Andrea here, musing about how my stories come to life. The Wenches were chatting the other day among ourselves about great teachers we had in school (look for that “Ask A Wench” blog on Wednesday!) and that’s what got me to thinking about it . . .
I have a very vivid memory of a school assignment that was my first “formal” introduction to the challenge of storytelling. It was sixth grade English class and our teacher gave each of us a random picture that he had cut out from old books and magazines—mine was a vintage engraving of a young Masai warrior facing down a ferocious lion—and told us to write a short story about
Granted, as a kid I had fooled around drawing crayon pictures and making up little vignettes about them. (And yes, I'm still a very bad speller!) But this demanded that I think of a real story—a beginning, a middle and an end. (I’m not sure my brain thought it through quite that clearly, but I do remember that the assignment really sparked my imagination.)
I can still recall my opening sentence: Beads of sweat broke out on Nemo’s forehead. (I pat myself on the back for realizing that an opening sentence needed to catch a reader’s attention.) The rest of the story has long faded into the haze of the past, but another clear memory is of my teacher taking me aside after the assignment was turned in and telling me that he thought I was pretty good at storytelling.
I guess that stuck with me. Maybe the assignment resonated with me because I was also so interested in art, and the idea of an image sparking a story idea was very cool. I think of myself as a visual person—I’m always looking around and finding myself intrigued by all the tiny little details around me. I pursued art as a profession, thought writing and history were always very important to me, and ended up specializing in publication design. (Clearly, I have a left brain-right brain love affair with the printed page!) I spent a number of years as a creative director before heeding the siren song to turn my hand to storytelling in words only.
All of this is a rather long-winded intro to the main point of my blog today . . . Which is that I’ve thought a lot about my process of storytelling and have realized that visuals play a huge part in how my brain puts together an idea and a story arc.
I am a total “pantser.” (authorspeak for writing by the seat of one’s pants.) I am truly incapable of sitting down and drafting a linear story outline. My idea for a book usually begins with an “ah-ha” moment, by which I mean a small spark of “oh, this would be very cool to use as a plot device.” Usually it’s something visual—an object or a setting.
To show you how strangely my brain works, here’s an example. A few years ago, the Metropolitan Museum in New York had a fabulous exhibit on famous gunmakers of the Regency. In it was a special two-shot pocket pistol— a very innovative design for the time. One could squeeze the trigger twice to fire off TWO bullets without reloading. As I admired it, nose pressed to the glass display case, I began envisioning a scene where a heroine was attacked by a villain. She fires a first shot, and the villain gloats when it misses. He starts forward . . . and BAM.
I can see it all perfectly. Now, all I have to do is build a story around it. (If you’re curious, the scene is in A Tangle of Serpents, one of my Lady Arianna Regency mysteries.) That happens in bits and pieces, too. I have to picture a setting in my mind’s eye before I can make it come to life, whether it be a Mayfair drawing room, with its opulent furnishings and paintings, or a dockyard alleyway. That’s why my favorite way of doing research is to visit museums, especially the esoteric specialty ones like the Horse Guards Museum, the Museum of London or the Docklands Museum.
Art galleries, period houses, and just walking through historic cities like London or Oxford also offer a wealth of inspiration. Details of fashion, scientific instruments, blacksmith shops, military uniforms—all the things I see percolate in my head and somehow manage to come together in semblance of a plot. It takes some coloring in of the blank spaces when I sit down at the keyboard and start putting the ideas on (cyber)paper . . . and at times a lot very unladylike Regency curses as I try to cobble it into a coherent plot. Okay, it’s not pretty, but there you are.
I am the first to admit that it’s not an ideal way to write a book. I wish I had an orderly mind capable of composing a clear outline from start to finish. But I don’t. I need my eyes as well as my inner voice to help me see a story.
I find it endlessly interesting that we all see the world around us in different ways. What about you? Would you describe yourself as a visual person? Do you find yourself constantly distracted by little visual details as you go through your daily peregrinations? Or are you someone who is more focused and sees the bigger picture?