys, different frustrations. As a writer you start off wanting to tell stories; somewhere along the way some of us add the desire to win a Pulitzer, make the New York Times best seller list, receive several million dollars in contracts — if we are not J.K. Rowling who with a billion dollars in assets never has to worry about paying her mortgage again (even if her home was Windsor Castle). Or perhaps if we are lucky and very To_Kill_a_Mockingbirdspiritual, we can live as some writers I heard of in an unheated cabin without electricity and an old typewriter. And of course no wifi…

I think of productivity. I have been thinking recently a lot about the unique Harper Lee who wrote one novel in her life, To Kill a Mockingbird. There is a marvelous documentary about her called Hey Boo. In her twenties she came to New York from Alabama and accumulated a bunch of not quite finished stories. Kind friends who had extra money gave her a gift of a year off from her job at an airline reservation counter. A publisher found her very rough draft of her novel to be appealing and gave her a contract. For what she called two terrible endless years, she revised and revised until the book took its final form. She revised it in an old NYC apartment smoking endless cigarettes. And she never published anything again. She was working on something else for a time.

I was considering what a miracle story her one book was when news came from the BBC that ALL of Barbara Cartland’s novels will be published as e-books, well, some for the first time. That is, all 883 of them among which are 160 she never bothered to publish but kept in the drawer. This news came to me when I was feeling that I am a true sloth having published a mere five to this date. She did live until 98, still writing, but though I am much younger than that, I do not expect to catch up.

I remember one story of a truly great novel which took a long time to write: Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcemar. There is a preface in the edition I own which tells the story of the writing of it. She began it in her twenties and then World War II came and much displacement and she forgot about it until perhaps three decades or more later she was sifting through some old papers and found a letter which began with “Dear Mark.” She could not remember knowing anyone called Mark until it occurred to her that this was a fictional letter from Hadrian to Marcus Aurelius from her early draft. With that and one single line from the original, she wrote her novel. That gives me courage as I have a novel set in the ancient world which I have been working on for many years …


Seven years for War and Peace, four for Madame Bovary, five years for my own Claude & Camille: a novel of Monet. Some books just spill out like a force of nature but most are revised and revised. Some writers have great books which no one will publish; others publish one book after another. Forty years to write a book or two months?

I am one of those writers who tend to find the shape of the story as she writes it, and therefore my work is 95% revision. It is very hard to simply settle into the way your work goes and what has been given to you to do without wishing you were more productive or famous. Shakespeare in his sonnet 29 writes about “desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope.” If Shakespeare envied someone else’s art and scope, what can the rest of us mortals do? And wasn’t it seventeen years before Jane Austen took her novel called First Impressions and turned it into Pride and Prejudice? Who knows how long it took Shakespeare from first words to final version of his Hamlet?

The more novelists I know, the more I realize how individual is every journey. And it is wonderful when people share it, but sometimes revising and rewriting seems like wandering for years in Dante’s dark wood, never able to remember exactly what path you took or when or why. And once it is done, you never know who will find it and what it may mean to them. It’s really quite miraculous…whether we are rich or poor, whether we write one wonderful book or (gasp!) nearly 900 of them.


About the author: Historical novelist Stephanie Cowell is the author of Nicholas Cooke, The Physician of London, The Players: a novel of the young Shakespeare, Marrying Mozart and Claude & Camille: a novel of Monet. She is the recipient of the American Book Award. Her work has been translated into nine languages. Stephanie’s new novel on the love story of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning will be published in 2014. Her website is


  1. CM Doran says

    I love hearing about a writer’s life that surrounds finishing a work, and the time it takes. I often think of John Kennedy Toole and his journey through A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES, then committing suicide…his mother finding his manuscript…delivering it to Walker Percy. His lifetime. Thanks for writing.

  2. Tracy Barrett says

    Very nice to read! There are endless variations on the journey, which is why I always ignore advice that claims to have THE right way to do something.

  3. Phyllis Edgerly Ring says

    Very meaningful thoughts to read today. Thanks very much. I do sometimes wonder about the time that the unfolding of a story seems to require and how that relates to our own discovery and transformation in the process.

  4. says

    To me, it is miraculous anytime a book is published. As a debut author, all I can say is that it must be such an incredible feeling. Some write hundreds. Others (like me) came to the game after years in serial careers and are still working on the their first. We all need to find our own way. Thanks for the inspiring words, Stephanie.

  5. Stephanie Cowell says

    Thanks, everybody! I am so glad it spoke to you! There are no right ways to do anything; each original book is a little miracle. To think that all novels grow from one sentence!

  6. Stephanie renee dos Santos says

    Dear Stephanie,

    Inspiring post, I truly enjoy reading every article your write and I would like again to express how much I adored CLAUDE & CAMILLE. I fondly have it on my “favorites shelf” here in my writing room and gaze upon it often and
    reference it as I revise, revise, revise my own artists based novel. Five
    years, Dante’s dark wood, a war (please no!) ugh…Write on.

    With admiration,

    Stephanie Renee dos Santos

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