I know, I haven’t been here much. I haven’t been anywhere much. I owe people email, I have a pile of bills to pay. I allow myself two hours a day to do something that isn’t working on book six, but otherwise I have imposed hermit-status on myself.

That means I stare at book six, open on my screen, and I’m not allowed to look at anything else.

It’s working. Slowly, but it is working.

What I really need is Sister Maria Therese, who could instill in me the absolute need to stay on task. With just a glance. I could report to her classroom every morning at eight, and you had better know that I’d be putting out ten thousand words a day.

On other fronts: I have news. There’s a pub date for Pajama Girls: February 14, 2008. Yes, that’s Valentine’s Day. The date may change, but probably not. I should be seeing the first cover art in the next couple weeks. I am looking forward to it, because my editor’s impulse (which I share) was that the hardcover edition needed a visual approach that was more modern and edgy. So no more magnolias and mansions on the cover.

I am very proud of Tied to the Tracks, but if I had anything to do over… okay, two things:

I’d lobby harder for a different kind of cover art;
I’d leave Lydia Montgomery out of the book altogether.

You’re wondering why I’d dump Lydia. Here’s the reason: My intention was to have Lydia work her way up to a leading role. You saw her very briefly in TTTT, long enough to learn something about her personality and goals at age eighteen. In Pajama Girls there was (at one time) a whole storyline that involved Lydia. A minor storyline, but one that provided a contrast to the other two (major) storylines.

Except Pajama Girls was way over wordcount, and I had to make some cuts. Lydia’s storyline was the obvious victim. I’m not happy about this, particularly because it means that there’s no real reason to have given Lydia such a crucial spot in TTTT.

What I’m thinking at this point is that after Pajama Girls comes out, and when time permits /cough/ I’ll pull together all the Lydia bits into a short story that I’ll make available here at no cost. That will make me feel better, even if nobody reads it. But I’m hoping people will.

Now I’ve used twenty minutes of my two hours, and I really do have to pay those bills.

back to plot/story

As the basic conflicts that are going to drive book six evolve, I depend on a lot of visual cues to jog my imagination. Some of these are standards I’ve used for all the books (such as a map of the village of Paradise); some are photos of the setting, buildings, plants, animals. I especially like reading newspapers from the right month and year because that really puts me in the right mind to tell the story.

Every book is different than the one before, so I have to make changes and additions to my reference materials. A case in point is the village map.

You may remember that in Queen of Swords Hannah gets a letter from home that describes the changes in the village, all Ethan’s doing. He has recruited people to come and live in Paradise, farmers and craftspeople. And all of them are Quaker, because as Curiosity puts it, there’s not many people in this world would put up with our strange ways, but Quakers might could.

I’m not going to introduce ten or twenty new major characters, but you will see the new residents coming and going. And one family does have a major role to play. So I had to pay special attention to how they would fit into the village — or how they changed it. This involved a lot of mooning over the map, thinking about crops (corn, flax, vegetables), hunting, and the gradual shift in the economy from trade-based to currency based.

Mayfair's house
There are three people in the Mayfair family that will be involved in book six, and that required a lot more thought as well. These are well to do Quakers, very industrious. Mr. Mayfair bought out the trading post when Anna McGarrity died and Jed moved in with his daughter. The Mayfairs built a house like the one they had in Massachusetts and have set up their outbuildings, pastures and fields in a way that reminds Elizabeth of England.

If you click on this map, you’ll get the full size of the Paradise map as it currently exists. Except I’ve thrown in a few red herrings.

Paradise 1824If you think of plotting a novel as if it were conducted on a giant gameboard, you’d add three more markers for these three new characters. And once you’ve got them situated, you watch them move around. I know basically what’s happening with them and who/why they are interacting with, but that I’ll keep to myself.

step one: from story to plot

I’m making a list of things to cover, as I can’t do them all at once. Asdfg brought up the topic of symmetry, which is actually quite important but hard to talk about. I’m going to wait on that until I have got a little farther into the process.

Because I’m writing a book in a series, I have a lot of previous material I have to work with. Characters, settings, conflicts — no shortage of any of those things. Just the opposite. However, in some ways it doesn’t matter that this is a book in a series — I try to write them so they stand alone.

If you’re starting a novel from scratch, you have at least a few characters in mind, probably a setting, and some sense of conflicts that are going to drive the story. Here’s an example. Long before I started writing Pajama Jones, I knew the main characters and the conflict: An agoraphobic woman and a claustrophobic man fall in love. I knew I would set it in the south. And that was all I had to begin with.

In a case like that, the novel won’t start writing itself until I have figured out both those main characters. Who they are, what they do for a living, what they have in common and what separates them. Back stories (family, relationships, etc). Out of that groundwork comes the spark of a plot.

With Box Six, the process is similar in some ways and very different in other. I don’t have the freedom to change things that have been well established. There’s a kind of unwritten contract between me and the people who have been reading the series, and if I violate it I’m going to lose readers. For example, if the novel opens in 1824 and the first thing you learn is that the whole village of Paradise was wiped out by an epidemic leaving only one survivor, I would hear from very unhappy readers. In a similar way I can’t have Nathaniel decide he’s gay, because that would violate everything in the previous five books. Another example: what if you found out in book six that Elizabeth has been having an affair? Or sending anonymous letters to newspaper editors with poison in them? This is not the Elizabeth you know.

At the same time, I have to tell a new story. So you see the challenge.

I knew long ago that this last book in the series would be set in Paradise, and would take place from about April to late September. The next step was to take stock of all the characters and figure out which ones are going to be at the center of this story. Some questions have to be settled first, especially as this novel opens more than nine years after the last one closed.

1. Who has died in those nine years?
2. Who has moved out of Paradise, or is still there and won’t be crucial to this novel?
3. Who are the new people in the village?
4. Who has married and/or had children?
5. Where do the new people come from, and how did they settle in Paradise? Points of friction?
6. How many families are there? What do they all do for a living?
7. Are there any major political or social upheavals that need to be accomodated (wars, major legislation, etc)?

The only way I can handle sorting through all this is to make large flow charts and collages. If I decide that one character is at the center of this novel (unlikely), I will put that character on a piece of paper, and make a list of the things the person wants.

Because that’s the primary question: what does this character want, and why? And following from that: What or who is getting in the way of this character achieving his or her goals?

Tomorrow I’ll break this down a little further.

secret weapon revealed

In my usual superstitious way I have kept Curio to myself for quite a while now, but Jenny has been gushing and so I’ll fess up. At this time I have two applications open when I’m writing. Scrivener, where I do all the actual writing and keep text-type notes; and Curio. Curio is a way to organize material for any given project, but it’s more than a filing system. It lets you organize visual cues and mix them with text, add in maps and scribble over it all if you need too. This is great for me, as I am so visually oriented. Here are two exported idea spaces, as they are called.


I can add to and edit these as necessary. When I find a good image I just drop it into the library and then I can find it easily when it occurs to me, at three in the morning, that Elizabeth is now wearing reading spectacles.