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.

13 Replies to “step one: from story to plot”

  1. I know why people feel the need to compare you to DG, but I wish they’d get over it already. At this point in your (plural ‘your’) series it’s like comparing Austen to Dickens. Or maybe Thackeray to Dickens — contemporaries who have a few basic things in common but any discerning reader can see that you’re actually very different.

    Bottom line, I’m with Keziah. Ignore them. :)

  2. Ditto Keziah and Rachel.

    There are similarities between all authors – at the most basic level – they have a story to tell. Thank goodness we have the freedom to pick and chose what to like and not to like. And the freedom to say.

    If it counts, I love all your books. Just bought TTTT. And I have spoken about your books enough to my sister, a non-reader, that she is considering picking one up and reading it.

  3. I would suggest if you are intent on tattooing your forehead you instead use the first sentences from lessons 1 and 2. As to the GDRiders, remember, every time they mention you, it is an opportunity for someone new to hear of your works and discover your stories. No such thing as bad publicity.

  4. Ah, poop! On negative comments, please see my previous post about road rage. I think it fits!

    Someone recently asked me about certain types of novels (I’m the one here people ask about such things.) Later I reflected on how I would categorize the Wilderness series. That is, for myself, no categorization is necessary, but it helps for others. Anyway, I decided ADVENTURES. Who else? Well, Dunnett, Gabaldon, Whyte.
    Then I was thinking about the almost million characters in TTTT. Who else? Well, Dunnett, Gabaldon, Whyte. Then I was thinking about who was the best? Well, Dunnett, Gabaldon, Lippi, Whyte. Note the alphabetizing – always do that so as not to give personal bias.

    The sad truth is that we seem, probably because of the ever present competitive sports paradigm, to be a win-lose society. I prefer the quilt paradigm: win-win. It takes lots of people, not one, to make a quilt. In this case the quilt is the Adventure genre of novels.

  5. I don’t know if this helps, or not, but I recently had a conversation with the Mom about TTTT:

    “It’s very good. I’m not finished it yet, but the way she ties it all together and the southern feel…” Mom lapses into southern accent at this point. “It’s wonderful.”

    Me: “I’m glad you’re enjoying it.”

    Mom: “But you didn’t tell me she was also wrote the Wilderness series under another name. I have all the books, and can’t wait for the next one.”

    What sycophantic fangirls don’t get is that you can have two wonderful things without them canceling each other out. Explaining to them that there can be more than one point of view or that a difference of opinion is–dare I say it–allowed, is beyond their conprehension. It’s the “I’m right and you’re wrong” attitude that develops in kindergarten and some people never grow out of, although the world would be a much better, and more peaceful, place if they did.

  6. well, i love DG’s series with all my heart, but i love yours the same way! i think you’re just as good as her, just different. so poo on people who try to compare you.

  7. I know it’s hard to ignore negative reviews (it’s a little disheartening that it’s STILL hard even at your stage, but not surprising I guess). I too can get 4 crits of a scene, 3 fabulous and 1 negative, and I will only think about the negative one, over and over and over. It’s just my own natural fears and insecurities using that other person’s negative words as an outlet.

    But I’m here to tell ya, just to lump up on the postives, that I’m reading “Into the Wilderness” for the first time right now–and you’ve got nothing to worry about. The book is fabulous in its own right, with no need for comparisons.

    And oddly enough I bought it because of the Diana quote on the cover, and because so many people over at Compuserve recommended it. But I didn’t pull it out to read until I’d been following your blog here for a while and I was compelled by your own writing.

    Appreciate the Diana connection for the positives it brings you; I’m sure it has helped your sales along the way. Don’t worry about the comparisons. You’re both excellent writers, and anybody can see that you’re different.

    Susan Adrian

  8. I guess I was having a fragile day when I wrote this post. Thank you all for your thoughts, which are sensible and insightful and very helpful.

    Susan — I’m afraid the insecurity never goes away for most writers. And, if you’re still over at Compuserve, please tell them I said hey.

  9. 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

    oh Rosina, the “last” and not the “latest” ?
    Are you sure? (Feel free to detect the huge hint of hope in these questions).
    I have loved the books and characters so much that I can’t imagine them not.. just… continuing.
    Sigh. If this definitely is the last then I am going to appreciate it all the more.

    By the way, I am really looking forward to Pajama Jones. All the snippets of info you have given us over the last year or so have really whetted my appetite.
    I for one hope you have a lot more books to write, whether they be in the Wilderness series or not.

  10. This is good info on writing fiction. I love it – keep it up please (and thank you for it).

  11. A flow chart? I would have guessed an enlarged copy of the map of Paradise and surrounds that is on the inside covers.

    You’re probably going to have more than 1 central characer in Box Six? Recalling a few, I remember that Elizabeth was it in ITW, Elizabeth and Hannah in DDS, Hannah in QofS, Lily, Hannah, and possibly Jennet in FAS. How do you decide 1 or more and who?

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