31 January 2015

Research 3: The Novel's Bible - Characters

In my post Research 2 about creating a hyperlinked Research bible, I mentioned in passing Character Sheets. This post goes into more detail.

When I first started writing (in days of yore) I followed the given wisdom to complete a sheet for each main character in the style of what I can only describe as a Police 'missing person' form: age, height, weight, colour of hair and eyes, any distinguishing features... you get the idea. Basically it's looking at a photograph.

But this isn't what characters are. Characters are fears and motivations and goals; characters are about the previous experiences that have marked or buoyed their earlier years and so fuel their thinking now. They are about what makes them tick, their moral compasses, what would tip them into doing something dastardly or ultra worthy. What they look like hardly comes into it.

By the time I am setting a character onto paper, even if in draft form without a name, there has already been a lot of work done on the storyline, so I have a rough idea of age and gender. I walk about with the person a lot, take him/her on trips to the shops or drives in the car, until the character starts taking on a cloudy bulk that can shrug or give a tone of voice, if not actual words. Then I'll sit and write an overview - his/her Mission Statement. Sometimes the character laughs and I start again, but usually from this his/her inner make-up starts to coalesce. There still might be no name, but his/her Sheet is copied into the bible and a hyperlink is formed from the front index to the character's page.

As general research is added to the whole, character sheets are bulked: work, transport, tidiness (or not), mode of speech. Relationships are noted, past relationships are noted. But oddly enough, not features.

When the writing starts and these characters tentatively move around their world, it is then that individual Character Sheets become individual Continuity Sheets. He feels peckish and reaches for... a pie, a chocolate bar, a piece of fruit. This information goes on to his sheet. She needs to buy a cardigan and... which shop, which colour, which type, goes on to her sheet - always with the adjunct why? It is the why does she choose that colour, why does he reach for a banana that adds psychological depth to the character. Only when he combs his hair with his fingers do I know how long it is, its texture. 

How characters feel about themselves is more important than how they look. I leave physical perceptions to other characters to note - and then I write it on the character's sheet. Reading fiction where characters change their age, or eye-colour, or even name, wrecks the suspension of disbelief. For me, it bins the book.

I wouldn't be without Character Continuity sheets. If you write, do you use something similar?

28 January 2015

Wednesday Writing Prompt #8

It's one thing to spring a story from a single given line, but a single given line does not a story make. It is the characters who inhabit that line, who build it as they breathe, that brings that line, that story, to life for the reader.

So how do you build a character? Give him a limp? Give her a giggle? A blue hat? A Bentley motor car?

Are pictures being created in your mind from the images offered? Can you see these people moving? Turning to look at you?

What you are seeing in your mind’s eye is a stereotype, a shorthand sketch, an amalgamation of all your experiences: lived, read and viewed on-screen. These may be good for a walk-on part, but they’ve hardly got the solidity of a character who can face moral dilemmas and act on decisions in consequence. Such characters, such people, are not made as if a patchwork quilt, they are forged through their own experiences, their own emotional make-up.

This means knowing the character, the person, from the inside out, not seeing them from the outside and trying to discern what on the inside makes them tick. It’s not a simple enterprise and it takes time but, for a character destined to carry a novel, I would suggest it is a necessity.

To give a glimpse of the difference such planning can provide, I offer a workshop exercise:

  • Physically build a person: height, age, hair colour, eye colour, weight, complexion, gender. That’ll do; it’s enough. Give this person a name. Give this person an identical twin, including the same name: XXa and XXb.
  • Give them something simple to do. A logical sequence works well: get out of bed, make breakfast, get ready for work, leave the building.
  •  Make XXa an affable, cheery, glass-half-full sort of person, and make XXb an unsociable, disgruntled, glass-half-empty sort of person.
  • Write the same sequence from each persona.

It shouldn’t take long, maybe 250-500 words, but it could prove an eye-opener.

24 January 2015

Research 2: The Novel's Bible

Research has been filling my days of late, as it does for most novelists. Some of it is dry, some of it revealing, some of it , though interesting, will never make it into the work-in-progress, yet it may prove to be the founding of a future book. 

Despite there seeming to be an awful lot of it, I always harbour the niggle that I've never found enough. It's not that I fear my characters will open their mouths and utter an anachronism, more the chance that I might have missed that jewel of a sentence which will align planets and produce a whole new scintillating sub-plot. Or future book.

However, that is no problem at all set against using the research collected. For a start, it is never ever gathered in any useful chronological or subject order, can come from absolutely anywhere, and is therefore often committed to any number of notebooks, my mobile's voice-recorder, camera or, as happened this morning, on the back of my shopping list while at the local supermarket (goodness knows what security surveillance thought I was doing). Reading and digesting this for a general overview is one thing. Making it all easily retrievable to check a single fact is not. 

Some writers swear by using spreadsheets; I swear at them. Some writers use a ledger, though I eschew this as I could see myself spending half a day riffling through the pages trying to make sense of my hand-written scrawl. For me it is the ubiquitous Word, though any word processing software would do as long as it supports Bookmarks.

Bookmarks linked to passages via internal hyperlinks have saved my sanity. As it grows it becomes my Bible, a one-stop shop for not only research information but continuity issues, or, to be precise, to ensure that continuity issues don't develop.

The front page, page 1, starts the hyperlinked sections index. Next comes a Statement about the book (think of a company's Mission Statement). At the moment I am writing Pilgrims of the Pool, Book 3 in the Torc of Moonlight trilogy, so I have a statement about the entire over-arcing story, and a statement covering each of books 1 and 2. Then come the character sheets, then starts the Research. As the books cover both a contemporary and a historical setting, there's Research: Historical and Research: Contemporary. 

Into this shell is drip-fed my gathering research information, with sub-headings being bookmarked and added to the at-a-glance Index as research information accumulates. A lot of it, especially background information, consists of web-links with explanatory notes, supported by linked Evernote pages, but there will also be notes to image files, physical books on my shelves and in the public library, or to the vertical magazine holder sitting at the back of my desk slowly filling with newspaper cuttings, brochures and photocopied information, grouped into labelled transparent pockets. Some of this may well have started gathering before I was halfway through writing the previous book. I never snub research information just because I'm not ready for it at the moment it pops up.

With all this a mere click away I can let go the mental reins and immerse myself in the characters' stories, and create.


If you're not certain you've given research your best shot, I can recommend April Taylor's ebook Internet Research For Fiction Writers. The author was an information officer before becoming a novelist, and hearing how she manipulates the internet for information was a revelation. The book  became my Bible2.

Follow on to Research 3 Adding Character Sheets to the Bible

17 January 2015

Research: Is It Necessary For Short Fiction?

The actual question asked was But you don't research short stories, do you? How to keep smiling when you've just been given the cue for an eye-roll?

I'm at the polishing and finding-a-title stage of a long short story, or a novelette, or a novella, depending which piece of string you measure with. It started with a target of around 3-4,000 words but has come in at 17,500. Is this a problem? No, it means that I can market it as a stand-alone title. However, it would have become a huge problem if I'd pulled it all from my mind without the benefit of supporting research.

Note the operative word: supporting. Research helps a fiction writer create and maintain a world that is not their own, and worlds are much smaller than most new writers believe. 

The story is conveyed in the first person via a female character who is an assessor of paintings. I am female living my own first-person life, I've seen paintings in galleries and I've visited the sort of building where the action takes place. The rest can be fudged, right? Wrong. 

How the character thinks, how she views colleagues and clients, her background and training, the terms she uses, the elements she's looking for in a painting, her tools... these are what make her a three-dimensional character and not a cardboard cut-out tripping over her own gaffes. And it really matters when using first person viewpoint, because the reader is very close in to the character, not just hearing her voice but seeing through her eyes and sharing her thoughts.

Three-dimensional characters also have a tendency to wrap themselves in a three-dimensional setting, so the two become self-supportive, and contribute to the reader's suspension of disbelief. That's why, when I took a breather in the writing, I found I had twelve tabs open on my screen.

So no, I don't research short fiction - much.

14 January 2015

Wednesday Writing Prompt #7

Where do you get your ideas from?

People who ask this are missing the most important point - that they're asking the wrong question. 

Every writer worth the appellation knows that ideas come from everywhere. The question should be...

How do you recognise an idea?

It's an ability of mind, an ability of enquiry, an ability to think  laterally, but it can be learned with surprisingly little practice. So let's try some:
  • following on from the previous Wednesday Writing Prompts, take any handy book (non-fiction or fiction) and with eyes closed open it and point to the text. Pick the first starting sentence on that line. No cheating. Interrogate that sentence with all the usual questions and go from there.
  • stand at your door - front garden, back porch, facing into the hall - close your eyes and turn your head slowly from shoulder to shoulder and back. Stop somewhere in the movement. Whatever your eyes focus on, interrogate that item or person as if it is your initial sentence - who would use it, what for, which person would interrupt, why?
  • open a newspaper (local or regionals are better than nationals for this). Alight on a news item. Let's say it's about a householder complaining that youths broke a window. The focus person in the news item is the owner of the window. Fictionalise the story, making the focus person not the owner of the window, but one of the youths, perhaps the one who threw the stone, perhaps not, it's up to you (and you have two stories in one staring at you just there). Who, what, where, when, how and most importantly why? Because he was forced to (why? who forced him?), because it was a dare (why didn't he refuse?), because he had an ulterior motive (what and why)....
 The cat never just sat on the mat - it was there for a reason. And there's another story prompt waiting to be fed and harvested.

Ten stories, how they were created and written, can be found in Reading A Writer's Mind: Exploring Short Fiction - First Thought To Finished Story

 Amazon worldwide  ¦  Nook  ¦  iBooks  ¦  Kobo

For a taster sign up for my occasional Newsletter and receive a chapter free.

10 January 2015

1,000 Words a Day

I know it is only ten days into the New Year, but how are your Resolutions doing?

I'm hitting my 1,000 words a day - yes!

It might be a small goal in some writers' eyes, but I don't do 'quick & dirty' drafts. My fiction, or at least my fiction of the last few years, is highly atmospheric. For characters to act and react within the reality of their story, their flaws, their beliefs, their fears, all have to come into play as that story unfolds, as they interact with their surroundings. It's not something that can be sliced and diced into portions and added one at a time once the plot is outlined. 

It IS the plot, or at least its close companion.

So if your Resolution was to hit a daily target of 1,000 words, or 500, or 250, then you are allowed to preen a little. The operative word here is daily.

Image courtesy of 'domdeen' at Freedigitalphotos.net

7 January 2015

Wednesday Writing Prompt #6

One idea is never one idea.

Read that again. Too many fiction-writers have a brain-wave, do the research (or just go with the flow), work it through, hit 'The End', polish it to a sheen, and consider the idea fulfilled.

It never is. And how do you know that your original train of thought for that one idea is the best use of it? Never discard ideas, even when they've been written out as fiction. Make a note and file it for future reuse.

This series started with five First Line Prompts - the links are below. People are creatures of habit. Were your stories all crime/thriller, or romance/relationship stories, or...? It matters little what your comfort zone looks like. Now is the time to stretch your boundaries. After all, they are self-imposed.

Return to each Prompt and write from its opening line...
  • as the opposite sex
  • in the present tense
  • as a Western
  • as an off-world Science Fiction
  • as a real-world Historical - choose your period
The questions asked of each opening line remain as part of the creative process, they are merely considered through one of the above filters.

WWP#1  -  WWP#2  -  WWP#3  -  WWP#4  -  WWP#5

5 First Lines written five more ways equals 30 stories in total. Except we aren't talking multiplying by 5, but to the power of 5. Or 10. Or 15. Or...

One idea is never one idea.

3 January 2015

Resolutions, or 7 Ps = Make it a Habit


Here we are again, the beginning of a New January, but are we veering towards the resolutions of the Old January, or an even Older January?

Most writers tend to be second cousin to dieters, myself included: I will... and we do for the first few weeks and then... and then it all takes on a sad familiarity. And yes, we can call upon a litany of excuses, mostly starting with It was beyond my control... which it probably wasn’t, or wouldn’t have been if we’d had the energy to sort it.

Basic training in the British army, or at least the bit I know of, upholds to its recruits the Seven Ps:

Preparation,  Practice  and  Planning  Prevents  Piss-Poor  Performance

Instructors in the British army don’t tend to mince words. That alliterative sentence is now fixed at eye level above my laptop screen. You might try the same.

First list your goals. During 2015 I intend to:
  • finish and publish the final novel in the Torc of Moonlight trilogy, both as an ebook and a paperback, followed by a boxed set of ebooks;
  • publish a short speculative fiction story as an ebook;
  • research, plan and draft a YA historical.

 There are two things to notice from that list: all three can be broken down into smaller, do-able steps, and there is no mention of marketing.

I will be doing some marketing – Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, blogging, forums... I may even have a look at Pinterest once I have gained some idea of how copyrighted images fit into its mix – but for 2015 it will not be a priority that I shall sweat over. Producing fiction and getting it out into the world is what I intend to sweat over.

Building on the experiences of my guests Alan Wilkinson and Jex Collyer, HERE and HERE, my intention is to hit 1,000 good words a day five days a week - I don’t do fast & dirty drafts. Armed with an A4 calendar I have Prepared by marking in holidays and hassle days and Planned a strategy on a spreadsheet, and if my word output starts to miss its mark I have a fall-back plan – turn off my mobile and decamp to a local cafe with a pad & pen.

Determination is the biggest New Year’s Resolution to cultivate. Start feeding the ground today, and mind your Ps.
 [Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net]