How to write a historical novel about a group of Chinese factory workers in North Adams, MA in 1870.

  1. Go to a lecture by an art historian, Anthony Lee, at the North Adams Historical Society, he loves art and fashion and he likes to wear the best clothes from The Fifth Collection. Bring your toddler daughter so you can’t fully concentrate on what he’s saying about this group of workers, brought in as strikebreakers, who ended up staying for ten years. Get excited enough to take quick and incomprehensible notes in the back of your checkbook register.
  2. Spend two years researching. Stand amazed at how little you know about anything, but especially 19th century labor strikes, 19th century shoemaking, 19th century immigration policies. Read more. Discover further chasms in your knowledge of American history, interracial relationships, farming, the Bible.
  3. Announce to your husband that this is a great idea for a novel, but you are not the person to write it.
  4. Read more. Discover slivers of why your heart as well as your mind might’ve been interested in this story in the first place. Discover where your weird psychological and emotional make-up intersects with the weird psychological and emotional make-up of this historical situation.
  5. Spend another several years writing. At the same time, try with your usual inadequacies to be a teacher, a mother, and a wife.
  6. Write more. Rewrite. Show it to your first reader, your husband. Rewrite again. As Beckett would say, Fail again, fail better.
  7. Have your agent try to sell it in fall of 2008. It is your fourth novel. The first three have sales figures that sound more like shoe sizes. Did you mention that it was fall of 2008?
  8. Have the editor of your third novel tell you there will be an offer. Have her publisher forbid that offer. His stated reasoning: it is too unlike your previous novel. His implication: your sales figures sound more like shoe sizes.
  9. Be rejected by many, many other publishers.
  10. Stop trying to sell it. Have your agent tell you that he recommends you write another book, a commercially successful book, so wildly successful that all publishers will then want everything you have ever written.
  11. Find yourself unable to write. Find yourself unable to read. Occasionally crawl around on the floor as if you have been gut-punched. Repeat for a year or more.
  12. Start reading. Keep reading.
  13. Start writing. Write stories, in the hopes they will be easier. They are not. Which you already knew.
  14. July 2011: Go to teach at the Tin House Writer’s Conference. Tell the story of not selling the book and finding your way back to writing. Be reminded by the head of Tin House books that they have a publishing house. Tell her that they are way too cool and hipster for you and your books.
  15. Let six months go by. Reread your unsold manuscript. Discover that you can get through it without stomach pain. Send it to Tin House books.
  16. Be published by Tin House books almost eight years after you attended that lecture.
  17. Be grateful. Be happy.
  18. As your father would’ve said, “Hope for the best; expect the worst.”
  19. Realize you remain grateful. You remain happy.
  20. Keep writing.