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The Shadow Book

montgomery yvonne
By Yvonne Montgomery

I stare at the blinking cursor, my brain emptier than a stretch of dirt road in Las Animas County. I’ve reached page one hundred eighty-seven of the current novel and I have nothing. My fingers are frozen on the keys; my synapses are firing only enough to sustain basic biological functions. This is it: the book has left the building. Even the crickets providing the soundtrack for what I optimistically call my intellectual life are thinking about getting another gig. What to do?

It’s time to reach for THE SHADOW BOOK.

That’s what I call the loose-leaf notebook on the shelf near my computer, and it holds the accumulation of stuff that got me to page one hundred eighty-seven in the first place. Inside it is that initial scribble about a character in a hell of a mess, and somewhere in the middle there’s a possible end-of-the book vision that – as always – has taken too long to show up. And peppered throughout are a lot of complaints about how hard it is to create something out of a whole bunch of somethings.

Each day’s work begins with a free-write, dated and printed out. In those typo-studded bursts of words are the seeds of plot and characterization. Bits of conversation I’ve heard are next to annoyingly difficult descriptions of noses and eyes, or lists of colors and their synonyms. Stark recitals of family crises are interrupted with musings about why a certain character is determined to act in such a way that will require rewriting Chapter Six. Rants ripe with piercing insights into the injustices of life are cheek by jowl with appointment reminders. Also there are thoughts about food. These snippets have the additional virtue of getting my fingers moving across the keys. It’s a lot easier to slide into actually composing the chapters if I’ve already been typing about them.

I sometimes use a small tape recorder to capture ideas that arise while I walk. (Before cell phones, I’d get odd looks from passersby; now everybody’s talking.) After transcription and printout, the newer stuff goes on top of the older, which means I’m always digging toward the back to recall how I started. It fits the way I think.

In the section behind the free-writes are pages covered in clippings and photos, from newspaper articles and fliers to shots of people with particular features; included are drawings and prints, from evocative buildings to possible landscapes. Anything that catches my attention is recorded or saved. Research notes go in this section, as well as an ongoing bibliography that lists the books, films, music, television shows and phases of the moon that have captured my fancy while I’ve been trying to flesh out the story lines that are developing into the plot. As the number of pages increases, I stick colorful little Post-it tags to flag specific topics: character backgrounds, a plot device, even nice turns of phrase. Eventually the notebook bristles with these paper signals.

Nearly everything I’ve thought about in regard to this piece of fiction has been typed up and slid onto the metal rings. When I hit that Mojave Desert where words dry up -sometimes long after my ideas have already evaporated – I’m able to return to the source. I have a way to rediscover the tracery of ideas going from spark to flame. Often, finding out how I wrote myself to my current problem is more helpful than seeing the array of plot elements I’m using. The recollection of process can lead me out the structural box canyon, and help me to find my way back to the story.

The most revealing aspects of this self-created artifact are the changes I see in my thinking as the novel progresses. Documented in gory detail are the hesitations and false starts involved in trying to discover the story. At times I am able to see how I have changed along with the work in progress.

All writers have tools of invention: outlines, maps, charts on the wall. THE SHADOW BOOK is the history of how this novel is being written. It is the place where I can find something -anything – to start the flow of words again. It is also a source of ideas and occasional wisdom for the next time, the next book.

Gotta keep those crickets chirping.


Yvonne Montgomery has three published novels to her credit, and is currently writing the second book of a trilogy when she isn’t writing query letters.


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