How Stories Come to Life

AD horses book croppedAndrea 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.)

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The Plot(to) Thickens!

Plotto 8Andrea/Cara here, talking today about the craft of writing a novel—to whit, I’m delighted to announce that I’ve just come across a Momentous Discovery that’s made it easy-peasy. No more angsting over those piddling little inconveniences like character development, conflict and plot development. I have THE SECRET (she says with an evil chuckle).

And how, you may ask, have I stumbled on this magical Gift from the Muse? Lucky you—I am about to share it!

You simply have to go by The Book . . .Yes, yes, I can see you squirming, asking WHAT BOOK? Well, the answer is about to be revealed. (Those of you holding your breath may now exhale.) The name of this astounding tome is PLOTTO: The Master Book of All Plots!

Plotto 9A friend of mine recently gave me this Wondrous Resource after The New York Times Book Review ran a story on its recent reissue. It is—how shall I put this—absolutely, um, mesmerizing in a weirdly fascinating sort of way. Allow me to explain.

PLOTTO is the brainchild of William Wallace Cook, a pulp fiction writer of the early 1900s who earned the title of “the man who deforested Canada." He once said, “A writer is neither better not worse than any other man who happens to be in trade. He is a manufacturer.”

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Everything Old is New Again

Pistols At DawnCara/Andrea here,
All authors are told that a key trope in writing is to do a dramatic opening scene to catch a reader’s interest, and then build the backstory that helps develop the plot. So I’m going to play around with a variation of that today (and no, the first line is not going to be ‘It was a dark and stormy night . . .” Though I confess, I’ve always rather like the idea of playing with that one.) So here we go:

A metallic click caused Marcus Fitzherbert Greeley, the seventh Earl of Killingworth to look up from his ledgers.
“Who’s there?” he called sharply.

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Craft and Character

Lady's-faceCara/Andrea here, thinking about the craft of writing today . . .

In the normal scheme of publishing, a linked series—such as a trilogy or quartet of books that features a closeknit group of family or friends—usually comes out in a leisurely fashion, with perhaps 9 months or a year between the stories. In some ways that timing allows the secondary characters to take root in the minds of readers and rather organically “grow” into their starring roles.

Heroine 3My publisher decided to turn that trope on its ear and do a consecutive release—three books in three months, starting in January. (So yes, the final story is out this month—Passionately Yours goes live on March 5th! You can read an excerpt here.) In many ways, it’s very exciting. Readers don’t have to wait very long to find out the answers to such questions as, “Ooooh, what’s going to happen between Anna and the Devil Davenport!” or “Please tell me that McClellan is going to be Caro’s hero?” But it can also present intriguing challenges for a writer. At least, it did for me.  

The stories are the heart of the series, but the craft of creating the character arcs is elemental to having the books work together. Sometimes, that’s not so hard—in the past, I’ve often written about three friends, who have well-formed characters from the start. It’s simply a matter of how to slowly reveal their essence as they move from the perimeter of the ballroom out to the center of the polished parquet when its their turn to shine in the light of the glittering chandeliers.

Heroine 4But in my latest trilogy, I wrote about a trio of sisters, so it was a different sort of process. And with the books coming out so close together, I found myself far more aware of the nuances in character of Caro, the youngest sister and how to develop her over the first two books into someone with enough emotional depth and complexity to be an interesting heroine.

Heroine 1In the first book, she’s hovering on the cusp of womanhood, not quite out in Society, and longing for entree into the real world. She’s a budding poet, with an active imagination untempered by experience, so she tends to be dramatic, which amuses her older sisters.  They see her as the baby of the family, and thus so do readers. Which is all very well for her secondary role in Scandalously Yours, but she has to change in order to come into her own and be an appealing heroine.

Perhaps I’m wrong about this, but it seems to me that having, say, a 9 month interlude before the next book helps make readers feel that a character is “growing up.” It’s a subtle message to be sure, but time softens perception. Change seems more natural—after all, we all change over time! But with the second book coming out in the following month, it sharpened my sense that I had to be very attuned to how I moved her along in her growth arc.

Regency sisters 1It helped that in Sinfully Yours, Olivia, the oldest sister and heroine of Scandalously Yours, was away on her marriage trip, so the dynamics of the relationship between Anna and Caro were already cast in a different light. As Anna struggles with inner conflicts, she cautiously begins to confide in her “baby” sister—and in turn Caro is eager to prove she can be a thoughtful listener and offer some words of wisdom rather than merely react with schoolgirl theatrics. And the truth is, she has changed—having played a part, albeit a small one, in Olivia’s adventure, she’s seen that deadly serious consequences can result from impulsive decisions. It’s matured her, and given her some of the life experiences she had been yearning for.

Heroine 2Over the course of the story, I try to show her biting back her first impulsive reactions and taking a moment to ponder a problem.  That’s not to say I take the spark out of her. Caro remains Caro—the most romantic, emotional of the sisters, She‘ll always be fighting the battle between reacting with her head and with her heart. But that, I hope, is at the essence of her charm.

And now, in a few days, it’s her turn to step to the center of the stage and play the leading role her own story, Passionately Yours. Is she ready for the chandelier’s diamond-bright lights? After all, bright lights tend to magnify and accentuate every flaw. Well, she still has much to lea
rn about herself . . . and about men. (Though we all know THAT subject takes two lifetimes to figure out!) However, I think she’s ready for the challenge . . .

Regency sisters 2aSo I’m curious—how do you feel about the quick release of a series? Do you like having all the stories come out over a short period of time? Or do you prefer the traditional release pattern of having 9 months or a year between books? And while I’m asking publishing questions, how do you feel about the e-book first release? How do you prefer to read your romance novels? One lucky winner will be selected at random from among those who leave comments here between now and Tuesday evening to win a digital copy of Passionately Yours.