After I was clear on the elements of the story, the writing of Dear John went relatively smoothly, which was exactly the type of novel I needed after completing True Believer and At First Sight. Those two novels took a lot out of me; I find it difficult to write two novels in a year, and by the time I settled in to begin writing Dear John in early 2006, I can remember sitting at the keyboard before typing the first page and hoping that the story would unfold in exactly the way it should.
There was, of course, some research I had to do prior to the writing. I had never written a novel in which the main character serves in the military, but I was well aware of the fact that I had to make John Tyree’s experiences as accurate as possible. I drew heavily from a cousin (Todd) who served in the army. Like Todd, my character was in the army, had nearly completed his tour when 9/11 happened, and chose to re-enlist (something he really didn’t want to do), for duty’s sake.
I also read a number of non-fiction books written by those in the military and published between 2004 – 2005; from those, I was able to glean the day-to-day life of a soldier, both on base and while in battle.
Like all novelists, there are some “story developments” that I find easy to write, and others I find challenging. I suppose I’m most comfortable with writing – and describing – the relationship between the two major characters. In this case, that was John and Savannah, and this novel proceeded quickly, since they met relatively early in the story. Nor, as in some of my novels, were there “secrets” (that sometimes have to be slowly unfolded and paced correctly throughout the novel, adding an additional layer of complexity to the story). These were simply two young people who met at the beach and quickly fell in love.
If there was one challenge to the story, it was in the “structure.” The first half of the novel – actually more than half – covers the couple of weeks that Savannah and John were together and fell in love. From there, I had to cover the next two years in much less time. Finally, I had to wrap up the story between John and Savannah and the aftermath. The breakdown of percentages was roughly this: Part I-55%, Part II-10%, Part III-35%. Thus, 90% of the novel covers maybe 3 weeks, while 10% covers two years.
It’s easier said than done to make a story structured this way flow “seamlessly” while trying simultaneously to up the emotional ante as the novel progresses. It’s a matter of balance, and by the structure, the balance seemed – and initially felt – out of whack. Thus, Part II was far and away the most challenging to write. I had to keep the characters in love until they suddenly weren’t; I had to abbreviate vast periods of time to keep the story moving. And all of it, of course, had to support and develop the emotional intensity that drives Part III.
Fortunately, after much ponderous, internal debate and long periods of simply staring at the computer without having any idea what to do next, I finally had it. And then I knew I was getting close and Part III flowed nearly as easily as Part I.