Friday 15 June 2018

The June mid-month extra: The Genesis of a Novel with Christy Nicholas

The Genesis of a Novel
by Christy Nicholas

This below is from a series of posts I’ve been writing, following the process of producing a novel from conception through publication and beyond. I began this series in July, 2016. Although I’ve already started on the process, I thought it might be interesting to blog my way through the novel creation process. I’m already through about the first three-four days’ worth of work, so those will be schmooshed into this post.
I’m working on the fourth novel in the Druid’s Brooch series. Book 1, Legacy of Hunger is already published, Book 2 was just published in January 2017 (Legacy of Truth), and book 3 is submitted to my publisher and due out soon (Legacy of Luck). 

Legacy of Hunger: Druid's Brooch Series: #1

Legacy of Truth: Druid's Brooch Series: #2

Legacy of Luck: Druid's Brooch Series: #3

The idea will be to have three trilogies in total. The first trilogy (the Legacy books) will be in the 18th/19th century. The second trilogy (the Misfortune books) will be in the 11th/12th century. The third and final trilogy (the Age books) will be in the 5th/6th century, and the final book of that trilogy will give the origins of the brooch itself.

So, that means in order to plan my next book, I really have to plan out SIX novels. And make them all tie neatly into a bow at the end. Right. OK, deep breath, let it out easily. Let’s do this.

Most writers are Planners or Plotters to some extent. I’m pretty strong on the Planner end of the spectrum. That means I like to plan out my book and my scenes, flesh out my characters and my subplots before the first word is written. Yes, it can change later due to the capriciousness of my muse and my own editing, but that’s how I begin. I use something called The Snowflake Method which has been a Gods’ Send to this AR accountant with aspirations of authorship.

FIRST: The Concept
My first job was to come up with a basic premise for each book. A once-sentence elevator pitch. Something like ‘1940s nurse travels back in time 200 years and falls in love with a Highlander in the Jacobite revolution’ would be for Outlander. Each basic plot should have a conflict, a main character, and a resolution. For my series, each has to connect in some way to the others in the trilogy. The main character in one might be the grandfather in the next one, or the great-granddaughter of the previous one. Then try to mix it up – make sure you aren’t reusing basic plot devices, character types, even different ages.

For book 4, which has the working title of Misfortune of Vision, my main plot is a quest for an heir, and my main character is a 65-year-old grandmother. Because we need more adventure books with experienced heroes! Sure, I won’t be able to write in as much angst and rebellion, but I can get in plenty of snark and sarcasm. And I love it when little old ladies order everyone else around.

I made sure the main elevator-pitch plot was done on the other five books-to-be, so I had a good variety of themes and plots, and so I didn’t run out of ideas and have to change something I’d already done. 

SECOND: The Synopsis
Now, this little old lady needs a quest – so she’s going to seek out her grandson. Why? Well, she has this heirloom, you see. A magic brooch she must gift to a relative. And her children are all dead. Why? Well, you might have to read the book to find out.

I want to find a time of great conflict to set the book in. External conflict is easier to meld into the characters’ conflict, adding tension and action. Of course, when I decided on 12th century Ireland, I had NO idea exactly how violent this time was in the northeast of Ireland. I knew it was bad in the southeast with the Norman invasion, but this time period makes Game of Thrones look like a peaceful Sunday picnic. The main historically reliable documents from the time mostly just list the deaths of kings and nobles, bishops, and the like. And there were a lot of them! It seemed like every minor king had a relative who hated him enough to off him for his throne.

Mix in: The Research
Then I lost myself in research. I dropped down into a rabbit hole of the Annals of Irish History, CELT, Lady Gregory, Yeats, and the ever-mocking Wikipedia. I researched kings and social structure. I researched clergy and local saints. I looked up fairy queens and holy wells. I delved into Neolithic mounds and burnt villages. After a good 15 hours’ worth of research, I checked out the local Vikings (called Ostmen at the time, or simply Foreigners), the Normans, and the Irish. I discovered that there was a local king who was a bit of a craven coward. He just fled when the Normans arrived.

Cool! Cowardly kings are great! Let’s use him.  Now I know where my main character lives, she has a purpose, plenty of crap to get in her way. I’ve added some characters to make her life even more difficult. I made that one sentence elevator pitch into a paragraph, and then into three paragraphs. Those three paragraphs have now become two full pages of detailed plot synopsis. Whew!!

Now I have to take a break. My head is swimming with possibilities, and the scenes are already beginning to form in my head. No! Not yet! Back, back you fools! You’re not on cue yet. I need my characters first.

THIRD: The Characters
The main character is always the toughest. They set the theme for the whole book. I have a bad tendency to polarize my characters, especially the female leads. They are either contrary and sniping or they are passive and weak. I’m definitely going with the former for Grandma here, but I hope to make her kind as well. But with a nasty temper and a tendency to rap people hard with her walking stick. Because why not?

I fill in her physical characteristics, her hobbies, her quirks. Everyone must have virtues and vices. Tics and habits. Catch phrases, favorite curses, anything to humanize her. Does she like cloud-watching? Play with her hair? Yell ‘Gadzooks!’ whenever she meets someone new?

Now do this with the rest of your characters. You should have a good collection of people from your synopsis at this point. I’ve got a dozen already – Irish, Normans, Norsemen, and some Fae. Set up conflict. Make some inflexible, some easy-going. Don’t go for the obvious. Make the churchman the easy-going one and the Fool the guy with a stick up his butt. Mix it up. Remember, everyone has flaws and everyone has good points. No one is a perfect villain or a perfect hero. Make sure each of your characters has motivations, and for the bigger ones, good story arcs and growth within the story.

Now, it’s time to let things percolate. I’m going back to editing my other manuscript, and let the synopsis, characters and scenes percolate in my brain while my palate clears...

Next The Scene List
The Genesis of a Novel – Research 
The process of writing a novel is a scary mystery to most people. Sometimes including those that actually write novels! My own process is just one of thousands of processes, but here is a peek into my mad method.

As I’ve delayed the next step – actually writing out my scene list – in favor of editing a previous manuscript, I’ve given my unconscious mind some time to percolate the story. I’ve worked out a few additional conflicts to add to my 2-page synopsis. I’ve combined a couple of the conflicts so they mesh together a bit better. I’ve done lots of additional research on the time period (12th century Ireland), and realized that I’ve actually read several books set in that time period by authors whose research I respect.  Ken Follett (Pillars of the Earth), Sir Walter Scott (Ivanhoe), and Ellis Peters (Brother Cadfael Mysteries) have written in that time period. That gives me some ‘flavor’ of the setting and how people lived.

For some people, anything prior to modern times is ‘ancient’ and there is little differentiation between those periods. For an historian, however, or an enthusiast of historical fiction, those differences are important. For instance, a noblewoman of 17th century France would wear a completely different costume than a noblewoman in 12th century France: note the images! 

And they are VERY different from a 21st century French noblewoman.

When writing details of the time period, an author could research the different foods a character is eating (Pro tip: McDonald’s wasn’t period!), clothing, the way they made their living, etc.

Speech and idiom is the hardest part. It’s a balancing act. Of course the 12th Century Irish character isn’t speaking anything resembling English. They aren’t even speaking modern Irish. They’re speaking Middle Irish, and no one today outside of a few scholars would easily be able to read it. I certainly wouldn’t be able to write it. Even if it was in England, 12th century language is very different from today’s. If you doubt me, go read some Anglo-Norman works. English as a language didn’t exist – it was a proto-mix of German from the Anglo-Saxon peasants and French from the Norman nobles.

So we use mostly modern English in historical novels. But we can’t use pure modern English, as that would sound strange. Telling someone that the assassin was going to ‘pop a cap’ in his victim’s head just seems… wrong.

Most historical fiction authors sprinkle older words and phrases into modern English and try to limit the anachronisms to give a ‘flavor’ of the time. Sometimes this is easy – often it isn’t. It involves a lot of research, delving into resources such as Etymonline and historical theses.

Once you have written in a particular time period, of course, you get a feel for the language. You can just add a couple or words or phrases to your characters’ lexicon and the reader is transported to their time and place. Well, if you’ve done it well, that is.

There is always a danger of putting in TOO much flavor. Have you ever had a dish that was so heavily spiced that all you tasted was the seasoning, and not the food itself? Some writing ends up like that. Where you have to sound out the words on the page to make any sense of what was being said. I’ve seen some too-accurate Glasgow accents written this way. Or Cockney. Or deep south American. Just remember – less is more! And please don’t use phrases like “Avast ye, knavish varlet!”

Swearing is an area that is particularly difficult. A modern person swears differently than someone in the 18th century, 16th century, or the 5th century would. In the past, most swearing was religious in nature – ‘Zounds’, used liberally by Shakespeare, was short for ‘God’s Wounds’. Now, in a society less dominated by religion, we use words more related to physical body functions!

These are little things that must be kept in mind as you are writing your manuscript. Little but important. A glaring anachronism can push a reader right out of the story, and their suspense of disbelief shattered. Often small discrepancies can be forgiven (like rose madder being used to dye cloth in the 12th century when it didn’t become popular until the 13th). These are details only a historian or pedant will care about. Others, not so much (like horned helmets on Vikings). Don’t make your 12th century character a Baptist.

The Genesis of a Novel – Place
Location, location, location

Where do you write?
They say to ‘write what you know.’ Now, if that were entirely true, there would be no such thing as speculative fiction, science fiction or fantasy. However, to some extent it does hold true. Writing about a place you are intimately familiar with can help with details.
I mostly write about Ireland. Do I live there? No. But my ancestors did. Well, some of them. 11% of them, according to my DNA test! 

But I have visited many times, and Ireland holds a piece of my soul. I have visited every county in Ireland, albeit some only briefly. I love putting details in my writing from the places I’ve been, and it helps to add verisimilitude to the story. Now, most of my books are set in historical time periods, so I do research to see what was actually there at the time. The grand cathedral in the center of the market town may have been built in 1848, and your book is set in 1846, so maybe you have a construction site, but no finished building. These sort of details are important to me.

But how do you find such details? Sometimes it’s difficult to research the history of places. Buildings such as churches can be somewhat easier, as there are good records as to church building. You may have to dig a little, but usually the Catholic church keeps good track of such things. And if you go early enough, no buildings are on record. For instance, I was working on a novel called The Enchanted Swans, which starts in 500 BCE. No churches in Ireland then! Of course, there were lots of buildings – roundhouses and crannogs. But none were made of stone, all wood palisades. 

But landscape doesn’t change much over time. Sure, bits of cliff may fall into the ocean, or mountain tops are leveled for a tourist view, but for the most part, Conor’s Pass in Dingle offers a similar view to what it’s had for a thousand years. And having been to that view – three times before I could see anything due to heavy mists! – I can describe what there is in a novel.

No matter where your imagination takes you, make sure to know the place well before you try to transport others there. Even if it’s only research via old photographs, paintings, or Google Earth, there is a way to make sure the details come through and become part of your story.

About Christy Nicholas

Christy Nicholas, also known as Green Dragon, is an author, artist and accountant. After she failed to become an airline pilot, she quit her ceaseless pursuit of careers that begin with ‘A’, and decided to concentrate on her writing. Since she has Project Completion Disorder, she is one of the few authors she knows with NO unfinished novels.

Christy has her hands in many crafts, including digital art, beaded jewelry, writing, and photography. In real life, she’s a CPA, but having grown up with art all around her (her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother are/were all artists), it sort of infected her, as it were.

She wants to expose the incredible beauty in this world, hidden beneath the everyday grime of familiarity and habit, and share it with others. She uses characters out of time and places infused with magic and myth.

Combine this love of beauty with a bit of financial sense and you get an art business. She does local art and craft shows, as well as sending her art to various science fiction conventions throughout the country and abroad.


we have already reviewed some of Christy's books here on Discovering Diamonds (more reviews coming soon!)
The Enchanted Swans (selected as Cover of the Month) 

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