Archive | September 2016

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?

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Anatomy of A Novel: Part 1: Starting

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My original intention when I started blogging four years ago, was to share writing tips with other like-minded writers, but there were already many writers doing this, and most of them knew a good deal more about the craft than I did. So instead of adding to the white noise of advice that surrounds writers, I decided to write for my potential readers instead. While some of my followers are writers, most are not.

Among the questions readers ask writers are: where do we get our ideas from, and how do we start writing. Every writer has their own way of answering these questions, and the writing process is not the same for all of us.

Since I am about to embark on writing a new novel, I thought it might be fun to share my unique process with my readers, in real time, as it happens. It takes me ages to write a novel, so please don’t hold your breath. Over the next year or so, from time to time I’ll let you know where I am in the process and how things change as they meander along the slow path to completion.

When I start a new novel, it’s because something in my brain has been triggered by a “what if” scenario. I’ll imagine a situation or an action in which something hasn’t gone according to plan, and I’ll think up possible unexpected after-effects which might open a can of worms worthy of a full-length novel. Very often, the original idea will come to me because I am in a particular place, or because I’m thinking about a place I’ve been to. To be honest, many places I visit cause me to think, “This would be a good setting for a novel,” but not all of them are practical.

In The Epidaurus Inheritance I brought together two great loves of my life: Greece and theatre. The whole is always greater than the sum of its parts, and so it was with this combination. I’ve had a fascination with ancient Greek theatre since the age of about eight. All my later history of art studies, my drama studies, my first visit to Greece where I watched a performance in the ancient theatre of Epidaurus itself, plus my first two decades of working in the theatre industry all conspired to concoct an adventure that begins and ends in that great historic place.

Benicio’s Bequest began when an image jumped into my head one afternoon after tea with a fellow writer. While travelling down in the elevator I had a sudden thought about what I might do if the gentleman next to me in the elevator were to suddenly collapse on the floor with a knife protruding from his chest. (Yeah, I know – you’re probably wondering what was in that tea and cake…) As the unsuspecting gentleman left the elevator to walk towards the car park, I decided that a beautiful courtyard would be more a more dramatic setting than a car park.

While driving to work that afternoon I fantasized about a sunny courtyard, preferably somewhere old and steeped in history, possibly in Europe. Spain was my first choice, but I had never been there so I chose Italy instead. Which courtyard? Well, it had to be small, intimate and a finite space with only one exit, so I chose the romantic courtyard in Juliet’s house, in Verona. The murder would be a planned hit, and would be done with a gun, not a knife, so the gunman could do his deed from a distance and make his escape. Why not shoot from the balcony itself?

I liked the idea of turning the romantic setting for the world’s most famous balcony scene into the scene of a shocking murder. Into my head came the accompanying idea that the heroine who witnesses it is not in a particularly romantic mood because she is there on her own, having called off her wedding. She has, of course, used the planned honeymoon as a solitary holiday because it was too late to get a full refund and she needed to get her head around her own problems. Needless to say, witnessing a murder doesn’t exactly help her do that. Or maybe it does? The chain of events that this sets off provides the fodder for the rest of the novel.

My newest novel takes place in Oxford, England – a place I visited and loved many years ago. An old stone house, a partially ruined church next door to it, the grounds of Blenheim Palace beyond the back fence, and the charming pub up the road will all form part of the setting.

At this early stage, even while images of setting and romantic places flit through my brain into half-imagined scenarios, there is only a vague story idea. I know that it will be a romantic story, and there will be some kind of historic mystery to solve, but first I need to find some characters who will suit both the setting and the story that grows around them.