A Scene can be a Seed

Anne here, and today I’m musing about the process of writing. Several readers have indicated that they’re curious about how we wenches go about writing our books, and while I can’t speak for any of the others — all writers’ processes are unique — this is mine.  (Photo by Rhett Wesley on Unsplash)

A wall is made of bricks and mortar;  a novel is made of scenes and the mortar is causality.

I once attended a talk by Queensland writer Kate Morton — read her, she’s fabulous — and in the question session at the end, someone in the audience asked how she decided what book to write next. I love knowing what sparks a story idea and why, out of the many story ideas you might have buzzing in your brain, one stands out.

For me, a story usually starts when I have a really strong scene in my head — it usually comes when I’m waking or drifting off to sleep, and unrolls in my head like a movie.  I always write it down, but I don’t always start work on it until later — sometimes years later. But if it’s good, it will stick in my brain, and eventually it will spark a whole book.

For every one of my books, I can point to the scene that generated the story. Sometimes it’s an opening scene, sometimes it’s in the middle of the book. In my first book (Gallant Waif) it was the black moment (the ballroom scene, if you know the book) and it comes almost at the end. In The Autumn Bride, the scene that came to me first was the one where Abby meets Lady Beatrice. In His Captive Lady it was the scene at the start where Harry gives his hat away. You can read it here. Click on Read Sample.

So for each book at least one scene has come to me, strong, vivid and unforgettable, and it will somehow nag at me until I write it. I think of it as the muse, telling me there is a story there, somewhere. Once I have the scene, I then start working out what the story is about, asking myself who are these people and how did they get to this point. So having that one strong scene is crucial to my process.

Kate Morton’s approach was an eye-opener. She said she didn’t start a book until she had three strong scenes. Three — the power of three — a tripod being so much stronger a support than one or even two legs. Ever since, I’ve pushed myself to come up with several strong scenes. Not that I always know how a scene will turn out. Some of the best ones have surprised me.

One day a man watching me type (which is four finger typing while watching the keys — and even then I make typos) commented  that if I did a proper typing course I would be able to type much faster and better and so write more books and make more money. (This, I will add, was a completely gratuitous comment — we weren’t talking about writing or money at all. He was just being ‘helpful’. <g>)

But typing faster would make very little difference in my level of productivity. Every writer has a different method, and mine is that I put my writing down in layers, a little bit like a watercolor painter builds up intensity by painting payer upon layer until the desired level is reached.  (Photo below by Jr Korpa on Unsplash)

Here’s how I will often approach a scene. First I will brainstorm what I think needs to happen. I try to think of it as a unit where something will change between the beginning and the end of a scene.  It might be a moment of insight by or about a main character, a discovery, a crisis, a challenge, a kiss, the revelation of a snippet of backstory — anything really, as long as it advances the plot. And by the end of the scene things have changed in some way for the character(s) concerned. Often there’s a question in play, which is resolved, or has been refined, or added to, and which leads into the next scene.  (Photo by Marcos Paulo Prado on Unsplash)

I will jot down the stages in the scene, often on the back of an envelope. (High tech, that’s me.)

Sometimes I’ll handwrite some of the scene in my notebook, but it’s rarely in complete sentences. Usually it’s just dialogue, and when that happens my pen flies, trying to keep up with the dialogue exchange happening in my head.

Then I type up my “scribble” adding in bits showing who said what, and where they are, and what I call choreography (but I don’t mean dancing) so it’s not just “talking heads.”

Later, I will go back over the scene, and layer in more things — thoughts, small evocative details, reactions, sensations, etc. Writer Barbara Samuel (aka Barbara O’Neal — read her, she’s also brilliant  and this book is on special at the moment) calls that “layering in the lusciousness” which is a lovely way to put it. It’s often at this stage where I know what the scene really means — relating to the theme of the book. Not the what happens, but what it’s really about. At every stage of writing, I will go back and forth in the manuscript, adding, pruning, rewriting, which is why I’m not a fast, churn-em-out writer.  (Photo by hannah grace on Unsplash.

So some scenes come to me in an almost dream state, and some are just logical progressions, but all of them get built up, layer by layer.

What about you, are there any scenes in a book that have really stuck in your mind, long after you’ve finished reading them? Or are you the kind of reader that lives deep in the book until it’s finished and then moves on and dives into the next book?

15 thoughts on “A Scene can be a Seed”

  1. Of all your books, His Captive Lady, is one of my favorites. And the scene that you mention is the one I remember most. Just getting ready to start a new book. Think I will reread that one. And yes, I do tend to live in the book while reading it.

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    • Thanks, Mary. I’m glad you enjoyed that scene. I, too, tend to live in the book while I’m reading. I used to get into trouble for ignoring people while I was reading when I was a kid, but I never even heard them, I was so deep in the book.

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  2. I do dive into the book and live there while I gobble it down in a few hours. Then I put it aside and reread it about a month later, savoring it. I love it when I can reread an entire series and see the connections among the characters, and enjoy living in that world, even years later. For example, Lady Beatrice giving a kitten to Doro was like meeting an old friend again. I always look forward to your stories and thank you very much.

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    • Thanks so much, Jeanette. I’m a bit rereader, too. When Sharon Shinn’s latest book was coming out, I reread the previous four in that series, even though all her books are stand-alones and I’d read them all before, several times. Revisiting a fictional world can be so pleasurable.

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  3. What a neat post, Anne. I’m certainly one who enjoys learning how a given writer creates a book.

    I’m trying to recall a scene that has stayed with me. The closest thing I can think of is a revelation that occurs some seven chapters into Joanna Bourne’s The Spymaster’s Lady which had me immediately go back to the beginning of the book to see how she had managed to surprise me.

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    • Thanks Kareni — is it the scene when you are finally told of Annika’s “disability'”? (Trying to avoid a spoiler.) But I think I did exactly the same. Big surprise and then you go back and reread and saw there were a few tiny hints there.

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  4. Hi Anne, thanks for posting this fascinating explanation of the process of your writing and how others approach it.

    I dive in, reread scenes, and get very deep into the psychology of the characters.

    I do this with the mindset of Kendra Donovan, the protagonist of Julie McElwain’s “In Time” series. It’s about a former FBI agent who goes after the murderer who killed her team. They both end up in a castle, and she falls through an opening into 1816.

    Kendra must adapt to this new world of exacting manners and protocol. I enjoy her way of helping to solve crimes using no modern tools and employing her intuition.

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    • Thanks, Patricia. I haven’t read the “In Time” series, but it sounds like it might be my cup of tea. And yes, getting the psychology of the characters right is crucial isn’t it? I don’t know how often I’ve given up on a book because what some character did just went against everything you knew about them, and you knew it was just for effect.

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  5. Very interesting insights Anne. It reminds me of how I developed my garden. I visualised a fushia border and pampas grass in a corner and so on. Perhaps I should try to write a gardening book! I don’t really retain fictional scenes for long, perhaps because fiction is my way of relaxing between more serious reads. I do sometimes retain scenes from physics books, for example the current ideas on inflation and the big bang origin of the universe are constantly coming back as I relax with coffee.

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    • Thanks, Quantum — yes, starting with an image of what you want is a good basis to build on. Am chuckling at the idea of you sitting with a coffee dreaming of scenes from physics book. Yep, we’re all different.

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  6. I’m fascinated by the minds of writers, because I can’t invent a story to save my life. My mind just doesn’t work that way. I am notorious for getting lost in a book though, and I’ve been that way since early childhood. I still have an old grammar school report card where the teacher commented(I’m paraphrasing) “Karin fails to pay attention in class because she always has her head in a book”.
    As far as sticking in my mind, it depends on the book. Some of them disappear the minute I’ve finished, but others keep floating through my thoughts for days afterwards, and earn a permanent place in my memory. The scene you are talking about in His Captive Lady is a very strong one; it’s been well over a decade since I read the book, and I still remember it, without clicking on the link. The heroine is sitting on the back of a wagon, and the hero is on horseback, am I right?

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    • Thanks, Karin, and yes, you’re spot on — that’s the scene, all right.
      I smiled at “Karin fails to pay attention in class because she always has her head in a book”. I bet there are quite a few people here who had similar comments in school.

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  7. So interesting! I definitely replay scenes from a book for a long time after I’ve finished it. I too love Kate Morton’s books.

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    • Thanks, Jeanne — I’ve never forgotten the scene/ image in Kate Morton’s The Forgotten Garden, with the little girl sitting on her little pink suitcase, alone on the wharf.

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