Anne here. I've often said that for me, writing a book is a little bit like archaeology, though generally less muddy. When I start, I have a rough idea of what I think a book will be about, who my main characters are and so on, but really, at this point in the writing process, they're my best guesses.
Years ago, when I was in Greece, I was fascinated by some of the ancient murals that had been dug up — some were just fragments really, but people had made "best guesses" as to what the overall murals had looked like.
My characters often begin as a very sketchy collection of notes. Things like: he thinks he's a hard man; he believes to show vulnerability is fatal; He's a survivor; he's clever with machinery and calculations; he tries to control everything in his life; he's racked with guilt over what happened to his sisters; he has no idea how to handle them; deep down he's afraid to trust to love. (Sebastian from The Perfect Waltz)
But it's not until they hit the page and start interacting with other characters that they start to come to life, and often, they're not who I imagined they were going to be. And sometimes because of that, I have to rethink my plot.
Why rethink the plot? some of you might wonder. Why not make the characters do what you want them to do, and be who you planned them to be?
Good question. All writers are different, so I'm not saying everyone works like this, but for me, the minute I try to force a character into a preconceived mould, they become a bit wooden, and limp, and refuse to drive the story. It's much better, and more interesting, I think, if the characters drive the plot.
Characters can surprise me when they say or do something I hadn't expected. For instance, my heroine, Jane in The Spring Bride, where she tells the hero to grow up. Taking him and me by surprise. And revealing more depth to her character.
I love surprises and unexpected insights in a book. I figure if I'm surprised (or the character is) then readers will be surprised, too — hopefully in a good way. It happens mostly when I'm in "the zone" — writing furiously, deep in the story and the minds of the characters. Dialogue will spill out, actions will occur, a secret or a sliver of backstory will pop up that I had no idea existed.
Sometimes a random scene will come to me in the early hours of the morning, or just as I'm about to drift off to sleep. I always write these down in a notebook, because otherwise I'll forget them, and experience has shown that these can be a vital part of my writing process. However I don't always know their significance or even whether they are related to this book.
But then I'll get to a part of the story when I have a lightbulb moment that sends me flipping back through my notebooks to find a particular scene, and lo! It's like finding a missing jigsaw piece. Or part of a buried mural.
The more I write, the clearer my character and my story become to me. Quite often, in the early stage of writing my book I have to pull it apart and rewrite it or even start again from a different point, because I haven't set the story up properly for with the characters that have emerged, or I need to go deeper into them earlier, or reveal something I didn't know earlier.
Sometimes a character doesn't work. I remember I had that problem with the heroine of my second book, Tallie's Knight. My heroine was Serena and I just could not get into her head. I changed her name to to Tallie, and suddenly a whole different heroine sprang to life. It seems silly and a bit superficial, doesn't it, that a simple change of name can result in a whole different character, but that's how it works for me.
Sometimes a story just flows with very little archaeology or excavation needed. His Captive Lady was one that simply flowed onto the page, with very few roadblocks.
Sometimes the character I wanted to write refused to be that kind of man. With The Perfect Rake, my first book for Berkley, I'd been trying to write an alpha hero — you know those strong silent arrogant fellows that are so enormously popular with many romance readers. Instead, the hero who strolled onto the page was Gideon, funny, flippant and definitely no alpha. But of all my heroes, he's still many readers' favorite.
In my new book, Marry in Scarlet, I finally did manage to write a cold alpha hero. But then he surprised me — and the heroine — and I think himself—several times, when she challenged him, and his unexpected reaction revealed a hidden part of him, where the seeds of his redemption were buried. Until that point, I wasn't sure how I was going to get to that vital happy ending.
So, putting together bits and pieces, best guesses, unexpected insights, and digging deeper to find the story — that, my friends, is why writing a novel is, for me, a bit like archaeology.
Did any of this surprise you?
Have you visited any archaeological sites?
Do you have a favorite novel set around archaeology? (My two favorites are Crocodile on the Sandbank, By Elizabeth Peters, and Loretta Chase's Mr Impossible.)