Anne here, and today I'm responding to questions sent in from a reader, Diane E, who therefore wins one of my books.
Anne, I have a question about your writing a novel – how do you set-up a dialogue or a scene. Do you have an idea of what each person is going to say. How do you keep it straight – one's thoughts from another's. When I read I start thinking about how the author decides what each person says – what topics they talk about, how big is the family? Is this a silly question? I'm curious. I really enjoy the Word Wenches articles and enjoy your books.
Not a silly question at all, Diane, and for asking it, you've won one of my books. I don't know how other authors do it — every writer approaches writing differently, but here's how it works for me.
How many characters, or how many in a family?
Every character in a book must earn their place in the story and have a role that no other character can play. Generally the number of siblings in a family depends on whether that family is the focus of a series — and whether I have a story for each sibling. It gets tricky, because I've found that the appearance of any sibling, no matter whether they play a large role or not, will get people asking for their story.
Charles Dickens was famous for his minor characters, and I admit to a weakness for them, too. But sometimes they want a bigger role and I have to be strict with myself —and them—not to let them distract from the main story. Sometimes I prune them back, sometimes they win — eg Daisy, in The Autumn Bride, was initially supposed to be a very minor character who brought a message to the heroine, but she sprang to life on the page and I loved her, and so. . . she joined the family. And now has her own book — The Summer Bride (out in June). Lady Beatrice was another minor character who refused to stick to the small role I'd initially imagined for her. So characters can be tricky. And pushy.
Setting up a dialogue or scene?
When I'm about to start a new scene, I first think about the previous scene(s) — what happened and what effect did it have on my characters. In other words — what are they thinking/worrying about now? I simply close my eyes and think my way into their situation and the moment, putting myself in place of whichever character's point-of-view the scene will start in. And then I start writing.
Sometimes I make a list of dot points about what I want to achieve in the scene — eg to introduce a new problem, to reveal something, so have a character challenge someone — every scene has a plot reason to be there. I'll often jot the steps or events in a scene on the back of an envelope.
If I'm not sure what a scene ought to be, I will start by asking myself and answering — in writing — questions such as; what does s/he want now? How is s/he feeling? What are his/her choices? What will s/he do? And soon I find myself writing dialogue and I'm off and running.
Usually I just write the scene as it comes to me, and then edit it to make it sharper, or more relevant. I try to make sure there's a core of conflict in every scene, not always big, and thinking "tension" rather than yelling or arguing. Classically a significant scene will have an inciting incident, a problem, a climax and some kind of a resolution, as well as some kind of hook to draw the reader on, but I rarely try to follow that scheme unless I feel the scene isn't working. That's when I go in and analyze and fix it.
I don't always know what characters are going to say beforehand. Sometimes I start writing, thinking they're going to talk about x or y, and then it changes. In The Spring Bride, in the middle of an argument, Jane suddenly told Zach "Oh grow up!" — that was a complete surprise for me (and him) and showed she was stronger than I'd realized. And it changed the course of the plot.
Occasionally I wake with a scene unrolling in my head like a movie — action and dialogue — and then I grab the nearest notebook and pen and write it down. This happens often enough that I sleep with a notebook and pen beside me, and I've even taught myself to write with my eyes closed, because somehow that keeps the scene fresh in my mind.
Some of these "waking dream" scenes have been pivotal in a book, some have even been the inspiration for a book. In The Perfect Rake, the scene where Prudence first meets Gideon was one of those "waking dream" scenes. I still have the notebook with my scribbled down notes and the dialogue is almost identical to the finished book.
In The Autumn Bride, the scene where Abby meets Lady Bea — that scene came to me long before they had names or any kind of a story. But it was vivid enough and intriguing enough for me to keep thinking about it, until I worked out what the story was.
The ballroom scene in my very first book — Gallant Waif — was one that came to me out of the blue and it inspired the story. I had to work out who these two people were and how had they come to this point, but when I came to write the story, that scene happened right near the end of the book.
I never get characters mixed up. It's almost like I can hear them talking in my head, Daisy in her Cockney accent and Flynn in his Irish one, Lady Bea in her posh drawl.
Once I'm into the writing a book — "in the zone" — snatches of dialogue between characters come to me out of the blue at all times and places. I might be in bed, drifting off to sleep, I might be sitting on a bus or in traffic or reading the newspaper, and something will spark and thought and suddenly there's a conversation happening and I have to grab a pen and write it down, or else I'll forget it.
I don't always know where these snatches of dialogue will go, and of course, not all get used in the final book, but I love it when it happens because it means the characters have come to life in my head. Sometimes one of these "in-head" dialogue exchanges will make me chuckle. At other times it will make me think more deeply about the story and wonder why a character would say that — and I discover more about them, and the story.
So it's a journey of discovery. I know a lot of authors sit down and plan their stories out beforehand, but for me it feels a bit like archaeology — the story and the characters are there, I just have to uncover them. And it's always an adventure.
So what about you? if you're a writer, how do your scenes and characters come to you? Any tips? And as a reader, do you have any favorite minor characters? Or any beloved and unforgettable scenes that stick in your mind long after you've finished reading them?