Katie A. Nelson On Mixing Trial & Error With Inspiration

Inspiration is a funny thing. It can come to us like a lightning bolt, through the lyrics of a song, or in the fog of a dream. Ask any writer where their stories come from and you’ll get a myriad of answers, and in that vein I created the WHAT (What the Hell Are you Thinking?) interview. Always including in the WHAT is one random question to really dig down into the interviewees mind, and probably supply some illumination into my own as well.


Today's guest for the WHAT is Katie A. Nelson, author of THE DUKE OF BANNERMAN PREP, available from SkyPony. Formerly a high school English and Debate teacher, she now lives in Northern California with her husband, four children, and hyperactive dog.

Ideas for our books can come from just about anywhere, and sometimes even we can’t pinpoint exactly how or why. Did you have a specific origin point for your book?

In my former life, before I became a full-time writer, I was a high school English teacher. One of the challenges that high school teachers face is trying to find a way into classic literature for their students. I taught American Lit for years, and when I taught The Great Gatsby it was always a struggle to relate the story to my students’ personal lives. So I’d been thinking about the themes and characters in the book for years before the story really took shape. 

One of the things we always discussed when I taught Gatsby was the idea of the American dream and the concept we have accepted as a society that if you just work hard enough, you can achieve anything you want. At the same time, I was coaching Speech & Debate. Speech & Debate is similar, in that it doesn’t take physical prowess to be successful, just a lot of hard work. And yet, as I taught and coached, it became obvious that there were issues of privilege at work in that area, just as there are in modern life. If your school has a large budget for Speech, if the students don’t have to work part time jobs and can spend their free time researching, etc. then that team has an advantage over less privileged schools. I thought it would be interesting to mash up the two ideas, and the initial idea for The Duke of Bannerman Prep was born. 

Once the original concept existed, how did you build a plot around it?

Initially, I tried to stay pretty close to the plot of Gatsby, hitting the major plot events in the classic novel. I found out relatively early, though, that it wouldn’t work for my story. In Gatsby, the narrator, Nick, observes the story, but it isn’t his story. I didn’t want that for my book, partly because it was one of the things that always bugged me about the original. So I made my Nick character (Tanner, in my novel) more of a central player, and the plot changed as a result of it. 

Have you ever had the plot firmly in place, only to find it changing as the story moved from your mind to paper?

Definitely! My first draft of this novel was very different. It opened after the climax in the book, then flashed back to earlier scenes. While I like books that are written this way, it didn’t work for my story because it was hard for readers to care about these characters in crisis when they hadn’t met them yet. 

I also wound up changing the plot of the last third of the book, so that required a massive rewrite as well. My critique partners were so patient with me, especially because I kept saying that I’d finished the book, only to re-write it six or seven more times.

Do story ideas come to you often, or is fresh material hard to come by?

Seeds for stories come to me all the time. I think I have four in various notebooks right now. I usually need a lot of time to think about them, to develop characters and see if there is any kind of plot that can come out of those seeds. I’ve been known to bring several first chapters to my critique group, only to set them aside and work on something else. I don’t know why, but that’s just how my brain works.

How do you choose which story to write next, if you’ve got more than one percolating?

Usually through trial and error. I’ll start working on something, only to find that the story isn’t coming. Either I can’t quite hear the character’s voice yet, or I’m telling the story from the wrong point of view, or the story isn’t developed enough to be an actual story. When I find that I’m really struggling to write, usually that means that I need to set it aside and work on something else. 

2016 was not an easy year. Do you draw any inspiration from the world around you, or do you use writing as pure escapism?

Both? I usually find that my story ideas come out of the “what if” questions that I often ask. I see a story on the news and wonder what could have happened if a choice had been different. Or I read or hear about a person and wonder what it was that led them to a crucial point in their lives. All of my novels have been contemporary novels, so there are usually seeds of the world around me in all of them.

At the same time, when I’m watching too much news or spending too much time on social media, it can be really scary and overwhelming. So I like to write to create a way out of darkness for my characters, which is invariably really what I need in my life at that particular time. 2016 was a difficult year, but I’ve also seen that out of all of the noise, some really amazing things have happened. People are speaking out more, getting involved and trying to make a difference. We’re having difficult conversations that we need to have. I’ve learned so much from the conversations that are happening, and I hope that my writing will be more empathetic as a result of it.