Stagecraft and the Novel: Writing Advice From Leanna Renee Hieber


Cover detail, The Spectral City © Kensington

Every time I sit down to write a new novel (I’ve written twelve so far), I am confronted with a moment that is equal parts exhilaration and abject terror. I shouldn’t be surprised by this gorgeously gut-wrenching moment anymore, but every time it bowls me over like the blast of startling cold air that indicates the sudden entrance of spirits into the worlds of my books. Each time I type “chapter one,” I am accosted.

The exhilaration part is wonderful but the fear half of the equation is unnerving for any creative individual. Fear threatens to unsettle whatever foundation of confidence and competence an artist has ever built.

I am forced to take a deep breath and like other professionals in far more life-threatening situations than mine, think: Remember your training.

And so, I think of the stage. And I begin to set the stage, step by step.

As a classically trained actress who built an early career in the regional theatre circuit doing Shakespeare and period productions, all the while writing novels in my nonexistent spare time, theatre and writing are inextricable in my storyteller’s life. Fans of the atmospheric and sweeping, lyrical drama of my books are never surprised to learn I once ‘trod the boards’ as antiquity would say. Directors, playwrights and theatre professionals were the first formative hands in my storytelling craft. Honing my fiction-writing skills specifically came once I shifted around my performance career to make more room for my novels and I sought out more education related to the medium.

One of the best comments about character and character-building I’ve ever heard came from a summer intensive with the SITI Company, a stellar avant-garde theatre company led by the visionary Anne Bogart (whose books on theatre I recommend for any storyteller of any medium). I auditioned when I was nineteen and became one of the two youngest participants offered a place in the selective intensive. One of our instructors declared something incredible that’s never left my mind. To paraphrase, they declared that the most interesting, compelling thing for an audience to watch is for a character be pushed off balance. The struggle to regain balance is irresistibly compelling. One cannot look away. There is a mesmerism to regaining balance. An athletically physical theatre company and training style above all else, the SITI Company often meant this as a literal, physical pushing off-balance of a character on stage as well as that character’s emotional, textual and spiritual life. Everything they do is poetic physics made manifest and I found I can never argue with that beautiful struggle.

The idea of being thrown off balance being the most critical of junctures is true for the artist as well as the character and their journey. Every time I begin a new book I’m thrown off balance and finding the ground with my characters, feeling their way to their feet after the earthquake of the inciting incident is such a rewarding, visceral experience, only to push them and nudge them off-center again and again, resilient creatures of momentum fighting for steady ground. So it is with art and the artist.

As I work to set the stage externally and internally for a new book, I try to remember the physical, material properties that root me to the world I’m writing and channel my characters just like I did as an actor. Donning the hearts, bodies, spirits and minds of my characters has become second nature and it helps with the diving in, wobbling steps and all. Remember your training.

It’s vital that I walk the streets my characters walk and I’m thankful New York City is such an open book of a setting, with certain historic districts well-protected and a host of resources at any storyteller’s fingertips. As I walk I must, of course, not lose my physical balance looking up at beautiful brownstone detailing but I must creatively lose myself in looking and listening at all levels. Stories whisper achingly in threads and scraps plucked out from the rich, immersive sensory tapestry of the metropolis. As a New York City ghost tour guide writing books set in 19th century NYC, my performative storytelling life lives directly alongside the pages of my fiction and I’ve strived to create a certain ‘lived-in’ quality of comfort with setting, character and atmosphere that extends from me like a psychic’s second-sight. A synthesis of body, mind and spirit helps one tumble into the fantasy of their desired creation.

In my Spectral City series, I’m returning to beloved characters I know well, but fashioning them to be ready for entirely new audiences. I must come at them and this book fresh; as if I know nothing all over again. While all my worlds are parallel worlds, each series stands alone as separate from the others, with cross-over characters. I want Spectral City to have a different flavor and feel than each of my other three Gaslamp Fantasy series. In that vein, the voice of the central character, Eve Whitby, needed to be very much her own person, even though she’s been shaped by characters and their worlds that have been with me for a decade. What’s old must be new and Eve was entirely new to me; bold as brass yet huge-hearted, bursting with passion and purpose. I have enjoyed channeling her immensely during this series. I can’t wait to see, through her eyes, what she shows me next and what her team unfolds together. I have to then commit to throw her off balance as often as possible. Conflict and beautiful struggle remains the heart of a well-crafted story and nothing else is so compelling. Nothing else is worth watching or reading.

Just as I always battle stage fright before I go on stage, the blank page gives me those same nerves. But, as I always said in regards to theatre; if I wasn’t nervous, something would be wrong. I would have stopped caring, stopped loving my storytelling craft. The exhilarating rush of creation needs an utterly visceral stomach-flip to make it real. I have always channeled stage-fright into stage presence and think it’s a critical skill. I hope to do the same with page presence, one book to the next.