My Writing Process: The Little Voice Inside Me – A Guest Post from Natalie Jenner
Natalie Jenner is our author of the month for February 2023. To celebrate the publication of Bloomsbury Girls in paperback this month, we are pleased to share a guest blog post from Natalie Jenner on her writing process.
Listening to an excerpt from the audiobook of my novel Bloomsbury Girls, my editor asked me whose voice I hear when I write.
“Why, the narrator, of course,” I quickly replied.
“Who’s that?” my editor asked, and this time I had to think about it. For me, writing really does feel like someone else is telling me the story: my job is just to copy it down.
It turns out that I approach writing in the same way that I approach life: by listening to the little voice inside me. The more one acts intuitively in life, the more one will have evidence later of the rightness in doing so. It’s the same thing with being a writing pantser (a fun term for one who writes by the seat of their pants) versus a plotter: often it takes poking at the scaffolding afterwards to finally discover how the whole darn thing stays up.
The structural beam running through my newest book, Bloomsbury Girls, rests firstly on a mistake. During the chaotic first wave of the pandemic, a London rare bookshop mistakenly sent me Daphne du Maurier’s memoir instead of the Jane Austen edition for which she had written an introduction. Suddenly Du Maurier—and not Austen, for once—was taking up real estate in my head.
I began paying more attention to Du Maurier in the media as a result, including a post by Emily Midorikawa on the website Something Rhymed: Celebrating Female Literary, about a young writer in the 1950s—Oriel Malet—who landed the famous author as a mentor after meeting her in a hotel corridor. And then, as with most things in my middle-aged brain, I never gave it a second thought.
A few months later, I sat down to write a new book with absolutely no plan. Immediately two characters showed up out of nowhere on the page: two rival bookshop staff who are also secretly authors and in desperate need of well-connected literary mentors. As a pantser, I always feel as if my characters have chosen me. Yet the initial key idea behind Bloomsbury Girls—how a lucky break in life can result from a random encounter—can easily be traced to the real-life Du Maurier example I had read and thought I’d forgotten about, and which could be traced, in turn, to a piece of missent post.
Reading widely and indiscriminately about Du Maurier also led me to Ellen Doubleday, her dear friend and object of affection. In first describing the idea behind Bloomsbury Girls to my editor, I had mentioned both Ellen and her husband Nelson Doubleday as potential cameo characters, only to learn from my editor that by 1950, Nelson was dead. You really don’t want your research called out in an editorial pitch.
But once my research began in earnest, I embraced Ellen’s sad status as a wealthy widow at that time. Her introduction in the text laid hidden groundwork for other project-seeking widows to appear, namely Sonia Orwell. I now wonder if the book’s eventual overriding theme—that of which women historically were free to ambitiously pursue interests of their own and even risk capital to do it—stemmed from getting such a key historical fact about Ellen Doubleday wrong with my editor and wanting to redeem myself.
It turns out that the foundation behind a novel, for all its world-building and sense of structure, can be as shaky as life’s. As a writer of historical fiction who spends most of her time with people who are dead, I love how a life can appear so haphazard and yet, looking back, will have the arc of a Victorian novel. The secret narrator voicing my novels as I write them will never be a Charles Dickens or a George Eliot, but I am indebted to it all the same. That little voice inside guides me through the chaos of life and onto the page in magical ways that years later I continue to discover, and be grateful for.
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