Anatomy of A Novel: Part 4: Outline

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Drawing up the outline of what will be my next novel is one of the most exciting events in my writing process. This is because my outline is a mini version of the novel, the blueprint that keeps that novel on track from day one of writing until the bitter end, and it is the closest reflection of what that finished product will be like.

It also changes constantly throughout the writing process.

My outline is a seething mass of notes, colours and page references, an animated beast living on my computer where it is fed daily with the most up-to-date ideas, notes and questions, and it doesn’t rest until I push the button to publish the completed novel.

I know that many writers hate the idea of an outline because they believe that it stunts creativity and ties the author to a dull plan, rather like a prison sentence. I can understand why they feel that, but I prefer to think of my outline as a road map.

If you plan a road trip between two cities, it makes sense to research all the possible stops along the way, print out some maps and have a rough itinerary with an end date, notes about where to buy petrol, and a few ideas about the places you’d like to visit.

For me, a really good road trip is not a race to see how fast you can get to the next city, but a meandering adventure in which you explore many places along the way, stopping unexpectedly in small towns you might never have heard of but which beg further investigation because they look interesting. Likewise there will be places you thought sounded good on paper, but on reaching them, you decide to move along and see what else the road offers.

Before I became a writer, I used to think that a novel was just a very long short story; an extended version of a single idea, a single goal, a single concept. But a novel gets boring if it’s nothing more than an over-lengthy short story. When you read a book which bores you and you can’t quite put your finger on why, it’s usually because nothing new happens in the emotional development of the characters. They may reach their goals but it takes them so long to do so, that the reader is bored by the end and no longer invested in the story.

The secret is to have the characters’ goals constantly changing along the way. This is not to say that the characters are unable to make up their minds, but rather that circumstances around them keep interfering, blurring their focus, and forcing them to adapt to new problems.

For a good story, the goals of each character have to be buffeted by the machinations of the plot, and the emotional reactions of those characters to the plot make them constantly re-think their original goals. Just as they settle into a new path, the next plot development shifts those goalposts again, and they have to adjust once more.

And so on. The combination of external plot conflicts and characters whose motivations keep changing to form new goals, is what makes the reader want to keep turning those pages until it all comes together in the end with all the characters emerging older, wiser and hopefully better off than when they started.

Yes, it’s that simple. But also very complicated, which is why someone like me needs to have a proper outline before she can start to write the novel.

So how do I do this? My first step is to copy and paste my one-page synopsis into a new blank document, embolden all the major plot points – the places where external plot conflicts have a knock-on effect for one or more characters. Then I write a few lines beneath each plot point about the effect it has on the characters concerned. How do they react emotionally? How do their motivations change? How does this affect the evolution of the previous goal? Are there any new developments to insert into the story, either at this point or later on?

Once I’ve done this, I modify the document into an outline, and I start looking for possible cliff-hangers and high notes on which to end the chapters. Each chapter is given a number, and the name of the character from whose point-of-view the action is to be seen. When it all makes sense and reads like a mini novel, I’m ready to start writing.

As I write my first draft, I have two MS Word documents open on my computer the whole time – the outline to refer to, and the manuscript I am writing. As I follow the basic points listed on the outline for each chapter, I make a note of what page each chapter starts on, and how many pages each chapter is. In the manuscript itself, I always start each chapter on a new page, using the “Page break before” facility.

The outline grows as the novel grows, because on it I make daily notes about the text, such as new ideas or questions that I feel the characters might need to ask themselves. I also keep a general tally of my word count and the dates on which I finish each draft.

The most exciting thing about an outline is that it remains a living, breathing, evolving animal with its own way of telling the story. Despite working this out as far as possible before I start the actual writing of the novel, it will constantly change, so my outline is never printed out. The length of each chapter can adjust daily, so the number of pages in each chapter is adjusted on the outline as I work. This means that, at any time when I need to insert a new idea into the text I can pinpoint almost the exact page I need within a certain chapter, without having to scroll through more than three or four pages.

As the drafts mount up I get adventurous with highlighting on the outline. Bits that need to be researched, expanded or fixed are highlighted in red. I keep track of flashbacks or historical sections in different time frames by highlighting those chapter headings in the outline in either blue or green. If I have more than one point-of-view character, each has their chapter headings on the outline highlighted in a different colour too.

As I write drafts, every second draft consists of a light read-through, in which I make only slight adjustments to small things, and add more notes to the outline (in red) about what needs work in the following draft.

Some writers give each chapter a new document, but that would be too confusing for me. I like to have a sense of the whole thing at all times, and my outline and way of working allow me to do that.

I know every writer is different, but this is what works for me. If you are a writer, what works best for you? If you’re a reader, what is your opinion? I’d be interested to hear.

Anatomy of a Novel: Part 3: Synopsis

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In this series on the writing of a novel, I’ve already covered setting here and characters here. Now comes the fun part of putting it all together into an actual story – the synopsis. Despite dealing with setting, characters and synopsis one by one, it’s important to remember that the creation of a novel never moves evenly, one complete step at a time. Rather, it is a mix of various steps taken bit-by-bit, and usually simultaneously.

Due to the wonderfully invigorating interruption of NaNoWriMo last month, it’s been two months since I last wrote a blog-post about this novel-writing process. It’s probably just as well that I waited an extra month before writing this, because the synopsis for my current novel evolved so much during the month of November.

Previously, I explained about the process of creating characters, and how they are invented to enhance and complement the plot. With all of the characters and their setting whirling around in my head, I usually sit down and write a one-page synopsis of the proposed plot action. There will be details to fill in later, more secondary characters and possible changes in setting, but the gist of it will be there.

I can’t create fully-rounded characters until I know what they’re up against in the story. Likewise, I can’t invent the perfect synopsis until I have a good idea of how each character’s own desires, goals, habits, quirks and fears will add to that story. The half-formed synopsis I have in my head can only be finalised once the characters have been fleshed out.

And once I begin writing the novel, it all changes even more!

I write romantic mysteries, so in all my novels there is a mystery which initially draws two unconnected people toward each other, changes all their immediate individual plans and forces them to work together. The solving of this mystery causes them to fall in love, keeps them on the trot and eventually makes them fear for their lives.

Along the way I’ll throw in some deception, betrayal and a bad guy who may or may not be likeable at first, and then I’ll wind it all up in a glorious Big Climax from which no one looks set to escape alive, but hopefully the relevant romantic couple will survive with only a few scars, and live happily ever after.

When I have my one page synopsis, I put it aside and start to create the finer points of the main characters. While I might have had an initial idea or two about them, they each need to have some kind of attribute which will later come to the fore when it is most needed but least expected. A kind of temporary deception between me and the reader, because at the crucial moment I want the reader to think: “Oh, of course this character would do that – I’d forgotten that he/she knows all about this kind of stuff/grew up doing that/spent his/her childhood in that environment, etc.”

I should also mention here that the Big Climax always ends up taking place in a completely different way from how it was first envisaged. This is not for lack of planning, but because so much depends on the characters themselves. Their evolving goals and motivations inevitably change as I write and sometimes they steer the action in a different direction.

In my current novel Oxford Baggage the heroine is left a dubious legacy by her late ex-husband – the guardianship of his daughter from a previous marriage. It’s 1955 and Amy has felt bored and directionless since her secret government work ended at the close of the Second World War. She must now travel back to Oxford – the scene of her unhappy marriage to David – and live in his house as stepmother to his sixteen year old daughter for the next nine years until the girl reaches the age of twenty-five and gets her inheritance. That’s the set-up.

The mystery? Victoria – the stepdaughter – believes that her father was murdered. The love interest? There are two men: Simon, the lawyer dealing with David’s estate; and Richard, the younger brother of David and uncle to Victoria. Both men have secrets from the war, and Amy is attracted to both, but could one of them have caused the accident that killed David, as Victoria suspects? Or is Victoria just being difficult and trying to stir trouble?

When I wrote the original one-page synopsis for this novel, I had no idea about the character of one of these men. By the time I reached the 50,000 word mark at the end of November, I had a better idea of who he was, but I had also realized by then that the entire character of the other had changed along the way.

One of my major settings for the novel became largely redundant during the writing of the first draft, when I discovered a setting closer to the heart of the novel, which in itself opened up a channel of history that, when explored, became a far better choice for the plot I had in mind.

And if that sounds complicated, wait until we start expanding that one-page synopsis into the outline!

The outline is the most important document apart from the manuscript itself, because it will serve as the blueprint for the novel, from day one of writing, until I push the Publish button to turn the finished manuscript into an eBook months, or even years, later.

However, that outline cannot happen until there is a precise, concise, well worked out synopsis. And in the writing of a synopsis, nothing is sacred, nothing is set in stone and nothing continues as it was started…

Winning NaNoWriMo – the Pros and Cons

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Well, it’s over at last and it was an interesting experience. I clocked up 51,106 words in 28 days, with an average of 1703 words per day. Despite the progress made so far, my story is nowhere near finished.

Would I do it again? Yes, if the time frame of starting a first draft ever coincides with the beginning of November again, I will probably join up and give it another go. It’s certainly a good way to get the writing juices flowing.

So what have I learned from this experience? Having now proved to myself that I can write over 50,000 words in a month, next time around I wouldn’t attempt to finish the actual draft, but would choose from the start to view those 50,000 words as only part of a draft.

First the good stuff:

  • I needed to do this, and I’ll always be glad that I joined in and did my best. I had been in a bit of a rut and had been procrastinating for a few months about starting my next novel so NaNoWriMo gave me the incentive to sit down in October, thrash out a storyline from my original synopsis, and flesh out some characters.
  • It gave me a deadline by which to get my initial research done, so that by the end of October I was as ready to roll as it was possible for me to be.
  • The build up to it was fun – signing up to the website and finding some writing buddies, getting emails of encouragement and so on, made it all very festive and encouraging.
  • During the month of November, NaNoWriMo literally gave me a reason to wake up early each morning and write at least 1,667 words before the day intruded with its problems. I had been busy with a soul-annihilating job-search for the previous four months which was – quite frankly – depressing, and I needed an injection of fun in my mornings, but was still free to job-search each afternoon.
  • NaNoWriMo also allowed me to plough through two thirds of a first draft faster than I’ve ever done before, and that’s quite an exhilarating feeling.

And now we come to the not-so-good news. First, some background:

When writing a novel, no matter how prepared I am (and I was for this one, I promise!), there will always be new ideas that I think of along the way. This happens to me every time, and it’s a good thing. It means I am thinking on my feet, leaving a certain amount of the story to chance, and definitely open to new ideas.

It also means that, while I’m writing, I need to adapt my outline constantly as I find new bits to put in. And I need to research those bits before I put them in, because there’s nothing more time-wasting than writing screeds of stuff that I imagine to be possible but haven’t had the time to research properly yet. It’s all very well to type in the words: “research this bit later” and carry on writing, but I don’t want to find out 20,000 words down the track that it’s just not going to work.

Ask anyone I’ve ever worked with and they’ll tell you that I really do hate doing a job twice because some idiot didn’t think things through properly the first time. When that thoughtless idiot turns out to be me because I was trying to keep to a pre-determined word count, I want to spit blood and rage at the universe for allowing me to screw myself around like that. And none of that contributes to making me a happy writer.

It’s worth taking a week (or even longer) to rethink, re-research and rewrite the bit that doesn’t work in order to progress towards a product that is ultimately better.

Let me give you a few examples:

  • In Benicio’s Bequest which is set in Italy, I swapped around a trip to Venice and a trip to Florence because the story flowed better when I re-thought that sequence. This involved a certain amount of re-plotting and re-writing of two whole sections, and it all had to be done before I could move on to the next sequence because any change like that has a knock-on effect. The new sequence also gave rise to a car chase that hadn’t been in the original storyline but turned out to be one of its highlights.
  • In The Trojan Legacy I planned the first part of the historic half of the novel to be set in the mountains of Peru, in the jungle near Machu Picchu, but 12,000 words into the first draft I knew it was never going to work because I didn’t have enough personal experience of that place. I decided to re-set that part in the Drakensberg mountains of South Africa which I knew well (and which was one of the settings for later in the story anyway), but it took me a week to reshape the beginning of my story and rewrite that section before I could continue.

So what did NaNoWriMo do to me that prevented me from letting my first draft develop naturally? Here we come to the bad stuff:

  • After two weeks of writing according to my word count I hit a snag at the beginning of the third week. I realised that I needed to research some British history about Elizabeth the First’s persecution of the Catholics, and the construction of secret passages and priest holes in buildings of that time. This took me almost two days and set my word count back considerably. If this had been a normal first draft and not a NaNoWriMo first draft, I wouldn’t have let the lost days and lack of words worry me, but in running to catch up afterwards, my writing became sloppy and sub-standard.
  • One of the other problems I had with the fast pace of NaNoWriMo was that this re-structuring and rewriting is part of what makes writing enjoyable for me. I enjoy the craft of creating something that grows organically and plots its own path no matter what my outline says it should be doing. When this happens, the last thing I want to do is rush to catch up and lose the magic of those moments and the added value they bring to the story.
  • Another of the ultimate joys of writing is when my characters decide to race off on a different path and I have to follow them to find out what they’re up to because they refuse to listen to me or let me dictate their lives. (This is how I ended up with an unscheduled car chase between Florence and Verona in Benicio’s Bequest.) In my current novel, however, my poor strait-jacketed characters haven’t yet had a chance to break out of their constraints.
  • No matter what writers tell you, we all have imaginary conversations running through our heads. The characters converse and the writer has to lunge for pen and paper or phone to scribble it down as fast as those voices are spewing it. This is a sign that our characters really do have a life of their own outside of what we created for them. I remember chuckling at whole discussions between three of the characters in Benicio’s Bequest as members of the same family bickered and argued about past events and what to do next. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen very often in this draft.

So how was I able to make NaNoWriMo work for me during the third week? My mood of hopelessness only changed once I realised three things:

  • I don’t write short novels. My novels are always longer than 50,000 words. They end up between 80,000 and 98,000. The last novel was 92,000 when finally ready for publication after ten drafts, but its first draft had been 66,000 words.
  • Come the end of November, my draft wouldn’t be a complete draft, even if I reached 50,000. There would still be at least another 25,000 words to write just to get the basic draft down, and I could fix a lot of things then.
  • It was okay to write two thirds of a draft for NaNoWriMo, because it left me enough of the good stuff to play with after the end of November.

With two thirds of the first draft already done, I can now afford to relax a bit, go back and fix things and make some changes where they are needed. I can research at my leisure and take my time with the climax and finale.

I’ll keep you informed about my progress as time goes on, so watch this space…

NaNoWriMo Update

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As I write this, I’ve been slogging away at NaNoWriMo for almost ten days, and have kept to my required word count each day so far. Anyone who doesn’t know what NaNoWriMo is can take a look at my previous blog-post here.

I was a bit worried that I wouldn’t have enough time to write over weekends, so I erred on the side of excess in the first few days of the first week, and it’s a pattern that’s paid off, because I reached my weekly word count for the first week, and I am doing the same thing for the second.

I have six writing buddies on the NaNoWriMo website: three in America and three in Australia. Bearing in mind that Australia is almost a day ahead of America, those of us who are putting our daily word count on the site all seem to be doing well. So far I’ve earned a few badges for doing such things as passing the first day’s 1667 word count, the 5000 word count, and the 10000 word count. This morning I reached 15000 words, and my next badge milestone will be 25000 words, which I’m expecting to hit early next week, if not sooner.

A few days ago I browsed the NaNoWriMo forums and found a thread for writers who are writing stories set in World War II, so I added my two cents’ worth. Doing that also helped me to formulate a brief blurb about my story. There’s space on my NaNoWriMo novel page to put a synopsis, but because a synopsis tells the whole story and has spoilers, I’ve put the blurb onto my page instead. I’ve also put a very short excerpt from the first chapter.

If any other NaNoWriMo writers are reading this, you can find me listed there as “Unique User” so you are welcome to take a look at my page while resting your fingers. Maybe we can become writing buddies too…

What have I learned from doing NaNoWriMo so far?  Most important, I’ve learned that I can do this. The pace is a little more intensive than the way I’ve worked before, but I’m happy to be churning it out at this rate. I find it invigorating and incredibly productive.

I’ve also learned that I could never just wing it with something like this. I am a plotter who always works to an outline, and if I hadn’t planned this whole novel during October and the months leading up to it, I wouldn’t be able to do this. My outline is my constant companion during the writing. It’s basically my whole plot, including story sparks, plot points, cliff-hangers and so on, broken down into sections that will become chapters. I use this to make sure I’m not going off at a tangent or writing too much about a small plot incident. This way it’s easier to keep a handle on how long each chapter is and where the characters are on their individual journeys.

The outline is also extremely adaptable and can be adjusted if a new direction suddenly takes my fancy. It’s never printed out and lives on my computer as a working, malleable thing from the first day of writing until that far off day when I finally upload the finished product to Amazon as an eBook.

I’m hoping that day won’t be too far off in the future…

Ready for NaNoWriMo!

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Writing a novel is never a speedy process for me, but I’ve always found the initial first draft can be done quickly once my momentum gets going. As long as I have my story worked out beforehand, my characters defined, and my outline arranged into rough scenes or chapters, then my first draft flies. The longest part of the whole process is rewriting and perfecting from the second draft onwards – that bit usually takes me several years.

With my last novel, I managed to plot the outline and draw up the character sketches in only one month, back in October 2012. The first draft was completed two and a half months later. I’ve always wondered if I could do it faster, but I haven’t had the chance to try because I haven’t started another new novel since then.

Since I became a writer I have been aware of a project called National Novel Writing Month, more commonly referred to as NaNoWriMo. Every November, thousands of writers around the world join up, and each writer tries to complete a first draft of 50,000 words in 30 days. That’s about 1,667 words a day, or 12,500 words a week.

The event was started by freelance writer Chris Baty in 1999, and in that first year there were 21 writers. The following year there was a website created for it, and 140 writers signed up. The year after that saw 5,000 signing up, including overseas writers. The numbers have grown to over 400,000 in the last decade and a half.

Of course, many people write novels without actually joining the group – I’ve done this for years – but joining the group sounds like fun, and the camaraderie aspect of writing a novel alongside 400,000 other writers has a lot going for it. The writers who join up inspire and encourage each other, even as they track their daily progress. Those who hit the target of 50,000 words by November 30th are said to have “won” and this can be a huge personal victory, especially for those who have never before managed to complete a first draft.

For those of us who have already written novels, we know how lonely the writing process can be, tied to our typewriters for months on end, bleeding all over the page, so I’m looking forward to plunging in with a good heart and buckets of enthusiasm to share around.

So why have I never done this before? When I lived in South Africa, the month of November was my busiest time of the year, filled with preparations for the annual pantomime in the theatre where I used to work. So, while I was aware of NaNoWriMo, it wasn’t practical for me to consider doing it. Last year – my first November in Australia – I was close to finishing my lengthy work-in-progress and I didn’t want to be distracted by the next novel so I didn’t join in then either.

But this year is different! I have a rough one-page synopsis ready for my next novel. I wrote it – together with a tentative first chapter – back in January for a competition, but until two months ago I hadn’t looked at either of them again. I have been thinking about this new novel a lot though, and a month or two back I decided to change the time frame from the present day to 1955, because I wanted to write it as an historical novel. This meant reworking the entire synopsis as well as completely re-motivating all my characters who are still recovering from the devastating Second World War a decade before.

I have now spent October working on my characters and outline. The original first chapter is no longer relevant, because it doesn’t fit the new story, so I’ll be starting that from scratch. I am finally ready for NaNoWriMo. When November starts tomorrow, I plan on “giving it a go” as they say in Australia.

If you’re a regular reader here, please allow me to apologize in advance: you probably won’t hear much from this blog in the month of November, but once December starts, I’ll report back on how it all went – the good and the bad.

If you’re a writer, have you decided to join NaNoWriMo this year?

Anatomy of A Novel: Part 2: Characters

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Creating characters can be such fun! I start with a rough idea of who they are and why they are in the story’s setting at the particular moment when the story starts, but the details can be filled in later, or tweaked as things change. First I need to find out what sort of person each one is – outside of the story – and what makes them tick, what pushes their buttons and what keeps them awake at night.

By the time I have decided on the location, I usually have some idea of what the story is going to be about. Often I will add other locations which enable me to introduce new story sparks and plot twists. Kurt Vonnegut famously said that every character needs something, even if it’s only a glass of water. This doesn’t mean that characters have to be needy, but somewhere inside themselves there has to be a desire.

Important digression here: there is a subtle difference between what a character wants and what he or she actually needs. The characters may think they know what they need, but they are usually mistaken.

I like to put plenty of obstacles in the way of my characters, but often I give them what they want by the three-quarter mark, just so that they can be dissatisfied enough to realise that this is not really what they needed. Their outlook changes during the course of the novel, and very often they go into the third act of the drama with a new goal – usually one with a higher or deeper purpose. Having spent the first two acts evolving their goals and motivations, they are now genuinely in search of what their hearts need, instead of some shallow goal they once believed to be important. I like to mentally whisper to my characters: “Be careful what you wish for because you might get it…”

Sometimes an incident in childhood can have a serious bearing on how they behave in a given situation, and perhaps they will be forced to confront that fear and overcome it during the course of the action.

Because I write primarily in the genre of romance, I usually start with a female protagonist. Preferably one who is out of her depth or away from her usual comfort zone.

I enjoy fish-out-of-water stories where the main character finds herself in a situation she is not familiar with. Either she is on holiday, or working temporarily overseas, or has moved to a new environment and is still trying to find her feet there.

Equally important to the story is a male who first opposes, then sides with, the female protagonist. This man is usually a native of the country or city in which the heroine finds herself. He knows the environment better than she does, so she’s forced to rely on him for certain things. Sometimes he doesn’t particularly want to be with her (leastways not at first) but he needs to stick to her, either because she knows something he doesn’t, or because she has access to something he wants.

In The Epidaurus Inheritance Cassie’s desire is to find out the history of an ancient, ornate knife she has inherited from her Greek father. Travelling to the theatre festival at Epidaurus as the designer for a play gives her the opportunity to research that knife, because she has copied its design for one of her stage props.

Unfortunately she gets more than she bargained for when she meets Zander, an investigator of stolen antiquities, who recognises something in her design and begins to badger her, follow her, help her and generally push his way into her life because he too desires something. He wants to know how she managed to design a theatre prop that resembles a drawing he has in his files – the only known drawing of a stolen antique knife that disappeared long before cameras were invented.

Because of my Greek theme, I wanted to introduce other aspects of Greece and Greek life, such as earthquakes. When I was in high school I had a pen friend in Thessaloniki. We had been writing to each other for two or more years when I heard about an earthquake in her city. After the earthquake, my next letter to her was returned to me, address unknown. I never heard from my friend again, and I’ve never been able to find out what happened to her, so the novel is dedicated to her.

I decided to put my character Zander into that 1978 earthquake as a child. I put him and his older brother into one of the apartment blocks which collapsed, and I gave his brother the rather horrid job of sacrificing himself to save his little brother Zander. Of course, this scarred Zander for life – not only physically, but mentally as well. In addition to living with the guilt of his father’s disappointment that “the wrong son” died, Zander also hates earthquakes, and can’t bear being underground or in any kind of confined area.

Consequently he lives in an airy, light-filled apartment on the top floor of a building which has numerous exit routes. But at a certain point in the novel Zander has to face one of his greatest fears – being trapped underground.

The character of Cassie began as a beautiful, slim, dark-haired beauty – also of Greek parentage – but she was too beautiful, too perfect. So I recast her as a buxom, large-boned gal of generous proportions whose only beauty (so her relatives have told her all her life) is her long, dark hair. She doesn’t think she is at all attractive, but Zander falls in love with this statuesque, strong-willed woman who resembles one of the stone Caryatid statues on the Acropolis – the columns carved as women, bearing the weight of the south portico of the Erechtheion. Cassie likewise bears the weight of the legacy of the knife her ancestors left her.

I’m careful about choosing names. One of the best investments I made as a writer was to buy The Oxford Dictionary of First Names. I like to choose a name that sounds right for the character, but it helps to be able to look up the origin of that name and see if it’s a good match historically as well. Cassie is short for Cassandra, who was a Trojan princess whose gift of prophecy was cursed by the fact that no one would believe her.

Zander is short for Alexander, who in this case is modelled not on Alexander the Great, but on the Trojan prince Alexander, who was better known as Paris – the one who fell in love with the wrong woman, Helen, kidnapped her and started the Trojan War. Just to annoy Cassie, I gave Zander an ex-girlfriend called Eleni (which is a Greek version of Helen), and I made her beautiful, of course…

In all my novels, I put my characters through the Myers-Briggs personality tests. I imagine each of them answering the questionnaire that will reveal which personality type they are. I like to match the couples with their ideal opposites so that some sparks will fly during the course of the novel, but ultimately they are assured of a Happily Ever After once they have sailed off into the sunset and the final page has been turned.

The Five Objects Formula

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When I was young, my dad belonged to a film club which used to have “Five Objects” competitions every few months. The filmmakers would be given a list of five completely unrelated objects, and they had to make up a story which included all five things. Each filmmaker had to film their own story, edit it, lay the soundtrack and screen the finished product on the night of the competition.

The objects could be introduced in any order, but they had to be more than just arbitrary set dressing in the background – they had to actually play a part in the story. My dad was a good filmmaker and he had a vivid imagination, so his films always did well in those competitions.

I remember the fun we had making the first one. The objects were:

  • a pound of sausages
  • a briefcase
  • a bunch of keys
  • a screwdriver
  • a piece of string.

For days my dad puzzled over scenarios about dogs running off with sausages. Which of our dogs would we use? How could we train it to do something like sausage-stealing and yet prevent this from becoming a habit? And so on.

One morning, one of my dad’s work colleagues ranted to him about the wasted evening he and his wife had experienced the night before because an encyclopaedia salesman had come to his house and bored them almost to death about how they needed to invest in their children’s future by buying a decent set of encyclopaedia for their home. (Yes, this was the 70s when such things existed.)

This gave my dad the spark he needed and before long he had his story:

  • Housewife preparing a pound of sausages, putting them into the frying pan and setting it on the stove.
  • Doorbell rings. She leaves the kitchen and goes to the door.
  • There is an encyclopaedia salesman on the doorstep. He talks his way in with his briefcase of book examples and his car keys.
  • Once inside her lounge he doesn’t stop talking, impressing upon her how important the books will be to her family, blah, blah.
  • She tells him she’s not interested. He takes a long time to accept this, but finally packs up the books and puts them back into his briefcase.
  • Unseen by him, he catches the edge of his key-ring in one of the books and the keys go into the briefcase too.
  • The salesman picks up his briefcase to leave but can’t find his keys.
  • As he searches, the housewife suggests they may be in his briefcase. He tries to open it and realises that he can’t because it’s locked and the keys must be inside. He’s in despair.
  • She tells him not to worry and leaves the room. She comes back with a screwdriver.
  • The salesman forces the lock of the briefcase, retrieves his keys with great relief and then realises that he can’t shut the briefcase because the lock is broken.
  • The housewife leaves the room again and comes back with a long piece of thick string. Together they tie the string around the briefcase…
  • … and that’s when she smells the burning sausages and runs from the room in the other direction.
  • She runs back in, holding a smoking frying pan, and yelling at him. He picks up his briefcase and his keys and runs out the door with the angry housewife in pursuit, still holding the smoking frying pan, trailing smoke behind her.

Sometimes my dad would throw his ideas around and ask us for feedback, and when he had the story ready to film, we would all be on hand to move furniture around, help with finding props, move lights on stands, and even become part of the background if he was filming on a not-busy-enough street (which wasn’t necessary with this one).

For this story – which he called “The Salesman” – he had a great cast: the housewife was played by my mother, and the salesman was played by my dad’s work colleague, complete with three of the books he had been talked into buying for the future of his children. (He knew exactly how to do the salesman talk because he had been duped by it himself.)

My dog even had a cameo role running up to the gate as the salesman left. (At least we didn’t have to teach the dog how to steal sausages.) We used burning rags for the burning sausages and ate the real ones for supper that night.

I know this isn’t the place to wax lyrical about how much I loved all of this – living out my own movie-set/backstage fantasies – but long before we reached the actual filming of any of the stories, we had the fun of dreaming up scenarios like this, thinking of ideas to suit other lists of objects. I’ve been doing this my whole life, really – and I never get tired of it. It finally occurred to me not so long ago that it’s a good way to build up a basic story for a novel.

It’s always fun to throw a bunch of seemingly unconnected bits and pieces into a crucible of some kind and see what comes out of it. If I look at five basic objects or ingredients for a good story, they would have to be:

  • an interesting place
  • a little bit of history
  • a hint of danger
  • an historical artefact or work of art
  • the timeframe or deadline of a ticking clock.

Add into the mix two characters each with some kind of desire (and because I write romance they need to later develop a shared desire for each other), and a bad guy with crazy ambitions, and there’s bound to be a story worth writing.

I love all these enticing ingredients and the challenge they present. I’m a writer of long, rather than short, stories – I have too much that I want to throw into the pot.

When I look back at all of my successful novels, each one has those five ingredients. Even my historical novella From Daisy with Love (which is a romance but not a mystery), has all of the ingredients – the historical artefact would be the box of written letters and objects for a future generation to find, and the bad guy (although slightly removed) would be Kaiser Wilhelm II who was responsible for the war which changed the lives of all the characters.

However, if I look at my two earlier trunk novels it is now easy for me to see why they didn’t work and were never good enough to be published. They are both missing several of the vital ingredients. One day I still mean to re-write both of them but don’t hold your breath because newer stories pop into my head all the time.

To those who love reading books written by others: do you recognise any of these five ingredients in your favourite books? I do. Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Forgotten Garden, The Goldfinch, My Brother Michael, The Girl You Left Behind, and so many more, from the Amelia Peabody series right back to some of the Enid Blyton books I used to read as a child.

To any writers reading this: what five ingredients do you consider essential in your novels?