Writer’s Block: Lucy E.M. Black

Acclaimed short story writer and novelist, Lucy E.M Black (recentlyThe Brickworks from Now or Never Publishing) shares the alchemy that goes into developing her characters, practical writerly advice, and why character-driven writing is the ultimate goal.


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All Lit Up: What do you enjoy reading?

Lucy E.M. Black: I attempt to read widely and typically read 6-10 books a month. I believe that a regular reading habit enhances what skills I may have when it comes to my own writing. Having said that, I cannot read fiction when I am working on a first draft of something new. I either take a reading break or make sure I am reading non-fiction or something that will not influence my own narrative voice.

When it comes to fiction, I especially love historical fiction when it teaches me something new about a period. I can never pass by a good thriller and I also enjoy a mystery or a detective novel. I love reading biographies, memoirs, local histories and many Canadian writers. I have a real fondness for small Canadian presses because they typically publish innovative writing and excellent literary fiction. 

Nineteenth-century British authors are among my favorite chestnuts, and I return to those writers over and over again. A few relatively recent Canadian reads that I absolutely adore include:

Stealing John Hancock by Hejsa and Alie Christensen   

The Family Code by Wayne Ng

Bloomsbury Girls by Natalie Jenner

The Gown by Jennifer Robson

Survivors of the Hive by Jason Heroux

Avalanche by Jessica Westhead

Fuse by Hollay Ghadery

The Castle Keepers by Aimie K. Runyan, J’Nell Ciesielski and Rachel McMillan

The Mozart Code by Rachel McMillan

Sleepers and Ties by Gail Kirkpatrick

A Womb in the Shape of a Heart by Joanne Gallant

Animal Person by Alexander MacLeod

Ordinary Wonder Tales by Emily Urquhart

The Goliath Run by Brad Smith

The Witches of Moonshyne Manor by Bianca Marais

ALU: What was your most rewarding moment as a writer?

LEMB: I love visiting book clubs when they are discussing one of my books. It is such a privilege to know that of all the many millions of books available, a small group of readers have chosen to read something I wrote. It’s a humbling feeling but it’s also quite exhilarating. Hearing people I don’t know well, discussing my work in a way that lets me know the fictional characters have taken on a life of their own is actually quite amazing to me.

I am also quite moved when groups of readers share deeply personal reflections with me about how one of my books has resonated with them. There have been lots of occasions when such discussions have taken place, but one particular instance comes to mind, when a group of women were discussing Stella’s Carpet. Stella’s Carpet is a story of intergenerational trauma resulting from horrific experiences during WWII. One woman in the group I am remembering, shared that her father had been a British fighter jet pilot during the War and was the sole survivor from his group of friends. According to this woman, he exhibited a number of Grandfather Lipinski’s personal habits and traits. She said that she had always resented her father’s strange behaviours and had never really understood him until she read my book and recognized the signs of lingering trauma. I found that anecdote, and her willingness to share it, deeply moving. 

ALU: Where do you find inspiration for your characters?

LEMB: I find people really interesting and often take pleasure in simply observing them from a distance. I consciously warehouse little details that somehow register with me. These bits of description come together as my characters take shape. 

At the risk of sounding vaguely unwell, the process of developing a character is a little like alchemy. First, I do the research and sketch in the background of the story. Then I start with a name. I choose a name that was common to the locale and time period and has some sort of significance or meaning. Once I have the name, I choose a birthday and some key defining details (i.e., hair colour, name of parents). Next comes the physical description (i.e., hair style, shape of face, nose, height). I will often flip through magazines or books of photos, to create what I call my reference images. For historical fiction, my reference images often include clothing from the period. And then I let everything percolate. 

Quite often, after a deep sleep, when I wake up the characters are fully formed and just walk around inside my head, speaking to me. I hear their voices, and see the way they move and listen to them as they tell me what they want to have happen next. (This is the part where I’m afraid you will think me unwell.) But it really is how it works for me. Once I’ve done the groundwork, I just see them and hear them.      

Lucy’s writing space

ALU: What are you working on now?

LEMB: I’m very excited to be working on a sequel to my first novel, which was a historical fiction called Eleanor Courtown. Eleanor was a privileged member of the Anglo-Irish upper classes who came to the Canadas in 1870 to seek out her widowed cousin. She discovered that her cousin had remarried and was living in poverty with a vile and abusive blackguard.  Eleanor is poisoned by her cousin’s husband and is rescued by a country doctor. Her cousin dies and leaves Eleanor with a baby named Kathleen. The story is based upon a true event, a poisoning, that occurred near my home in the country.

In the sequel called Kathleen McDonough, Kathleen is approaching her sixteenth birthday and Eleanor is preparing to take her to Ireland to meet family and claim an inheritance. While in Ireland, Kathleen falls in love with a scheming man who wishes to marry her in order to seize her fortune. The first chapter is done and the rest of the book has been outlined. I will need to visit Ireland again to complete additional research but in the meantime, I’m having fun doing what I can.    

Lucy’s writerly advice: “Read widely and build strong support network of serious writers.”

ALU: Describe your perfect writing day.

LEMB: My perfect writing day might begin with a short stroll along our perennial border, finding new garden gifts and enjoying the fragrances, colours and bird song. Then I would enjoy a long, luxurious cup of milky coffee on the veranda, swinging gently in our porch swing. The house would be quiet and still, with my husband in his studio doing his thing, and I would slip upstairs to my writing room and open the window to enjoy the sunlight and fresh air. Sitting alone in this beautiful space, I would close my eyes and conjure the next scene from whatever I am working on, and then I would begin to write, transcribing the movie in my head and the voices of the characters I hear speaking. 

ALU: What’s the toughest part about being a writer?

LEMB: For me the toughest, sometimes heart-breaking, and often frustrating part of being a writer is the publication journey. After several years of research and writing, revising and editing, completing multiple drafts, paying a professional copy editor, and sharing the work with beta readers, I still need to find a publisher. I don’t have a literary agent and so my access to publishers is restricted to small Canadian presses who still accept un-agented work. 

Small Canadian presses have very limited resources and it often takes up to 18 months to hear back after sending in a submission package. I understand that they receive hundreds of manuscripts in a year and typically can only publish a very small percentage of those received. 

Once I’ve been fortunate enough to place my manuscript, there can be another two-year wait while the book is being prepared for publication and distribution. Then, because resources are limited in the world of small, independent presses, the onus is on the writer to publicize the book, organize a book launch, and try to boost sales. If sales don’t go well, any signing bonus or royalty cheque can be clawed back by the publisher who potentially has to deal with returns from large bookstore chains. 

All of this can be dispiriting. But the truth is I don’t write because I hope to become rich or famous. Writing is a compulsion. I’m filled with story and simply want to spend all of my time writing. I’m fortunate to be retired now, and so have the luxury of time to dedicate myself to the writing process.      

ALU: If you had to describe your writing style in just a few words, what would they be?

LEMB: My dearest hope would be for my writing to be described as character-driven. I want my characters to walk off the page and live in the reader’s imagination. I hope that people recognize in them people they have known, and hear their voices speaking. And mostly, I hope that they linger, and are memorable, and that they remain with the reader long after they have finished reading the book. That’s my ambition and goal. 

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Lucy E.M. Black is the author of the short story collection The Marzipan Fruit Basket, the historical fiction novel Eleanor Courtown, and most recently Stella’s Carpet. Her award-winning short stories have been published in Britain, Ireland, USA and Canada in literary journals and magazines including Cyphers Magazine, the Hawai’i Review, The Antigonish Review and others. A dynamic workshop presenter, experienced interviewer and freelance writer, Lucy lives with her partner in Port Perry, Ontario.

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The Brickworks is available for sale here on All Lit Up, or via your local independent bookseller.

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