Tag Archives: novel writing

Creating the Story Landscape

This is the fourth post in the My Novel Writing Process series. Find the others here: Overview || The Story Idea || Creating Characters

So now you have a rough idea of plot, maybe a few key scenes, and the characters are coming to life. The next most important step is setting. This doesn’t have to be a long process but bringing to life the story world is just as vital as fleshing out the characters who live there.

Discovering the Setting

I usually let this happen organically – maybe the setting is the first spark for your story, like it was with my trilogy The Cloud Sisters. When I listen to country music, I imagine rolling hills and wide open spaces. This imagery inspired me to begin writing a series of books on an all-girl Australian country music band.

Or perhaps you’ve visualized the setting from the start and the description of it comes easily for you. It could be somewhere familiar, like your hometown or a city in your state or a favourite holiday destination.

Setting can also become a character all of its own or can be chosen deliberately to portray wider themes. The setting may even be the story, like for example if your character is adrift in the ocean after their boat sunk, or they are incarcerated in prison, or trekking through a blizzard.

You might even be writing about a place that is purely your invention, like in the fantasy and sci-fi genre. There are countless articles, books and blog posts on world-building out there to guide you. The great thing about world-building is the freedom to let your imagination run wild, as I found when I was working on a dystopian novel. (Still in first draft stage but I may get back to it eventually!)

Collecting Details

Many writers (like the Australian author Di Morrissey) undertake research trips where they stay in exotic parts of the world and write about it. This is great if you can afford it, but your setting does not have to be exotic to be interesting. For example, I find city alleyways, abandoned houses and forests intensely beautiful and inspiring. Story ideas immediately spring to mind in these settings. And if the setting is too foreign to my own experience, I find it difficult as a reader to visualize it.

Of course, it’s easiest to evoke the setting if you’ve been to the part of the world you’re writing about – it’s simply a matter of recalling details – but I don’t think it’s necessary.

That’s because we have the internet.

With a bit of online research you can begin to till the soil of your story landscape and maybe even pluck out a few new story threads. Do an online search for the city or area where your story is set, read through statistics, look at Google images, immerse yourself as much as possible.

Look for unique details. What do the roads look like? What does the air smell like? What does the sky look like in that part of the world? Does the sun set in the east or west? Are there special hidden places? What do the locals do for fun?

Keep in mind too that town or city names in your story can be fictional but based on real places you have visited. This is my favourite method – that way, accuracy isn’t as important as describing a place that is innately familiar to most readers (or at least your target audience) and thus easily imagined. Everyone (or at least, most) people have been to small towns and big cities.

Once you have a visual picture of the setting, describe it in one page or use a Prompt Sheet like the one at the end of this post.

Helpful Tools

I’ve mentioned the beauty of Pinterest before in this post on creating characters, but it’s just as useful for settings. I have a board just for setting ideas. Visualizing a setting is imperative to describing it and making it come to life for the reader. Even better to have visual cues in front of you when composing the first draft to place yourself there while you write.

Google Earth is also a fun tool to use. Search for any address in the world and Google Earth will take you right there. Although I don’t use it a lot, it’s surprising to see places at ground level. You can get a better idea of perspective and see things that you may have missed. It’s also a good way to check for accuracy.

I hope these tips have sparked a few ideas. If you’re looking for a formal guide to creating setting, you might find the following Prompt Sheet helpful.

SETTING PROMPT SHEET

Name/Country/Region:

One paragraph description:

Places that will feature in scenes:

Unique attributes of the setting:

Season/Weather/Topographical information:

Sights/Sounds/Smells:

Significance of the setting to the characters:

The role of the setting in the story:

Creating Characters

This is the third post in the My Novel Writing Process series. Find the others here: Overview || The Story Idea

A story could not exist without characters. But a good story contains interesting, well-drawn characters who appear three-dimensional. The trick to creating characters who appear real? You have to believe they are. You have to see them flaws and all, and be willing to pick apart their personality, to hear their voice and to lend them unique characteristics.

All of these details come from observing and interacting with other people. You might also be inspired by characters in books, movies or even songs. The inspiration for creating characters is everywhere; in every conversation you have, in how you view yourself and others around you.

I love to create characters. I love choosing names, hair and eye colour, body type, ulterior motives, weaknesses, conflicts. But it can easily be made a chore by filling out detailed character charts, dissecting everything from the character’s past to what they like to eat for breakfast.

It’s not necessary to know everything about a character before you start writing their story – the magic is in how they slowly reveal themselves to you as you write. They start showing quirky behaviour, they say things you never imagined they would and do things you hadn’t planned. They start running the show and if you listen hard enough and go with the flow, they may even tell you how the story will end.

Free-Write a Character Analysis

Having said that, I think it’s imperative to spend a little time getting to know your characters. Picking their brains rather than inventing characteristics that you think will please the reader. My background is in psychology, so I am naturally curious about how people tick and what happens when things go wrong. Villains and disordered personalities fascinate me as much as beauty queens and heroes. I like to make characters a little unique in some way by going deep into why they do the things they do. What they fear, what makes them sad or angry. What they are fighting for.

I do this by free-writing. Using a Character Prompt Sheet as a guide, I sit down and think about who this character is that I am seeing in my mind. It’s a stream-of-consciousness exercise – letting the character tell me who they are. I write in block paragraphs but not dot points.

In this analysis, we are focusing on how the character feels about, and interacts with, other characters in the novel. We are letting them divulge what their secret motives and desires are. We may touch on their past experiences and their childhood to get an idea about where they have come from, as well as how they’re living their life now – their job, hobbies, what they do with their time. It’s all about being an amateur psychologist, delving into their personality and life philosophy.

The freedom of the Character Prompt Sheet is that all of the questions do not need to be answered by the time the exercise is finished. It’s simply a list of things to begin to ask when creating your characters. Some sections may be more relevant than others.

The Character Prompt Sheet

There are many examples out there, but this is the list I use in my novel writing process. I hope you find it helpful. Use it as a starting point in creating your own list of prompts if you like. I adapted mine from Elizabeth George’s excellent writing reference Write Away. 

PHYSICAL
Name:
Birth date/age:
Star sign & meaning:
Height/weight/build:
Colour hair/eyes:
Physical peculiarities:
Gestures when talking:
Gait:
Voice:

BACKGROUND
Birthplace:
Educational background:
Sexuality/relationships:
Best friend:
Enemies:
Family (mother, father, siblings etc):
Hobbies:
Occupation:

PSYCHOLOGY
Core need:
Pathological manoeuvre:
Ambition in life:
Positive/negative aspects of personality:
Social persona:
Laughs or jeers at:
Philosophy:
What others notice first about him/her:
What character does alone:

PROMPT QUESTIONS: Personal History

What is the most difficult thing my character is struggling with right now? How does that struggle give them one problem they must solve? Who or what will stand in the way of the solution they seek?

Will reader like/dislike character? How will they view this character?

Does he/she change in the story? How:

Significant event that moulded the character & one that illustrates the character’s personality:

One-line characterisation:

Character Casting

If you haven’t been able to see your characters by now, the Prompt Sheet will have helped you. Now that you have more of an idea of who your characters are, it’s time to try to find a visual representation of them.

Who are you imagining as the main characters in your novel? Do they resemble an actor or actress, a public figure, someone you know, or are they simply invented? Scout out pictures to use as a visual aid when writing the first draft.

Good old Dr. Google image search is great if you know the person’s name. Pinterest can give you a more detailed search and throw up some good pics of young women with brown hair, for example. If you still can’t find what or who you’re looking for, free stock photo websites like Pexels and iStock are chock-full of beautiful images for all types of characters.

I have a Pinterest board for The Cloud Sisters and all my characters are there (including many of my hero who I have a little crush on…)

Here’s Heath Howley (the delectable model Christopher Mason):

HeathH

 

And Elodie McAllister (an unknown stock photo model):

Elodie Mc

If you use Scrivener, you can plug these photos into your project using the Corkboard feature. I do this with only a select few images as I still find Pinterest easier.

The most important ingredient in creating believable, intriguing characters? Have fun and enjoy playing with it!

The Final Push

I’m nearing the end of rewriting Enchanting Elodie. Plot-wise, we are in the midst of the crisis or major setback and approaching the climax or final push. It feels a bit like rounding the bend in a marathon and knowing the finish line is over the hill. I can’t see it, but I know it’s there.

This is where things can get sticky.

I’ve never been much of a runner, but nearing the end of something brings about conflicting emotions in me. I’m exhausted, I want to quit, but I know if I keep going I will have the satisfaction of completion. And sometimes there is a final burst of energy when I can push myself a little bit harder.

So I’m going to set myself a deadline of finishing the second draft of this manuscript at the end of this week. This is not going to be a long drawn-out last leg. I’m sick of almost-but-not-quite being done. I probably only have about ten more scenes to write, so if I can do at least one a day, I should be done in a little over a week. Totally do-able.

I totally agree with the theory of writing drafts quickly before the spark winks out. With Enchanting Elodie, I’ve managed to sustain this spark for close to two years. I was well on my way with the first draft when I went on a 2-week overseas holiday, which threw my writing mojo completely. But when I got home I made myself sit down at my desk and I started again. I’m glad I did because the story took on a life of its own. Similarly, when I finished the first draft I was tempted to let it languish and start on a new project. There seemed to be so many problems and issues I didn’t know how to fix. I faced a tough decision: run the race again, or start training for a new one?

Maybe it’s all about perserverance, or resilience, or maybe just commitment, but after going through the process once, I knew what to expect. And I had material to work with. It was like a do-over: this time, I got to tell the story I meant to write. The kinks naturally worked themselves out when the story started to go in different directions, and characters began to act more like themselves and make better decisions that all made the story smoother.

I know I will finish this book, and I know that when I do I will have a finished (albeit unedited) piece of work that I am proud of. I just need to give myself that final push.

The Story Idea

This is the second post in the My Novel Writing Process series. To read the first post go here.

Often I would sit down knowing I wanted to write but not knowing what I wanted to write about. Now I know that the process of novel-writing begins before you turn up to your desk: it begins with the idea. The spark, the situation, or the character that intrigues you, the thing that makes you want to follow the path to see where your characters end up.

I know when I have it by the feeling inside me: my heart will skip a beat, I will feel that creative energy burning in my mind, the butterflies start up in my stomach. An idea must excite you. You will need that energy to burn bright to fuel the long process of drafting and then re-writing a novel. And then you have to take time to develop the idea, tease it out, follow the threads. You keep asking yourself “What will happen next?” because that is what you want the reader to do: to keep turning pages to find out what happens next.

You do this by brainstorming. This concept was popular in class when I was a kid, and the word always made me think of the image of a brain on fire with ideas. All it means is that you keep the story idea alive and cooking by turning your mind to it every now and again. Feed it with conscious thought and your unconscious will go to work. I brainstorm best in the shower and when I’m driving. It’s amazing the way your unconscious will continue to collate ideas and grow the story even when you aren’t aware of it. You will begin to have those a-ha moments when a tangled plotline finally unloops itself. The story will begin to have a life of its own.

The Big Overview

Free-writing is the best way to tap into this unconscious process. After brainstorming, free-write about the story idea. Begin with “The book tells the story of…” Write as if you are a spectator in the present tense ie: he does, she says. This can be as long or as short as you want it to be. Just follow it until you run out of story. List any scene ideas as they come to you, some plot points or turning points, and how you envision the ending. During this process, you may begin to hear the character’s voices and what they say. Include this dialogue.

Expanding the Story Idea

Once you have your big overview of events, grab a fresh sheet of paper or a new file on your computer and plonk yourself right in the middle of the action. Live out the story step-by-step. Try to keep this brief, about 3-5 pages. We are not writing a detailed outline (we’re pantser-plotters, remember?) and we are not going to include every scene. Just write what you see happening, the scenes that may unfold. Sketch it out a little by writing about where we are and which character’s head we are in. You can skip around and brush over unclear parts, but the idea is to get down the main beats or pivotal points of action that keep the story moving.

Start asking yourself about the relationship between the characters and observe their interaction and conflict. Again, include dialogue if it comes to you. If it’s relevant to the story, you can also go back in time to detail past events that may be impacting on, or leading up to, the main events. This is helpful if you have flashbacks or past life threads.

Now read over all your notes and tease out plot threads, then list them in dot points. Write down what you see as being the main plot and sub-plots. For example: the main plot may be about a woman’s search for her missing sister, who she hasn’t seen since childhood. A sub-plot may be the woman’s deteriorating marriage which has compelled her to seek out her sister again. Then you may have a series of flashbacks about the events that happened twenty years ago surrounding the sister’s disappearance.

In the next post, we will begin to flesh out our characters.