Do sex and money make the world go round?

Sex and money are powerful human motivators. Almost all the great stories involve one or the other, or both. What can I learn from this?sex

My new book is taking shape, in chapter outlines not a first draft as yet, and it’s at this stage that I begin to look at the movement in the story, how it rattles along, what makes the reader want to turn the pages. At the root of it all is the energy generated by the characters themselves, faced with the circumstances that I have created for them. What makes them act they way they do? Are sex and money critical in this story too?money-logo

Having left myself more space this time to think about the story rather than ploughing on quickly to meet the self-imposed target of ‘one book each year’, I’m interested to see how the characters are developing in my head. Straight-forward ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ are too easy: there need to be layers, nuances and contradictions that push the reader one way and then another as the story unfolds. I’m asking the ‘what if?’ questions about my story, and it seems to be working. At some point, when all thirty or so chapters are sketched out, I’ll start the first draft. Even then, details and complications will come to me and have to be incorporated, but hopefully without too many ramifications for earlier parts of the plot.

Another useful effect of spending longer thinking before I write is that I forget great chunks of the research. The things that remain are the precious bits that stay lodged in the memory when the rest has gone – the ‘nuggets’. Nothing bogs a story down as fast as too much extraneous detail which the writer has dredged up through painstaking research and is consequently determined to use. The trick is to identify the ‘nuggets’ and use them sparingly, adding colour to the story without slowing it down.

Sex and money aren’t the only things that drive action: love, fear, survival – they all play a part. Theymay manifest themselves differently in different eras and societies, but they never lose their relevance and their potency.

 

Planner or ‘pantser’: is it really one or the other?

In the past few weeks I’ve been getting into the next book, the fifth one. When I began the first one A Good Liar seven years ago, I had no idea of the implications of being a planner or a ‘pantser’ (it’s a ghastly term, isn’t it, but aptly described the exercise of writing ‘by the seat of your pants’). It turned out I was a ‘pantser’ who really should have planned more. The first draft of A Good Liar was a terrible mess and took two years to sort out. Even now it feels more of a dog’s breakfast than I’m really happy about. It sells well as the first part of the trilogy, although I sometimes wish it didn’t!

After that difficult experience I decided I would plan in much greater detail, and do try to do so, but with this latest book I’m realising yet again that however careful the plan, it won’t hold together as soon as you start writing. Writing involves immersion in the characters and their world. It’s trite to say that they take over and do unexpected things, but sometimes that’s what happens, and the carefully programmed story veers off into something else. These deviations from the plan are not u-turns, more like scenic diversions, but when they come along they are welcomed, not disapproved of. So does that make me an inadequate planner? I don’t think so.

Writing is like life, complex, varied, and predictable only up to a point. That’s what makes both of them so enjoyable. I have an outline for each chapter which gives me a sense of direction, but every few chapters I amend it, adding a chapter or removing one, introducing a new idea or nuance in a conversation or a scene to drive the story more convincingly even though the direction may not radically change. Without any plan, I’m lost. With too rigid a plan, things get stale and formulaic. So I hover happily between the two stances, – an ‘organic shaper’. That phrase sounds like environmentally friendly underwear: there must be a better term for my mixed approach to novel writing. All suggestions welcome.

Where do plots come from?

I’m sure anyone who writes a novel is asked the question: ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ I can’t speak for anyone else, but thinking back on the books I’ve written so far, there seem to be a few places where plot ideas come from.

  • My own experience, things that have happened to me personally, together with all the emotions that surrounded them. Some of these are from decades ago, others more recent. I’m not providing any examples of these, to preserve my own privacy and the trust of those around me.
  • Stories or snippets of stories I’ve heard from other people. One of these, told to me many years ago, concerned growing up in Belfast in the 1960s with a Catholic father and protestant mother. Another, just a memorable snippet, was about a young man whose wife left him and then returned to their house a few days later while he was at work and removed every stick of furniture, every carpet, curtain and light fitting. He was too shocked and humiliated to track her down.
  • Details gleaned from contemporary newspapers and accounts. I use the Whitehaven News for some of this background colour, peering at the microfilm reader to find authentic details that could later become small valuable nuggets in the story. It’s a useful source as it’s weekly and contains all the court cases, petty theft, accidents, and features that add depth to the picture I’m painting. The post-war period I researched for ‘Forgiven’ was rich in detail that evoked that particular time: the parish council resolution that refused to celebrate the anniversary of VE Day in 1946 as they had ‘nothing to celebrate and nothing to celebrate with’; the couple who were caught handling blackmarket pork when a mouse ate through the string supporting a heavy illegal ham hanging upstairs, with damaging consequences. In ‘Sellafield Stories’ an oral history of the Cumbrian nuclear plant I found some rich detail about the reactor fire of October 1957 from people who were there at the time. Transcripts of hearings and enquiries are also great ‘primary sources’, raw, unfiltered by anything except the capacity of the note-taker to capture everything that was said. One of the survivors of the William Pit disaster of August 1947 gave evidence to the official enquiry about his experience of the explosion and his escape from the mine, and I took some of his words directly into my text for ‘Forgiven’. Maybe it’s the historian in me that get so excited about the authenticity of evidence like that.
  • Places, and what might have happened, or could happen in this setting. When I did the walk across Morecambe Bay from Arnside a year or two ago I was very struck by the care we had to use when approaching the shore at Kents Bank to avoid a shiny grey patch of mud that wobbled visibly as we came close. This was quicksand, and a false step into it could have been life-threatening. My latest novel ‘Cruel Tide’ drew its opening scene from this experience.

None of these nuggets, of themselves, provide you with a plot, but some of them will provoke the essential ‘what if?’ questions from which great stories can be created. They also remind you of features of earlier times that could provide a starting point. For the novel I’m researching at present, a casual meander around some websites has already provided a striking image that will anchor the plot at the start and leave an after-taste of menace and threat. I had to decide who would witness this image, where, when and how, and what impact it might have, and the story began to take shape. It’s very early days yet, but I’m pretty sure that I already have the first chapter. Once I get to that stage, the story ideas begin to bubble up, adding more strands and twists. The trick is to know when to stop adding layer after layer of complexity and characters, how to shape the story into the necessary peaks and troughs, and then take a deep breath and start….’Chapter One’.

What do readers want to know?

It’s been a busy week for meeting readers, and I’m always interested to discover what they want from me and from the books. Here are a few of the questions that crop up most frequently:

 

Q. Do you base your characters on people that you know? Do you people-watch and use it in your books? (The sub-text here is ‘Are you watching me now?’)

I never really know how to respond to this. The details of characters for the story don’t just appear from nowhere: from a few decades of people- watching there are hundreds of people in my head, but memory retains only bits and pieces – the metaphors someone uses, or the voice or style of clothes, or something they did. I remember, for example, a boy I was at school with who had wide shoulders and a short body, and how his jackets always looked too long. He and I were walking near my house one afternoon and were overtaken by a sudden violent thunderstorm. We’d never shown much interest in each other before, but in the middle of this violent weather we kissed passionately, just once, galvanised by the energy around us. That was a moment of intensity that has lingered in my memory: I haven’t used it in a story yet, but I will.

There are countless fragments like that, some visual, some emotional, that surface suddenly while I’m writing. It’s not really an intentional process. It just happens, and I think my characters and the stories are the richer for them. When I’m writing I do so for hours at a time, reaching a level of concentration which is sometimes called called ‘Flow’, (defined by Wikipedia as “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.” That’s it. In that state, fragments of memory appear and find their way on to the page: the outline of a character might have been created earlier, but many of the details emerge during the writing.

Q. Do you always know how your story will end?

I’ve certainly improved my planning since the random chaos of the first attempt at writing a novel, but I can’t say that I know exactly how my story will end when I start it. It’s trite to claim that the characters take over, but to some extent it’s true. If the story is character-driven, that’s bound to happen. Crime fiction, with its requirement for structure and ‘clues’ sprinkled around makes that more difficult, as I found when writing ‘Cruel Tide’. I knew quite early on how the penultimate climatic scene would work, but the final scene of reaction and resolution was written several times before I found a way of closing the story that was true to both the characters and the authenticity of the events and the setting.

Q. When is the next book coming out?

It’s a  welcome question in as much it indicates an willingness to read on, but my hear sinks whenever I hear it. ‘This time next year,’ I’ve been replying as cheerfully as I can muster, thinking as I do so of the months of work that are entailed, the planning, the problems, the research, and then the days of purdah, sitting at the laptop for hours at a time, reading, re-reading, worrying, dreaming, talking to my editor, worrying some more. Sometimes I wonder if I really want to go through it all again at such speed, but my commercial sense tells me that a year is about as long as my readers are prepared to wait for the next one before they lose interest.

From outline to first draft

I hope someone’s noticed that I’ve been away, out of the blogsphere all together, for weeks on a long and amazing trip to Argentina and Antarctica. Actually, it’s over two months since I’ve posted anything, and now there’s so much on my mind I’m not sure where to start.

The question on my mind right this minute is this: how helpful is a detailed outline before you start the first draft? Five years ago I might have said, ‘Who needs an outline. I have a few characters and a few ideas and doesn’t it all just roll out?’ Two months ago I would have said,  ‘An outline is absolutely essential and the more detailed the better.’ Right now, today, I’m thinking. ‘The most helpful thing about an outline is that when you get lost, you have some idea where you are. It gives you a bigger map, but with a smaller scale so you can take in the whole picture more easily.’ But, just like with OS maps of the Lake District, sometimes the paths marked on the map don’t correspond exactly with the paths on the ground.

The first draft is where your writing feet meet the ground. Only then can you see more detail in the territory. Contours and dotted lines turn into real hills and walls. PH marked on the map becomes a real pub, which could be closed and boarded up, or open and welcoming. I spent much of my ‘thinking abut the new book’ time in the past few months on the outline, changing it again and again until I was sure it made sense and flowed and had a good balance of character and events, internal and external dilemmas and conflict, the highs and lows of a classic 3 act structure, and all that. When I actually started to write last week, the first two or three chapters fell on to the page pretty quickly, following the outline page by page. But then things began to spread out. I thought I’d dealt with all the ‘what-ifs’ but then more popped up, demanding to be pursued. Characters said some things I hadn’t expected, and unforeseen anomalies became glaringly obvious.

I’ve noticed before that as I go from outline to draft the story gets darker. Why is that? I think of myself as a reasonably happy and optimistic person, but the words seem to be pushing me into ‘noir’. ‘Cumbrian noir’ – a new genre perhaps? The current book is definitely feeling more ‘noir’ than the previous ones. It should, given that it’s a crime novel rather than the ‘family saga’ tag that loosely describes the trilogy published in the past three years. In crime novels, necessarily, some people do bad things and some people suffer: that’s the nature and impact of crime. But the things I want them to do and suffer seem more ‘noir’ in the draft than they were in the outline.

Seven chapters in now: the overall plot is holding together OK but the chronology has changed a little. I’m having to look ahead three chapters in the outline rather than one to get the best sense of where to go next, and wondering of course why I didn’t anticipate the extra twists and turns that seem so obvious now. I don’t regret this: actually it’s rather fun and keeps me engaged for hours, while the washing up languishes in the sink and I stay cloistered in my upstairs cubbyhole, facing away from the stunning view beyond the window. At the end of several hours writing I feel I’ve achieved something more substantial than the mere fleshing out of a given story. I also need some exercises to relieve my aching neck and shoulders.

I try not to word count: it’s the quality of the words not the quantity that matters. But I couldn’t resist counting at the end of Week 1 and it came to an impressive 20,000 or so. Sounds far too much, but there they are, and most of them read and checked and amended. So far, so good.

Tomorrow there are distractions, in the form of a trip to Cockermouth for a book-related evening at the New Bookshop where I’ll talk about my work as a ‘local author’. That should be fun too, although not as deeply satisfying as keeping on writing, to which I’ll return on Friday.

Talking about my books

Tomorrow evening I’ll be talking to the ‘Friends of Whitehaven Museum’ about the Jessie Whelan trilogy, which has the overall title ‘Between the Mountains and the Sea’. It could be quite a large group, some of whom may have read all three books and others may not even know of their existence. My appearance is part of their regular programme of speakers, and I guess I’ve been invited not as a writer but as someone who has researched and recorded slices of local history in fictional form.

So, I’m thinking: what should I talk to them about? The one thing we all have in common is the setting, and the meeting will take place just across the harbour from the site of the major backdrop event in Book 2, ‘Forgiven’, the explosion in the William Pit in August 1947 that claimed the lives of 104 local men and boys. Think of the impact of that on the local community: all those funerals, day after day, and the thousands of people whose lives were affected, children left without fathers, wives without husbands. I’ll tell them how I tracked down the transcript of the NCB report on the accident, including the accounts from the three men who survived, and how I researched another facet of ‘Forgiven’, the lives of the Displaced Persons in their camps in Cumberland in the years after World War Two. Book 3, ‘Fallout’ was set at the time of the nuclear reactor fire at Windscale, just south of Whitehaven, in 1957, and in doing the research for this book I accumulated far more detail than I could possibly have used in the story, much of which was not clear at the time, even to those who were working at the plant. That too will probably be part of what I share with the group. People are usually interested in the past history of where they live, especially when that history is as rich as ours.

As a writer I should be discussing the triumvirate of character, plot and setting, but talking about setting alone would take us far longer than the limited time I’ll have, and I must find time to say something about the process of turning local history into fiction, which presents another set of challenges worthy of conversation. I’ll try to explain how the characters were born and developed as I wrote about their lives, and how I have tried to have both setting and character drive the plot. Looking back, the process of writing looks far more rational and ordered than it felt for me at the time. I’m now learning more about how to structure and plan a work of fiction, but – in the words of the metaphor – the stable door is banging in the wind and the horse has long gone. Maybe it’ll make for a better effort for the next book. In the meantime I’ll reflect on what I thought and did at the time and not pretend that I consciously followed rules that I was mostly unaware of. Considering that admission. the books turned out better than they might have been.

I’m doing many talks to various groups around Cumbria over the summer, and each one will be different, which sounds inefficient but it’s the only way to keep things fresh. If the people I’m with seem willing to talk I’ll ask them right at the start to help me frame our discussion through their questions and interests. Managing those unanticipated expectations, adding important bits of my own and doing it all within a short time frame is enjoyably risky. It’s like really good teaching and I love it.

 

Looking for a villain

All the characters I’ve developed so far in my writing have been flawed in one way or another – Jessie is impulsive, John so unassertive, Maggie ambitious, Violet blinkered by her religion –  but all of them are essentially good people. If, as I’m considering, I turn to crime fiction for Book 4 I need at least one character who is truly malevolent, and now I’m struggling. The big piece of paper where I’m sketching out the interrelationships in the new book is looking interesting but too benign. It lacks an attractive ‘baddie’, like Milton’s Satan, just charismatic enough to reel us in and make the inevitable betrayal all the more shocking.

Current events lead me to consider a possible backdrop of paedophilia, or people smuggling, or abuse of immigrant workers as the dark side of the plot. It may be squeamish on my part, but I want to avoid explicit violence against women, although setting the action in the 1970s would provide plenty of scope for misogyny and casual gender discrimination. My own working life began early in the 1970s, and I clearly recall how as a young married woman at my first job interview being asked what my contraceptive arrangements were. I said I would share mine if the Deputy Headteacher interviewing me would explain his. He didn’t pursue the matter. Women in general, and young women in particular, were routinely insulted and undermined, and it would be so easy to turn the story into a feminist rant, but that’s not what I want to write. I’m looking for a villain, a rounded, credible, intelligent, articulate character uninhibited by compassion or conscience whose behaviour wreaks havoc and threatens the people we love. Rather than trawl unsuccessfully through my acquaintance looking for such a person,  I may look for inspiration among fictional villains, past and present. Scarpia? Iago? Shakespeare’s caricature of Richard III?

Or should I aim for an ill-intentioned collective, the paedophile ring, the terrorist group, the cabal of bent coppers on the take? Looking across the current literature, it feels like every conceivable angle of conspiracy has been done to death, literally and figuratively. The heroic isolated protagonist against the odds, again? Maybe the nature of successful crime fiction is that it repeats the well-worn genre protocols with just enough of a twist to pique the aficianado’s interest. Is that what I want to do? For the time being it’s back to the drawing board, and the large piece of paper.