31 March 2018

Musings on...Where To Start A Novel

Your characters are nailed, your setting researched, your time period decided. You’ve brainstormed The Big Problem plus a few smaller ones to scatter, and you’ve chosen who’ll carry the story. So where to start? If you’ve written some sort of plan, even a feeble outline, how can where to start be a problem? As always, the Devil is in the detail.

Received wisdom points to a moment of conflict, something to hook the reader. But conflict arises in many forms: conflict with self, conflict with an outside agency, conflict with the environment… And how can the reader be hooked into the story when there hasn’t been page-time enough to learn about the lead character so as to be able to make an emotional investment in him, her, it, or them?

One of my earlier novels, reincarnated as Beneath The Shining Mountains, is set among the native Apsaroke people on the cusp of American-European encroachment on their land. My publisher’s editor at the time dismissed it out of hand as “a Western”.

I could see her point of view; well, I couldn’t at the time and made my position felt, but I can now. Television was full of “Westerns” where the original peoples of the North American continent received a very bad billing. I was a historical re-enactor who gave talks and whose collection of books, recordings and anthropological papers outshone those of the local university. My problem, an insurmountable one according to my editor, was divorcing popular assumptions from the novel’s reality.

This is what readers do; I do; we all do. It’s an easy way of releasing our hold on our own reality and sliding into the reality offered by a novel. We read the signs and make assumptions:  flawed detective suffocating under a never-ending caseload being handed a shitty job because there’s more stress in the station than there is on the street... sort of thing. It might not state that in the opening, but from the tone of the cover, the back-blurb and the first couple of paragraphs, that is what the reader extrapolates. Over the next three or four chapters the reader constantly adjusts that expectation, realigning it to something akin to what the writer had in mind.

For my “non-Western”, I needed to plant a new set of expectations in readers’ minds. Having no control over the cover or the back-blurb, I chose to do it from the first page via an overview of Apsaroke village life, narrowing down to my lead character and her ally subsidiary. The opening was thrown back at me. “Pretty pictures” didn’t mean anything to a reader; people did. Readers wanted a character they could immediately identify with, ie connect with on an emotional level. The “pretty pictures”, if used at all, should be threaded in between.

So I gave the editor what she wanted. The story opens with two women having an argument about the male lead, therefore heralding him for the reader. A few “pretty pictures” are, indeed, threaded in between, but so is something more fundamental for the novel: a sense of personal history about to repeat, of a stalking catastrophe for more than just the main characters. Once written, I mirrored the same tone further in the chapter when portraying a snapshot of the life of the male lead.

The new beginning, about four pages worth, can be read by clicking the Preview option beneath the cover image in the right-hand column. Pick out the Big Problem, the “pretty pictures”, the elements that make up the sense of foreboding. Preceding the opening is a Historical Note to help slip the reader from their reality to the fictional reality, reluctantly allowed by the editor “as long as it’s no longer than 100 words”. So I ensured that it wasn’t.

These musings on where to start a novel came about due to the current work-in-progress, a true “Western” which will appear under my pseudonym Tyler Brentmore sometime over the summer. The story dates from 2014, so my notes tell me, when I’d written the first two chapters before the novel stalled. Returning to it, I could tell exactly why it had stalled: I’d started at a moment of major conflict. There’d been no page-time to learn about the lead character so as to be able to make an emotional investment in him.

This moment of major conflict still stands, but in the rewrite it erupts four chapters in. The preceding 9,500 words contain a few “pretty pictures”, but more to the point they contain a series of smaller, escalating conflicts: with self, with the past, with a hoped-for future, with outside agencies. The initial moment of major conflict has morphed into the novel’s Inciting Incident.

24 March 2018

Research: Mapping Our Way To Understanding

Here in the UK we are fortunate to be able to pore over Ordnance Survey maps of the entire country, rural and urban alike. Each map shows, via simple icons, a welter of detail beyond the topographical: modern, historical, and prehistoric. 

They helped me build an entire series of weekend walks, and I’ve relied on them heavily for my fiction, especially the Torc of Moonlight trilogy, which has its watery roots in those written walks. I don’t own a satnav, but carry a copy of the Ordnance Survey’s book of road maps in the family car and prefer to navigate rather than drive, pointing out items of interest not immediately seen from the road: Medieval castles, Iron Age ring-forts, Roman road routes, Prehistoric barrows.

What did people do before the first of these maps were commissioned in the 18th century? They improvised.

Maps have always been produced. Think of a stick carving lines in damp mud or sand, the detail being passed orally. Later those details were often written into charters. I came one upon such example recently while viewing a YouTube rendition of a 1981 BBC history programme In Search of Athelstan led by a young Michael Wood full of hands-on enthusiasm.

For a bit of context, Athelstan was the grandson of King Alfred the Great. It was Athelstan who, in the 900s, made his grandfather’s dream of a united England a reality. As kings did in those and later days, he rewarded his supporters with estates of land. Between 25-32mins into the programme, Michael Wood walks the boundary of one such estate by following the wording of its charter alongside a modern Ordnance Survey map of the area. The fact that he still could, over 1,000 years later, is at first nothing short of miraculous, even down to pointing to listed hedgerows and named streams. Yet is it?

I find the Mappa Mundi in Hereford Cathedral awe-inspiring, even though I’ve not yet laid eyes on it in person. Dating from around 1300, it is believed to be the largest medieval map still in existence (1.59 x 1.34 metres / 64 x 52 inches). Inked on a single piece of calfskin, it shows the world as it was then understood.

Christian maps of this era always place Jerusalem at the centre and the east at the top, but once you get your eye in the detail is spectacular and very recognisable. Britain is at the bottom left. 

Check out the digital version HERE, and be sure to highlight the colour-enhanced version showing how bright it would have looked when first commissioned. There is also a 15 minute explanatory video from History West Midlands fronted by an image of the beautiful Hereford Cathedral, itself dating from 1079.

Not all maps were undertaken by the great and the good. When I was a Native American re-enactor I saw reproductions of powder horns engraved with topographical maps, mostly river systems, for use by trappers known as Mountain Men.

They weren’t the only people who used this type of utility map. Left is an image of a powder horn dating from the American Revolutionary War showing a map of Charlestown and Boston, including named wharfes and gun batteries, which belonged to a British soldier, “E.B.” of His Majesty’s 47th Foot.

Along with handily dating it, 1775, “E.B.” added the inscription A Pox on rebels in ther crymes. Not a man to cross, then. Perhaps he didn’t want to be there.

Map reproduction is courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library, where close-ups of this image and others can be viewed HERE.

The most modern, and a map that never fails to impress, comes from the International Space Station showing planet Earth. YouTube has a number of real-time and time-lapse runs. I’ve chosen one at random. May you find it very, very restful and glad you're living now and able to view it.

All images are reproduced via Creative Commons licensing.

8 March 2018

Read an Ebook Week: 50% Off!

It's Read An Ebook Week and I have three titles subscribed via Smashwords.com which offers its titles in both mobi format for Kindle and ePub format for Kobo, Nook, iBooks, etc. Use the coupon code RAE50 at the checkout to get 50% off - which is $4.50 for the Torc of Moonlight Books1-3 boxed set.

Grab it while you can. Read An Ebook Week finishes on Saturday 10th March.

Direct links:
Torc of Moonlight Boxed set   ¦   The Paintings chiller   ¦   Reading A Writer's Mind writer's guide


3 March 2018

#Writing Research: Using Weather Crises For Insight

If you've been living in the United Kingdom this past week you can't have missed the unseasonally severe weather conditions, dubbed The Beast From The East because the originating air currents are from Russian Siberia. During the last couple of days Storm Emma, originating offshore of Portugal, has streamed north to interact with it. It's been a "fun" time of blizzards, gale-force winds whipping lying snow into a whiteout, people trapped inside their vehicles, airports closed, power outages, the sea freezing...

But as the week progressed, the media quit its ever-escalating shrieks of horror and instead concentrated on the good deeds ordinary people did for one another: hospital staff walking miles to be on-shift, farmers working 12 hours straight using their field equipment to dig vehicles out of snowdrifts and open impassable rural roads, 4x4 drivers ferrying medical staff and meals-on-wheels to vulnerable people, members of an orchestra stranded in a hotel finding a wedding party, also stranded, and offering to play at their wedding. As the snippets came in it provided a wealth of "what if...?" scenarios for fiction writers.

One of the BBC's environmental TV programmes - Winter Watch - posed the question "How do the current conditions stack against those of the Big Freeze of 1963?", and showed a grainy black & white programme from the period. Having found it on YouTube I offer it above. It makes fascinating watching, its unintentional detail providing a mine of information for a writer. For those too young to remember, it was a time of very few homes with central heating, just a coal fire in a single room, no double-glazing, and everyone seemed to smoke.

The storms, though, were a mirror of today, starting with high winds from the far east of Europe then being met by a storm from the south. However, The Beast From The East we are promised will have passed by Monday; the Big Freeze of 1963 lasted two months.