Pulitzer-Prize-Winning Author Stacy Schiff on Writing

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Answers by Stacy Schiff, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Cleopatra, The Witches: Salem, 1692, on Quora.

A: The problem, as you know, is that you never really leave the writing desk. So your day-to-day life seems at times like a distraction, a fiction, or a farce. You appear to be at hockey practice but really you're still conjuring a chapter opening -- and cheering for the wrong team. Also, you are likely to get up in the middle of a dinner conversation to write down a thought in the next room. These are not endearing traits in a friend or family member.

A: I don't have a formula, alas. In each case, the subject has grown into a kind of obsession, something I felt I could no longer resist. They have not always made sense when first they appeared. I had the idea for Cleopatra years before I began, in fact, even before I wrote my book on Ben Franklin. I just couldn't see a way to write a proper biography of Cleopatra at that time. Only afterward do you really understand what attracted you, I think. Usually it's not so much the subject itself as the fact that the subject takes you where you want to go. With Cleopatra, I had been thinking and writing a lot about women and power; that made sense. Only after I had finished The Witches did a friend point out to me that I had written the entire book while living with an adolescent girl -- one precisely the age as one of the first "bewitched" Salem girls.

A: Either at my desk in mid-paragraph or far from my desk, in mid-grocery line. The problem is that you never know which method is likely to prove more reliable. Things tend to clarify themselves, too, in those final moments of the day before sleep. This is why there should always be a pen and paper somewhere near the bed. And, as I have learned the hard way, why you should learn to write legibly.

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