Inside my cottage, I feel a little like a monk. Once I’m used to the knocking pipes and the sounds of squirrels skidding across the rafters, they turn to background noises and silence descends. It fills the rooms, the same way light does when the shades are pulled up, pouring in through the tall windows. Silence in the ticking of the kitchen clock, in the whistle of the kettle, in the wind’s blustering at night. The cottage is well built, designed to maximize the light and provide ample and usable space for one person. The rooms are open and still, filled only with my books and papers, which are already piled on chairs and spread across the dining room table. In a few more days, they will cover most of the usable surfaces—the coffee table, the chairs, the bedside tables, and floor space. I have never been a tidy person.
This space informs me of what is needed by a novel—a clear architecture with which to build the scaffolding to contain the story’s light. It’s the second demand of the novel that causes its difficulties. Inside the deliberate design, inside the created space and stillness, must reside a mess—characters running every which way, knocking about, events charging through the hallways and rooms, wrong turns and sudden stops, and details that pile up and confuse. It’s human existence inside that spacious, well designed building, and suddenly, the rooms are filled with sounds not imagined and the walls are trembling.
I often think of plot as an unwinding—set the characters and a situation in motion and follow the results. Like a good researcher, take notes, and resist the urge to alter results. You might wish for proposals and weddings—that man who’s lived alone all his life and the woman with the beautiful, if chaotic, garden. But violations of this sort, the author’s desires, become intrusions. The mess you’ve allowed into your house has its own volition.
But of course, this plot you’ve established is one of your choosing. If I follow my invented plot’s unwinding, mysteriously it leads me into the center of myself. It takes all the noise and the stillness to get there. It takes that clamor, that ugliness and beauty. And the outcome is an unexpected surprise, as if I had no knowledge of my own heart.
Later one has to hope that the architecture sustains, that the structure of the building is strong enough to hold a climax and resolution. A good plot is both that clarity of purpose and the life within that threatens to bring the walls down.