From Journalist to Novelist: A Journey to Fiction Writing

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Editor's Note:

Fiona Davis was born in Canada and raised in New Jersey, Utah, and Texas. She began her career in New York City as an actress, where she worked on Broadway, off-Broadway, and in regional theater. After ten years, she changed careers and began working as a journalist, and then as a novelist. Here, Fiona chats about her career change from being a journalist to being a novelist, and how the former helped her with the latter.

In my early thirties, after a decade of acting in New York City and watching with dismay as my fellow ingénues aged out of the business, I decided to pull the plug and pursue journalism. With no previous reporting experience, I figured grad school was the way to go, and set my sights on Columbia Journalism School as my gateway to success. Not only did it have a reputation as one of the best j-schools in the country, it didn’t require any standardized tests like the GRE (yippee). To my surprise, I got in.

The year-long program taught me how to shape and write a story. Whether working on a print profile of a performance artist who gives out hugs or a video feature on the many houses of worship in Flushing Queens, I enjoyed every minute. After graduation, I worked steadily for fifteen years – as an associate producer, editor, and then freelance journalist – before being confronted with an idea I just couldn’t shake, one that I thought might make a good novel.

But the idea of writing fiction seemed impossible. I didn’t think I had it in me. Without the facts to guide me, I’d have to imagine people and places – to make stuff up. Furthermore, I’d been writing health and fitness pieces at a thousand words a pop. A 90,000-word historical fiction novel was out of the question.

After a couple of false starts, I approached the book the same way I did my articles: research, interview sources, make an outline, pound out a first draft, and then revise like crazy. I used history as a touchstone, taking advantage of real life people, places, and events to flesh out my fiction. Before I knew it, book number one was out in the world.

For my latest book, The Address, I stuck with the same method. First, research. One story line was set in the 1880s, a period I knew very little about. So I read books and newspapers from the Gilded Age, in particular anything to do with the construction of the Dakota, a grand apartment house on the Upper West Side of Manhattan that would become my setting.

Vivid details sparked my imagination: that the landowner and architect took a big risk by building an apartment house for the rich, as at that time the elite preferred to live in brownstones. I learned that the Upper West Side in the 1880s was described by one paper as consisting of “rocks, swamps, goats, and shanties,” a far cry from the crowded avenues today.

As the setting came alive, so did my characters. After reading about a female manager of the building from the 1930s, I decided to tweak that fact and make my heroine the “managerette” of the newly opened Dakota. Inspired by journalist Nellie Bly’s harrowing account of going undercover in a New York asylum, I incorporated that setting into the story (and even Nellie, briefly).

In journalism school, I got used to calling strangers and asking questions, and that was a big boon when researching my books. For the second timeline in The Address, which takes place in 1985, the plot revolves around DNA testing and family trusts. Using my best “I’m a professional and I promise not to waste your time” voice, I got on the phone with PhDs and attorneys. Their generous responses and input helped shaped the story, and gave me the confidence I needed to keep writing.

Columbia’s j-school has a long list of alumni who’ve jumped to fiction, including one of my favorites, Geraldine Brooks. Inspired by others who’d made the leap, I’m so glad I did as well.