Trials and Tribulations of Writing

Rice_TheIndigoSolution_800(1)Pat here: Unlike my psychic heroines, I have nothing insightful to tell you as we dive into the new year. I’m still trying to figure out what day of the week it is after the holidays, and almost missed my blog date because I haven’t updated my calendar yet. I have accounting worksheets piling up all over my desk for my personal taxes and those of an organization I work with. Who can write a book with all this new stuff spinning in the brain? Maybe I need that crystal ball!

Yet I continue to wade into the fray of writing mysteries. I’ve written characters for forty years now, savoring their romances and conflicts, and I still learn something new every day in how to depict their personalities. But mysteries. . . require actual plotting.

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Scientific Magic

Rice_MagicintheStars276Pat here:

Before I can put the first word to the page of a new book, I need research. The characters may be hopping up and down in my mind, shouting their ire, but they’re still too unformed for me to “see” them—and I don’t mean their appearance.

As a for instance—the heroine of the Magic book I’m currently plotting has already appeared in other volumes, so I know what she looks like, and I know something of her personality and background. I know what she wants. But I have utterly no clue how she can go after it because this is 1830, after all, and they don’t have the internet or Craigslist. I don’t want to give her away just yet, until I’m ready to write (yeah, I’m one of those authors who can’t talk about plot until after a book is written). 

Nachet_collection;_Barrel_of_old_Nurenberg_microscope._Wellcome_M0000205But this time, I’m not writing one of my Ives heroes (pause for silent weeping). He’s scientific, yes, but I needed a titled nobleman and the Ives family has more bastards than titles. I had some odd idea that he might be a physician, or possibly someone who works with microscopes. Until I can “see” what he does, I can’t do anything. So I started by researching microscopes.

Yes, they had microscopes in 1830, but they were pretty crude. Even in the 2nd century BC the Greeks knew that water bends light. By 100 AD, the Romans could create glass that was thick in the middle and thin on the edge and learned this lens could magnify an image. Although, since they called them burning glasses, I suspect they spent more time trying to create fire with them.

The microscope above is an old German monocular, probably from the early 1700s. The one below left is a solar microscope by Peter Dolland of London from about 1790, considered one of the finest makers of microscopes at the time. But think–solar…London. Does not compute, right?

It wasn’t until the 17th century that Leeuwenhoek invented anything close to a microscope, and that was only a single lens. Low quality glass and lack of light created distortions that prevented microscopes from real 1780-1790,_solar_microscope_by_Peter_Dolland,_London,_England_-_Golub_Collection_of_Antique_Microscopes_-_DSC04810usefulness until nearly 1870, unfortunate for my hero. Although several glass problems were resolved by 1830, lighting wasn’t, and that limits usage. So in my time period, the best use of microscopes was determining the existence of cells and their structures—interesting but not exactly hero material. My guy might be able to discover a bacterium if he uses glass manufactured by my fictional Ives experts, but how do I work that into the story in my head?

To tell the truth, I don’t know yet. I’m now researching arsenic and medicine and tuberculosis and my characters are about to pitch fits. Anyone want to make a story of all this? Or I could just make my hero a gambling lout who changes his spots… But then I’d have to research gambling! Anyone know any good books on any of these topics?

Conflict And The Happy Ending

Joanna here. Having spent yesterday, Valentine's Day, exploring all the ways we can be in love. (Yeah love!) I thought I'd take today to look at the conflicts that hold our hero and heroine apart.
What kind of conflicts do we choose for our hero and heroine? How do we write them?

So I asked the Wenches.

Wench autumn brideAnne had this to say:

"Conflict" is a term often misunderstood by new writers, who think it means a lot of arguments and yelling. A better term is "the source of tension" which can be really powerful with no yelling at all. It's the central story problem that is preventing characters from reaching their goals.

For me, there are two main main sources of conflict — situational (where he wants X and she wants Y — or they both want X for different reasons) and character-based conflict. For me the latter is almost always the main one, though I'm happier if I have both kinds working together, playing off each other. Character conflict is where the hopes and dreams and deeply hidden fears drive the characters, and they have to work through them to find their happily-ever-after. Think "What does s/he want? Why can't s/he have it?"

For instance, in my book The Autumn Bride, apart from the usual misunderstandings between the hero and the heroine, there are two main sources of conflict. The first is that she's living under a false identity, but that's a relatively small conflict, fairly easily solved. A bigger conflict, especially for the hero is that he's made a promise to marry another woman,  a promise to which money was attached — part of a significant loan agreement with the woman's father. It's not just a matter of changing his mind — it's breaking his word, which is his bond. He's a man who lost everything as a youth — his future, his position and his whole sense of self was stripped from him, but his honor — his word of honor — is the one thing in his life that nobody could take from him, so to break it now is a major conflict for him.

I love that conflict in The Autumn Bride because it's a choice between love and honor. I'm a sucker for those.

In some books, the conflict can be less clear cut. There's plenty to keep them apart. What's needed is equally strong bonds to draw them together.

Jo Beverley says: Wench bookcover beverley tvnawnewsm

Conflict in a romance novel is a complex subject for all the reasons given, but it's whatever believably gets between the couple and their final happiness. It's different in every book.

My next book, The Viscount Needs a Wife, is a marriage of convenience story, and they always come with built-in stresses and problems. Sometimes the couple are enemies, but even if not, making a marriage with a stranger is a pretty tricky thing! Kitty is a widow, so marriage itself isn't odd to her, but her husband seems to suit his title — he's daunting. In addition, the behavior patterns from her eight year marriage lurk to make difficulties. As they would.

The new Lord Dauntry is already troubled, because he doesn't want a title or the responsibilities that come with it. He had a comfortable life as a bachelor in London, and occasional security work for the government to ward off boredom. He thinks a sensible wife will take his rural responsibilities off his shoulders and should be no trouble at all. Ha!

But this is the beginning. I find conflicts change and grow throughout a book, and as Kitty and Dauntry find ways to get along, new problems rise. And then, as surprising to me as to them, they discover that they share apparently impossible hopes and dreams. It's scaling those new high walls that powers the latter part of the book. The Viscount Needs a Wife will be out in April, but it can be ordered now. There's more here.

Rice_MagicintheStars600When I asked Pat how she chose the conflict for her characters, she said:

Choose a conflict? We get to choose our own conflicts?

Sorry, I just had a moment of process panic…  We all approach a book differently. I start with characters and a situation. These people pop into my head, nattering at each other, and they keep getting stronger and demanding that I listen, so I start taking notes.

I try really hard to define their characters, their motives, their goals, their flaws, all that good stuff, before I start writing. And the best way to develop conflict, for me, is to look at that list of traits and goals and see where one character opposes the other. He’s an astronomer…she’s an astrologer. How could that go wrong? He’s building telescopes and gazing at the stars…she’s drawing zodiac charts and telling him he’s going to die. Cheerful little devil, isn’t she? (That's Magic in the Stars, coming out March 29, 2016)

And somewhere thereafter, they’re off and running and I just let them go. I’m not saying I advise listening to those voices in your head, mind you. Because that’s just crazy. <G>


Cara has a somewhat similar approach to mapping out the conflict of a story.

She says: Scandalously yours

For me, conflict comes in two elemental forms, and I like to think of it with a Regency metaphor—the plot is like steel, and the characters are like flint, striking against the steel to set off sparks.  It’s the internal conflict of the hero and heroine that heats up the story. How they overcome doubts, fears, or whatever challenge stands in the way of achieving happiness is what makes us keep turning the pages.

 So . . . how do I going about creating these sparks?  I am a total pantser, so don’t ask. I get a story idea, I figure out basic conflicts that are torturing my main characters. For example, in Scandalously Yours, the heroine secretly writes fiery political essays pressing for social reform, but if her secret is made public, her family will be disgraced. The hero is an oh-so conventional lord who believes it’s important never to break the rules of Society. I had a perfectly good plot in mind for them, but by Chapter Two, they gave me the Evil Eye and started to rewrite everything. I was happy to hand them the pen. 


RogueSpy cover w-o blurbMe? My books are set in wartime. You got yer battling nations and divided loyalties. You got yer spies, lies, secrets, betrayals, misdirection, midnight flits, and the occasional gunfire, My heroes and heroines are now and then on opposite sides.

So my problem isn't so much creating the conflict to keep my people apart. There's distrust and cross-purposes scattered thick on the ground. The problem my unfortunate characters face is carving out some little niche of peace to fall in love in. My people have to learn to trust each other . . . and they aren't all that trustable.

In Rogue Spy, for instance, my hero and heroine, Pax and Cami, were children recruited as spies by the French Revolution, both trained to perform horrible deeds, both placed as covert operatives in England. They meet again as adults — ingenious, dangerous, tough adults who have to wonder if they can allow themselves to love each other.

(P.S. They do the trusting thing, but it takes a while.)



In your own reading, do you have favorite sorts of this-is-what-keeps-them-apart?
Do some sorts of conflicts just annoy you?

Some lucky commenter will win a book of mine. Their choice.

Ask A Wench: Our Writing Processes

AAWGraphicAnne here, hosting Ask a Wench for this month. The question today is an oldie and comes from Keira Soleore, who wins a book. Would it be possible for you to blog about your writing processes and your daily schedules? …. A few days ago, I finished reading "Write Away" by Elizabeth George. She is a proponent of detailed outlines. In her book, she describes in great depth how her process works for her.

Before the discussion opens, I'd like to clarify a small point — obviously we all plot, otherwise our books would make no sense. So when writers say they don't plot, they mean they don't plan the story in advance, before they start writing it.

Mary Jo says:  Given that Elizabeth George writes mysteries, and particularly
Neverlessthanalady150   intricate ones at that, I can see where a very detailed outline would work for her.  But process is HIGHLY variable, and part of developing into a Real Writer is figuring out what works for oneself.

I'm a moderate by nature, so it's probably not a surprise that I fall in the middle, process wise.  I don't do detailed outlines, and I certainly don't dive in and head mapless into the wild blue yonder.  Instead, I write a synopsis of maybe eight pages that delineates the main characters and the setting and sketches in the basic plot line and conflicts.  It's rather like a skeleton, and as I write I put the flesh on.  The flesh is maybe 90% of the whole—but it's shaped to that original synopsis, which seldom changes much after I send it off to the editor for approval.

I should mention here that I am that most despised of creatures—someone who writes synopses easily.  I may gnaw on an idea for weeks, months, and occasionally years, but when it ripens, I can sit down and write the synopsis in a couple of hours.  And if I can write the synopsis, I know I can write the book.  The actual writing—now there's another challenge!

Cara/Andrea writes: Oh no, this question has me cowering under my desk, making little whimpering noises. I'm a huge fan of Elizabeth George and the Inspector Lynley novels, and to have her routine held as example is . . . intimidating, to say the least. Especially as I'm not sure I could draft a detailed plot chart for my books for all the chocolate in Switzerland.

Scoundrelcover2  I am, if you haven't guessed it by now, a complete seat-of-the pantser. I come up with a (I hope) brilliant flash of inspiration for a story, and the beginning is totally clear in my head.  For maybe 20 pages. Then . . .

Well, then is where the characters start to run with the idea.  I know, I know, that sound so lame on my part. I've tried other ways. Each time I start a new book, I vow that I am going to paper my wall with charts and diagrams that will magically lead me from start to finish with nary a stop in between. I feel that I'm a slow writer, and this will, I tell myself, make me faster. More efficient.

Ha! Sheets of paper get covered with squiggles and notes. Arrows bend around corners, point to the heavens . . . and prove absolutely useless. I end up staring at gobbledy-gook.

So how does a book happen? I make up for my lack of advanced preparation by being very disciplines about sitting down each day and writing, even when I'm not quite sure where I'm going. It's a leap of faith, and at this point, I know myself well enough that I don't wake up in a cold sweat over it. As for inspiration, it strikes at the oddest times. 
Case in point — the other day it was cloudless and warm. I had been working all day and decided I needed some fresh and exercise, so went down to the golf course, threw my bag on my back and went out to walk nine holes. It was nearing sunset, and the light over Long Island Sound was ethereal. A flock of gulls landed on a nearby green, brilliant bits of white against the emerald grass. A loon was fishing in the lagoon, and as I followed the narrow dirt path through the pale gold fescue, a pair of curlews were hopping through the broken sea shells, picking up stray bits of chaff. (Where is my golf ball you might ask? Umm, sometimes I forget to watch exactly where it's landed. But that's not the point.)

As I started up the fairway, daydreaming as usual, the line of dialogue that I had been looking for all day suddenly bounced into my head. From there, the whole scene, and the villain's motivation, became clear. And then, all at once, the second half of the book started to jell. When I got home, I sat down and madly wrote up a stream-of-consciousness rush of notes that would only make sense to me. That's my storyboard, and it's become easy to add in the details.

Undoing of a lady -US  
From Nicola:
 I have to write detailed outlines for my HQN books and I do find this very difficult because at that stage in my process I have only the vaguest idea of how my story will develop. The outline is useful for helping me to start to get to know my characters and identify the themes and the central conflict in the book but I know that all the other details will probably change and develop in the course of the writing. I'd be worried if they did not because I can't get the depth I need in an outline or even at a first pass. Fortunately my editor understands this and so doesn't ask any awkward questions when the final book sometimes bears very little resemblance to the original outline! I'm a seat of the pants writer and sometimes I wish I could write in a more planned and organised fashion but the process simply doesn't work like that for me. Similarly some days I can write all day and others I feel as though I am dragging words out of treacle and so I have to stop and go out for a walk with the dog to refresh myself and try to re-find my inspiration. I do try to write a minimum number of words per day, however, so I'm not completely disorganised! One thing I have learned is that there is no right or wrong process. If it works for you then that's fine!"

Secretduke  From Jo: My writing routine is to get to work after breakfast and work through at least until lunch directly on writing. What this means depends on the stage and behavior of the MIP. It might be straight writing — getting it down — or reading through and rewriting. Or, all too often, chucking out and doing that bit again.

My creative flow doesn't usually work well later in the day, though it has been known. I can do some editing, but I'm more likely to use later time for research and noodling with story ideas.

I don't pre-plot. It doesn't work for me. Anyone who wants to know more about that can read a speech I gave long ago

My advice to everyone is a) experiment and see what works best for you, and b) don't let anyone, ever, any time tell you one way is right and another is wrong.

Anne here, finishing up: I call myself an organic writer. Plotting a book before I start writing it doesn't work for me. Like Mary Jo, I have no trouble writing synopses — I can come up with what looks like a ripping yarn without too much trouble. However if I then try to follow it I get bored, feeling a bit like I'm painting by numbers. It's only when I'm inside the story and in a character's mind that the exciting possibilities start to unfold and for me part of the joy of writing is when unexpected things happen.

I sometimes liken my process to archaeology — it's as if the characters and their story are there, buried in some dim recess of my brain, and I'm unearthing them. Messy but the possibilities are exciting.

I often have an idea of where the book is going, for instance toward a big dramatic scene, but there are lots of different possible routes, and the first one I come up with isn't always the best, but simply the most obvious. 

As for my schedule, I try to write every day, turning up for the work, but I'm not a fast writer. First thing in the morning and late at night are my two best times for working. In the afternoon I'm hopeless, so that's when I take the dog for a walk, and do shopping and things like that. 

When I begin a book I write slowly, and the closer I get to the end the faster I get. I keep a daily word count. A lot of the time I write straight onto the computer, but I'll often write a first draft of a scene by hand, often a scene that's yet to come in the book. On the computer I write chronologically, in the notebooks I jump around from scene to scene and even book to book, as the muse strikes. I keep a notepad and pen by the bed, too, as frequently a scene will come to me during that dreamy half-consciousness between sleeping and waking, and I'll write it down — not simply taking notes, but writing whole pages of dialogue, sometimes. If I don't write it down, I forget it. Here's a link to a scene that's almost unchanged from the way I wrote it in the notebook one dawn, many years ago.

So, as everyone has said, there's no correct way to write. Our brains are all different and our muses sing to different music. Only the result matters.  What about you? How you approach big creative tasks? With a detailed plan? Or do you tend to fly by the seat of your pants?