The Literary Ladies' Guide to the Writing Life

Welcome to a site celebrating classic women authors who wrote in the English language. Here you’ll find their words of wisdom for readers and writers. Enjoy their life stories and quotations; learn more about their books; read their advice on the writing life; and enjoy contemporary voices on the writing process.

Dear Literary Ladies

How do you develop ideas for plots?

Madeleine L'Engle

Dear Literary Ladies, 
How does a writer develop plot, and more specifically, how do you develop scraps of ideas into plots?

When I start working on a book, which is usually several years and several books before I start to write it, I am somewhat like a French peasant cook. There are several pots on the back of the stove, and as I go by during the day’s work, I drop a carrot in one, and onion in another . . . When it comes time to prepare the meal, I take the pot which is nearly full and bring it to the front of the stove.

So it is with writing. There are several pots on those back burners. An idea for a scene goes into one, a character into another, a description of a tree in the fog into another. When it comes time to write, I bring forward the pot which has the most in it. The dropping of ideas is sometimes quite conscious; sometimes it happens without my realizing it. I look and something has been added which is just what I need, but I don’t remember when it was added.

When it is time to start work, I look at everything in the pot, sort, arrange, think about character and story line. Most of this part of the work is done consciously, but then there comes a moment of unselfconsciousness, of letting go and serving the work.

— Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, 1980

Featured Essay

A Room of One’s Own, Revisited: How Important Is Solitude to a Writer?

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf famously wrote, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Leaving aside the question of what a woman writes—fiction or nonfiction, prose or poetry, journalism or pithy blog posts, just how important is it to have a room of one’s own?

In researching the writing lives of twelve classic women authors for my book, The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life, I was often struck by the universality of the issues and struggles all writers experience. Finding quiet time to write and a modicum of privacy was as great a challenge for a nineteenth-century woman, especially those with children, as it is for today’s writing women.

Woolf wasn’t the first to express the need for a private space. Harriet Beecher Stowe, best known for the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, neatly foreshadowed Woolf’s words in a letter she wrote to her husband, “If I am to write, I must have a room to myself, which shall be my room.” Stowe was the mother of seven children (three of whom she lost, one as a toddler and the other two in young adulthood). Yet she needed to augment the family’s income, which came from writing anything she could get paid for, all the while being responsible for all the household duties. Read More→

Featured Author

West, Dorothy

dorothy west

Dorothy West (1907-1998) started writing as a child and began receiving accolades and awards while still in her teens. In 1926 she traveled to New York City to accept an award for one of her short stories and never left. Finding community in the city, West became part of the Harlem Renaissance and was known by her contemporaries as “The Kid”. Her writing is admired for the details and examinations of the African American community, in areas such as gender, class and social matter.

Her first novel The Living is Easy, published in 1948, is about an upper class black family; It remained her only novel for a long time. West spent most her time writing short stories and editing and publishing the magazine Challenge, the first to feature literature about realistic depictions by and about African Americans, and later she started New Challenge, which did not last very long. Her second novel, The Wedding, was published in 1995 when she was 85 years old, to much acclaim. It was adapted into a television mini-series in 1998. Read More→