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.