In today’s ORIGINS, Eric D. Goodman discusses the origins of his novel, The Color of Jadeite, recently released from Apprentice House Books.
The first spark is almost always an idea or a scene. Whether a story or a novel or something in between, what normally comes first—for me—is that seed of insight. Entire plots and casts and worlds can be built around one moment of dialogue, one inspirational thought, one notion or sentiment. That’s why I often have a few pages of dialogue or a character description or one scene—getting to know the character or conflict or situation—before I even know what the story is or have any inkling of a plot. First comes a sketched passage or concept that makes me want to explore and find out more.
But that wasn’t the case with my latest novel, The Color of Jadeite. At least, not exactly. Sure, those scenes and that dialogue existed in a dozen or so pages of notes and sketched scenes before I began writing page one. But in this case, the setting came first.
The Color of Jadeite is a “literary thriller,” an adventure that takes the main characters, their sidekicks, and their rivals across China in pursuit of a jadeite tablet from the Ming dynasty. I had always wanted to write an adventure or thriller, but wasn’t sure how to go about it, normally focused on character-centered fiction and dialogue and everyday drama. That’s where my love of travel helped.
When I recently visited China, from Beijing and Shanghai to Suzhou and Xi’an, I knew that the exotic locales would make great settings for a novel. Oftentimes when I’m traveling abroad, I do so with the intention to first soak up the cultural experience, then figure out how to translate it into travel stories or fiction. Even as we went from one place to another—from the Forbidden City to the Terracotta Army—I felt that these would make great settings for a thriller. Jadeite began as a “novel in settings.”
After that, I needed a reason for my characters to roam China. What began as a MacGuffin soon became pivotal to the story, not only because the jadeite tablet that once belonged to Emperor Xuande was something everyone was after, but because it held a deep and personal connection with more than one of the characters. Poetry and treasure and history and legacy all romancing one stone tablet.
As normally happens, everything seemed to form, through the notes and the writing, organically, as though it was already there and I was simply discovering it. This novel, for me, went to show that the process can change and still bear fruit.
Because this project was sort of a “novel in settings,” and because it was driven by a plot that needed to kill off some characters and have the others meet in a variety of places, I didn’t “feel” my way through the story with a few notes as I often do with literary fiction. I had pages and pages of notes, even put together a “beat sheet” that described every scene that needed to happen from beginning to end. It was a different process, but no less creative as there was much room to expand and compress within those defined parameters. Having a full outline and beat sheet kept me on course, like a tourist with an itinerary: planes, trains, and boats to catch, reservations to make, and places to explore.
The interesting thing about the color of jadeite is that it isn’t one thing. Jadeite is not just green—it can be white or lavender, or a variety of colors. It isn’t always what you think it is.
The same can be said for the origins of a book or story or how one goes about getting from the spark of inspiration to finished book on a shelf. Each book is a different adventure.
Eric D. Goodman is a full-time writer who lives in Baltimore, Maryland with his wife, son, daughter, and Weimaraner. His most recent novel is the literary thriller, The Color of Jadeite (Apprentice House Press, October 2020). He is author of Setting the Family Free (Apprentice House, 2019), Womb: a novel in utero, (Merge Publishing, 2017), Tracks: A Novel in Stories, (Atticus Books, 2011) and Flightless Goose, a storybook for children (Writer’s Lair Books, 2008). More than a hundred of his works of short fiction, travel stories, and articles about writing have been published in literary journals and periodicals. When he’s not writing, Eric loves traveling, and most of the settings in The Color of Jadeite are places he has visited. Founder and curator of Baltimore’s popular Lit and Art Reading Series, Eric can be found at www.Facebook.com/EricDGoodman, www.Twitter.com/Edgewrite, and www.EricDGoodman.com.