Tag Archive | setting

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…

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.

It Started with a Picture

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Like most of my novels, this one started with an image, a setting. In this case, it was a picture in a travel book. Even back in 2011 I knew that my next novel would be set in Australia, because that was where my sister had gone to live with her Australian husband. They left South Africa in the middle of 2011 to settle in Melbourne, and I knew that I would follow them within a few years. Which I have now done, but that’s another story, so let’s backtrack a bit.

When my only sibling and her husband announced that they were leaving, my brother-in-law knew exactly where they would go – to Melbourne which was where most of his family lived. He had been to visit them there a few years before, but my sister hadn’t. She had no idea what to expect, and for both of us Melbourne was simply a place on a map.

As is my inclination when I need to research something, I headed into my nearest bookshop to look for books on Australia and, more specifically, on Melbourne. The book I found was a travel book, beautifully illustrated with loads of photographs of many places – Federation Square, Flinders Street station, the trams gliding through leafy streets, the Puffing Billy train that chugs through the mountainous area known as the Dandenongs, and an array of popular eating places, some of which were in a street called Lygon Street.

I realised that Melbourne was a beautiful city, filled with artistic, historical, sporting, culinary and cultural delights, and not some one-horse town in the middle of the vast red desert that made up the Australian outback in my mind. I bought the book and presented it to my sister.

The more she read it, the more she discovered and passed on to me interesting bits about her soon-to-be city. Before she left to live there, I bought myself a copy of the same book, so that we could both be on the same page, as it were, when she wanted to tell me about a place she had been to. It helped me to be able to picture her in a place that was accessible to me, even if only by book.

Lygon Street covers a relatively small area in Carlton, just north of the city centre, near the Melbourne Museum, but it’s tightly packed with Italian restaurants, Gelateria, fashion boutiques and gorgeous cake shops, interspersed with parks, trees and small lanes. The restaurants sit cheek-by-jowl, with their tables and chairs spilling out onto the pavements, their hosts declaiming about their mouth-wateringly delicious food to all passers-by.

My sister found it to be an exciting, unique place on her first visit and, during one of our Skype sessions, told me on which page of our books to find a photo of it. She promised that we would go there when I came out to Australia on holiday. I stared long and hard at the picture in the book, at its neon signs illuminating the leafy green trees spreading above the tables, and the inevitable happened: I began to imagine characters other than us hanging out there.

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I took my first trip to Melbourne when my sister had been there almost six months, but long before that I had created images in my head of how Lygon Street would look in reality, and how one of my main characters, Bobby, would run a bar set in a basement below one of the many vibrant restaurants there, and he would live… oh, I don’t know – in a house somewhere in the same area.

The reality, when I visited it with my sister, was quite different. There were no basements leading down from the street level, but most of the buildings were double storey. There were also plenty of small lanes between buildings, leading to other lanes and what had once been alleys, I suppose, but had been prettified. Best of all was a lane leading past a restaurant to an inner courtyard in which we found a modern clock tower and what looked like a set of upstairs apartments.

This was good. This meant that people actually lived in between all these restaurants. But it wasn’t quite what I had been hoping for. I liked the clock tower, though…

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Further in, we found a few gates and garages behind the clock tower, as well as homes above some of the shops. There was a whole world of quaint, attractively painted shops and small businesses rubbing shoulders with private dwellings, and this was just what I needed for Bobby. In my mind I appropriated the restaurant in the lane leading to the clock tower for Bobby’s piano bar, and I gave him an apartment above, overlooking Lygon Street itself.

The bar was small, but I needed the apartment to be large enough for Bobby to have a spare room that contained old family junk, so I obligingly created an Italian restaurant in front of the bar and a very large and well organised stockroom behind it, with the apartment stretched luxuriously over the whole lot. I also gave Bobby a hired garage a few lanes away for him to house his car which he doesn’t often use, but does need for one very important trip about halfway through the novel.

I’ve been back to Lygon Street many times, and on each visit I check to see that I’m still on track in my imaginary version of it. I usually take more photos too, which is probably silly, but I do like to be able to cross reference things.

It’s been a long road, writing this novel. There have been too many interruptions, too much upheaval in my life, but the novel is finally reaching the end of its winding road. All it needs now is a final read, a cover, some formatting for Amazon, and then it’ll be ready to go out in the world and carve its own path.

Watch this space…

Setting, Resonance and Backstory

I’ve written before about setting and how it influences both the characters and the plot. But it also has a lot to do with resonance and helps to give roots to a character’s history, or backstory. In a conversation with fellow writers last weekend, I realised that the books which have resonated most with me all have settings to which I long to return, even if only in my mind. Wonderful places to dream of include the land of Narnia, the wild and windy cliffs of Du Maurier’s Cornwall and the magical castle of Hogwarts.

In a previous blog-post I wrote about why Romeo and Juliet works for me in its romantic, historical Italian setting, but not when set on the West Side of New York City in its rewritten version, West Side Story.

If I ever fly to New York, my first place of call will not be the area where West Side Story takes place, but rather Hobie’s antiques shop in The Goldfinch, or even the art gallery where that now famous painting was supposed to have been hanging when the bomb went off. Of course, that’s also because I have a thing for both antiques shops and art galleries, which is probably what drew me to that novel in the first place.

But since I can’t afford to go to New York, let’s return for the moment to the setting of Romeo and Juliet. If I hadn’t once upon a time journeyed to Verona in Italy to see the supposed house and balcony of Juliet, I would in all likelihood not have stopped for lunch on the road between Verona and Venice. This means that I would never have discovered the enchanting castle of Soave where I spent an afternoon marvelling at medieval weapons and chainmail shirts, a fresco of Dante on an obscure wall, and the panoramic view from the fire-step just below its high battlements. In short, if I had not harboured those romantic notions about Juliet’s house, I would have deprived myself of three of the most pivotal settings later used in my novel, Benicio’s Bequest.

Before I ever travelled to Australia, I had heard about Melbourne’s famous Lygon Street with its cafes and restaurants spilling across the pavements.

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I had already decided that I wanted part of my next novel to be set in such a place, but first I had to see it for myself. Early notions of a cellar-like basement bar for my novel’s opening faded when I saw Lygon Street for the first time, and instead I set my fictional bar down a lane that led to a courtyard with a clock tower, beyond which was a hidden maze of alleys, private houses, and backyards of more double-storey buildings facing onto other streets behind and alongside.

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My new world was born. From those images I built my character’s nest in an apartment above the bar that he inherited from his father, up a little lane behind an Italian restaurant run by his friend Gino.

The house that my sister and brother-in-law were renting during that first visit to Melbourne also became the model for another setting, as did the ugly grey house shared by my niece and two housemates. By the time I returned to Melbourne for my second visit, both of these dwellings had other occupants and the members of my family had moved on to more permanent accommodation, but those houses are still firmly embedded in that novel.

What is it that draws us to a place and makes us want to recreate it in a fictional space in our minds? I don’t know, but the pull to those places is strong or we wouldn’t be tempted to use them. I often see myself as what I call a potential-holic. I am drawn to the potential I see in people or in places, just as I am drawn to the potential stories that I could create around situations that I imagine in numerous “What if” scenarios. I think it’s a leftover trait from childhood. Just as I once imagined a bogeyman under the bed or some scary creature of the night lurking in a semi-visible dressing-gown hanging on the back of my bedroom door, I see the world as alive with endless possibilities of hitherto untold stories.

My theatre technician friends laugh at me when I imagine the backstories behind certain things in the plays or musicals that I watch night after night as I operate lights or stage manage them. An entire history was imagined about the childhood of the dreadful Hannigan siblings in the musical Annie last year, and I can’t even remember now what it was based on. Likewise, the previous year saw me dreaming up stories about the odd assortment of criminals who arrive in the boarding house of a seemingly frail old lady who manages to outwit and outlive them all in The Ladykillers.

These are not stories that anybody in the audience would know or even think about. In fact, they may bear no resemblance to the original author’s own ideas, but for me – just as the actors do their own research and come up with their characters’ motivations – I like to find my own justification for everything that they do. It’s not only good practice for my writing, but it can be enormous fun too. When you’re lucky enough to work in a creative environment, something rubs off on you and it would be foolish not to take advantage of it. And I suppose you could say that that’s my backstory.

Dredging Up the Dreaded Trunk Novels of the Past

We all have them, it seems. All writers have Trunk Novels – those first few novels that were lovingly, earnestly written in the hope of landing an agent, a publisher and eventually, book-world domination. Only they never quite made it. They might have been toted around various agents and publishers, were probably read by the writer’s nearest and dearest (usually under duress) and finally relegated to the old tin trunk beneath the bed or in the attic, never to be read again.

In the olden days of typewriters these would have been actual paper manuscripts. Over-long, heavy volumes either bound with brads, rubber bands or slipped between the covers of a thick lever-arch file. When excavated by the writer some years later (or his next-of-kin some decades later) these yellowed pages covered with brown spots and blurred typewritten sentences would conjure up romantic fantasies of undiscovered brilliance and success anew.

In the modern age these trunk novels are more likely to be old files on the computer’s drive. In some case they will have been deleted or lost when the writer bought a new computer, but the sentimental writers among us transfer them along with the newer writing for old times’ sake. An unread reminder of what once fired us up.

The sad truth is that all trunk novels – old style and new – are usually mundane, excessively detailed, badly-written, boring stories that are laden with backstory that is of no interest to anyone apart from the author, and are likely to send the reader nowhere but to sleep. I’m not saying this is a bad thing – all writers need them.

Trunk novels belong in the trunk for a reason. They are the practice runs, never to be witnessed by the public.

Think of a world-renowned concert pianist practising scales: people are not going to pay to listen to a concert pianist practise those scales, but if he doesn’t practise them, the audience won’t come to listen to the work that he plays really well. And he plays his concert work well because of those hours he’s spent practising his scales. But this doesn’t mean that we need to hear them.

The theory with writing is that you cannot call yourself a writer until you have written a million words. And then some. But this doesn’t mean that that the world has to read them. It does, however, mean that we need to write those million words in earnest, believing in them and hoping for them, expecting success and acknowledgement from our peers. When it doesn’t happen, we retreat into our caves, throw our magnum opus into a bottomless pit (or trunk) and resolve never to let the world see us bleed again.

Or not. Those who are cowed and take up something different may find their happiness in another direction, but those of us who are meant to write will keep at it, despite the odds. We all benefit from a little encouragement. And trunk novels are no different.

A trunk novel is the first step taken by the baby, the early banging of notes on the family piano, and the finger-painted daubs that we stick on our fridges long before our children show any no signs of developing into a modern Van Gogh or Picasso. The trunk novel represents the test papers from old school exams written in our teens – back when we tried hard but perhaps failed to impress. They are the school essays and projects that a kind teacher marked with the words “Shows promise” or the report card that gave us marks for effort, with the words “Continues to improve but must work harder.”

Where would we be if all those parents, teachers and mentors had smacked the child for its unsteady steps, shouted down his first discordant notes on the piano, or torn up her daubs instead of attaching them to the fridge? We’d be lost, and probably useless at everything else too by now, because we would no longer believe in ourselves.

A writer I know who does pottery once said that she was not afraid to display her slightly uneven ceramic bowls and vases in her house, so why shouldn’t we self-publish our written art and give it to family and friends as gifts? A valid point indeed about self-publishing.

The problem with worldwide e-book self-publishing is that it may be akin to putting our uneven ceramics or our children’s fridge art in a national gallery alongside the Picassos and Van Goghs. This would naturally invite ridicule, since the first attempts will always be poorer than the later work which is done when the writer has honed his craft. If you want your work out there, you must be ready to swim against the strong currents of life and be able to dodge the sharks.

People have asked me why I don’t put my early works – my trunk novels – on Amazon too. My answer is because those works are not ready. They never were. They were the practice runs, the early daubs not to be exhibited in the gallery. Not meant for ridicule and certainly not ready to be seen until they have been totally rewritten.

I have tried rewriting them before. Every now and then I get all fired up over doing this because I take a quick look at the first few chapters and decide that they’re not so bad.

Usually I get about seven chapters in and then give up because I get bored. And I know that if I get bored, my readers will be bored too. The task, it seems, is always insurmountable.

I started my first novel back in 2004 and dabbled with it over the next three years, then sent it out into the world to look for a publisher. While waiting for success and book-world domination on the basis of that novel I began the second. When the first was repeatedly rejected, I sent out the second and began rewriting the first. When the second was rejected I sent the newly rewritten first one out again and threw myself into rewriting the second…

You can see where this is going, right?

I must have clocked up close to a million words by the time I eventually, in 2009, enrolled in a creative writing course, determined to learn how to fix my unwanted novels. I started a new project for that writing course, and yes – I did learn a lot. I also learnt that some sow’s ears will never turn into silk purses no matter how much re-writing you do. At the end of 2009 I began a totally new novel in an exotic Greek setting with a plot that actually went somewhere and a handful of quirky characters who bit and scratched at each other and were not perfect.

Bingo! A million words done and I had found the secret. The first two novels were relegated to the trunk and my new Greek novel went out into the world to look for an agent and publisher while I began writing the fourth, set this time in another exotic location – Italy – and with an exciting plot about art forgery and kidnapping, with another bunch of quirky, obstinate and imperfect characters.

After eighteen months and a very encouraging rejection letter from Penguin (who took eleven of those months to read and reject it), I knew that my Greek novel was ready for the rest of the world so I uploaded it onto Amazon. It’s in the world wide gallery now, up against the Van Goghs and Picassos of the writing world, and most people don’t even know it’s there, but I’m proud of it and glad that I gave my first million words to my other unsung children first, so that this one could go to places that my first two would never see.

The following year my Italian novel went onto Amazon as well. It’s also there in the world wide gallery trying to keep its head above the water in a sea of Correggios and Titians (not to mention a few sharks as well) and it’s doing okay too. The novella I wrote for my creative writing course slipped silently into place between its two bigger siblings, and in a few months’ time I hope to have their Australian sibling swimming in the same ocean, fighting for its survival too.

I’m past the point where my books are only for friends and relatives to be nice about. I’m willing to take the risk, and so far the response has been good. I’m not ready to give up my day job yet, but I do love my interesting hobby and I feel confident that my books are bringing a measure of entertainment and fun into the lives of readers around the world, even if there are not many of them.

As far as my two trunk children are concerned, I would like to give them a chance as well, but not until they’ve both been totally rewritten. Back in April this year I started with the first one again – you can read my blog-post about it here.

This time I took a different approach. I ignored the 110 000 word text and went straight for the jugular in the chapter outline. It’s a lot easier to hack around at an 8-page outline than a 284-page manuscript! I also put each of my characters through a rigorous Myers-Briggs Personality Test to see exactly what characteristics they might be drawn to in others, and why the members of the historical family fight each other so much. I also discovered what the modern characters were likely to do under certain circumstances. Sometimes their choices surprised me, but I went with what they chose and it all added to the plot.

Exotic settings? Yes: London and Africa. Engaging, action-filled plot? Yes, I’ve shortened the timeline, increased the stakes and thrown in some nasty complications. Quirky characters riddled with flaws? Yes, and this time they are active, pissed off and bubbling with hidden agendas.

These guys are determined to leave their own mark on the world wide gallery, and can’t wait to romp with their siblings in the shark-infested ocean. But first I have to rewrite the whole thing, starting at page one…

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