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Ellen Baker Calls On Subconscious Memories To Create Authentic Characters

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Baker cover
Keeping the House
(Random House)

by Ellen Baker
Buy this book
via Amazon.com

An exclusive Authorlink interview with Ellen Baker,
author of Keeping the House (Random House) 
by Ellen Birkett Morris

December 2007

Like many aspiring writers, Ellen Baker started writing when she was young and kept writing as she earned degrees, worked in non-writing jobs and gained life experience.

“I kept a diary starting
when I was six,
wrote my first short story
when I was about seven. . ."

—BAKER

“I kept a diary starting when I was six, wrote my first short story when I was about seven, and started writing my first novel when I was thirteen. I don’t think I made the decision to write so much as I just started writing,” said Baker. Her first novel, Keeping the House, is a rich, multigenerational tale that melds Baker’s interests and experience and reflects her prowess as a storyteller.

“. . . overall my education gave me a certain view of the world, a frame of reference,”
—BAKER

Baker has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in American Studies. “I’ve always written fiction, even while I was studying these different subjects, and I guess I chose subjects that would ultimately inform my writing,” she continued, “Obviously I learned many facts and ideas about both psychology and history, but overall my education gave me a certain view of the world, a frame of reference, as well as teaching me how to create and to research. So all of it is there in my writing in one way or another.”

"Having someone who will make the commitment to give honest feedback on a regular basis
is priceless."

—BAKER

 

 

 

 

Baker also reads one or two novels a week, reading critically and paying attention to craft. From 2004 to 2006, she took four short writing workshops, where she met another writer who has offered her feedback and constructive criticism.

“Having someone who will make the commitment to give honest feedback on a regular basis is priceless. We’ve cheered each other on and critiqued countless drafts of each other’s work, and she now has her first book forthcoming from a major publisher, too,” said Baker.

“I started out, about a decade ago, intending to explore family relationships in a family
that has lost one of its members
to a violent death. ”

—BAKER

Baker said Keeping the House was developed over the course of many years and was the result of a variety of experiences.

“I started out, about a decade ago, intending to explore family relationships in a family that has lost one of its members to a violent death. Ultimately, the scope of the book expanded to include interests that I’d been developing over the years, particularly ideas about gender and war. The main character, Dolly Magnuson, came on the scene quite late in the process, and her fascination with the Mickelson house became the vehicle to tie the entire story together,” she observed.

Baker wrote Keeping the House while working at a bookstore. “I fit in writing whenever I could around that schedule. I recorded my hours working on my book just like I would for any other job and tried to reach 20 hours per week,” she explained.

As a full-time writer now, she writes each morning for three to four hours and spends the rest of the day doing other writing-related work.

“Inevitably all of my experiences enter into my writing, but in a rather indirect way.”
—BAKER

 

Baker called on her subconscious memories and imagination to create authentic characters and experiences.

“Inevitably all of my experiences enter into my writing, but in a rather indirect way. While working as a curator of a World War II museum, I interviewed several veterans about their war experiences. None of these people would recognize themselves as characters in Keeping the House, but their stories all entered into my understanding of that time period and the mindset of people at that time,” said Baker.

“From time to time, I would print out the outline, literally cut it into strips by scene, and experiment with moving the scenes. . .”
—BAKER

In order to keep track of the complicated plot and time shifts from chapter to chapter, she kept a detailed outline that described the content of each scene. “From time to time, I would print out the outline, literally cut it into strips by scene, and experiment with moving the scenes around, trying to figure out how best to keep readers both on track and wanting to turn the pages,” said Baker

She also wrote initial character profiles, from which her characters would evolve.

“I write character profiles, which include everything from the character’s birth date and family information to what he or she likes to eat for breakfast. . .”
—BAKER

“I write character profiles, which include everything from the character’s birth date and family information to what he or she likes to eat for breakfast,” said Baker.

“In some of the more complicated series of scenes – particularly those involving Dolly and JJ – I outlined what each character was feeling/saying/experiencing in each scene to make sure the characters stayed consistent from scene to scene while also moving the action in the direction I needed it to go.”

Baker first wrote the book from the perspectives of the different members of the Mickelson family. Then she came up with the character of Dolly Magnuson. “Once I started writing about her, I figured out what she needed to do in order to uncover the Mickelson family stories that already existed. As I wrote the Dolly scenes I was always keeping in mind the Mickelsons’ scenes. Then I went back and pretty much rewrote everything to try to make the fit seamless,” said Baker.

She had researched World War I extensively while in graduate school and World War II while working as a museum curator. As she wrote, she would discover details she needed and seek them out. “I traveled to north-central Wisconsin and spent many hours in various libraries and archives reading newspapers and magazines and city directories. I collected old cookbooks and did online research on everything from Chryslers to corsets to War Gardens. I walked through the old Washington Avenue depot in Minneapolis, through a stand of virgin pine near Antigo, Wisconsin, and through the preserved WWII-era barracks at Fort McCoy. Mostly, I just let the story tell me where to go.”

“Time is very important in the novel – each chapter is headed with a date on which the action in the chapter takes place . . .”
—BAKER

One of her biggest challenges was figuring out where to start the story. “The novel spans fifty years and moves back and forth in time, from the perspectives of several characters, and I had the whole story in my head, and much of it written, without the beginning ever becoming clear to me. I didn’t want to tell the story chronologically, but rather to weave together the stories of all the characters based upon the issues they deal with, so I had to decide how to structure the novel so it made sense and was compelling to read.

Time is very important in the novel – each chapter is headed with a date on which the action in the chapter takes place – but the characters drive the structure more than chronology does. I overcame this problem by trial and error, trying many different beginnings until I found the one that seemed to work.”

“Kate sent me my manuscript with penciled notes on every page and a letter (about 7 pages long) with suggestions. ”
—BAKER

Baker worked with editor Kate Medina of Random House.

“Kate sent me my manuscript with penciled notes on every page and a letter (about 7 pages long) with suggestions. We had one twenty-minute phone conversation and then I was off and running.”

“Don’t be in a hurry to submit your work. You only have one chance to make a good impression with an agent or editor. . .”
—BAKER

Working with her suggestions, Baker cut three scenes, added three new ones, and changed small details to adjust the action and the characters. “Kate’s influence was magical – it was so exciting to see the book become so much better in such a short time.

Baker urges new novelists to take their time developing their work and sending it out. “Don’t be in a hurry to submit your work. You only have one chance to make a good impression with an agent or editor – make sure you’ve had trusted readers give you lots of honest feedback and that you’ve rewritten your work several times before starting to submit. Put all your energy into making the manuscript the best it can be,” she observed.

For writers who have been at it for several years and feel stuck, she suggests they consider shelving the project for a while and starting something new.

Baker is currently working on an historical novel. “It will be similar to Keeping the House in terms of some of the themes it deals with – war, memory, identity, love, history, family secrets. But it’s going to be quite different in terms of the problems the women characters are dealing with. Rather than housewives, they’re farmers, artists, and World War II shipbuilders,” said Baker.

 

Ellen Baker was born in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, and grew up in Wisconsin, Illinois, and South Dakota. She earned a master’s degree in American Studies from the University of Minnesota, and has worked as curator of a World War II museum and an event coordinator at an independent bookstore. She lives with her husband in Wisconsin.

About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris

Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in national print and online publications including The New York Times. She also writes for a number of literary, regional, trade, and business publications, and she has contributed to six published nonfiction books in the trade press. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink, assigned to interview various New York Times bestselling authors and first-time novelists.