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Archive for the month “April, 2013”

Story structure – the missing ingredient

meerkatSo how do you write a really great novel?

Well, you choose some interesting characters, a scenic setting, a fun plot and a suitable period of history, and then you start writing … simples (as the Meerkats say). Right?

No, actually not so right, nor so simple (or simples), and (in my view) not very effective either.

The missing ingredient here is ‘story structure’. Oh no, I can hear you groaning, she’s going to go all technical on us, and here we are, creatively charged, bursting with ideas, fingers poised, ready to pour forth our bestseller …

Ok, that’s great, but just hang on to that motivation a moment while we take a quick taste of the missing ingredient.

Story structure is a concept used widely in film making, in TV reality shows, and, yes, in bestsellers.

Think of ‘Masterchef’, ‘Strictly’ even ‘Total Wipeout’ (a personal favourite) – what is it that makes you keep watching, what makes you switch on again the following night, the following week? Yes, you engage with the characters, but you especially engage with them as the challenges they face become greater and more difficult.

Think of the Grand National or the Horse of the Year Show – neither would make great viewing if the jumps got smaller as the course went on, rather than bigger.

Now think of your novel. Think of your characters lined up at the start, all they can see is the first jump (or problem/emotional issue/hint of danger – depending on your genre). Ha, they think, it’s going to be easy. But when they are over that first hurdle they find it’s not the end, there are plenty more jumps ahead, not just higher ones either, but wider, deeper, and much more tricksy ones too, like water combinations and doubles.

And that’s what story structure is, a carefully arranged series of hurdles and obstacles that your characters have to negotiate to reach the end of the story. The nature of these hurdles will vary depending on the type of novel you are writing. The protagonist of a thriller will face hurdles masquerading in the form of baddies (and often a nagging family issue too), the heroine of a romance will find a range of emotional issues standing in her way (and almost certainly a beautiful rival for Mr Right’s affections), characters in more ‘literary’ novels will come up against issues that challenge their humanity, integrity or even their spirituality. The main characters in my novels soon discover that it is their courage (mental, physical and emotional) that is going to be tested, as well as their loyalty to their friends and family.

So take the time to prepare your course, select your jumps, ones that will really test your characters. Then line them up, check your aim (especially if you are writing a crime thriller) and fire the starting pistol.

That’s not all there is to say about story structure but it will get you (and your characters) off to a good start. Simples. smiling meerkat

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Italy is …

capenaI was thinking about writing a piece about recent trip to Italy (to research my next wartime novel) but my lovely husband Marc Mordey has summed it up so well in this poem, he has saved me the effort! Find more of his work at http://themarcistagenda.wordpress.com

Italy is:

Sunlight slicing the morning apartment
Gracing the piazza too,
Streaming over the crimson and cream banners.
Caressing cappuccino coffee cups,
And lighting the way for the young baristas to be
Who are hawking cups of rosemary water,
Whilst bric a brac trembles in the spring wind.

It’s Antonella’s pasta with fennel
And basking in her salted, amber glowing cellar,
Graced by Roberto’s gentle, courteous conversation
It’s Crodino, Americano, cat motifs, cornettos,
And Enrica’s charming welcome.

It is you and I dozing alongside the Tiber
As it flows greenly by,
Kingfishers calling,
A chestnut cob rolling in a dust bath
Amidst the sylvan spring countryside.
Smoke whisping through the olive groves,
And a farmer raking fresh mown grass.

It is forcing ourselves up vertical cobbled streets.
Sipping lemon soda on a tiny terrace.
Being amazed at the crazed musings and meandering
Of medieval planning.
A Moroccan lamp catching the sunlight
Above a dusty wood bandaged and padlocked door.
Madonnas and St Francis sitting serenely in relief
Above ancient archways.
And it is pistachios purchased in the lee of history.

Italy is lakes and splendour
Fettuccine and ravioli consumed
High above the water,
Local white wine honeyed and soft.
The Italian Airforce museum, and
Planes hurled aloft.

It is gambling with hectic traffic in Tivoli.
The mossed water delights of the Villa d’Este,
Intense, green chiselled pleasure gardens.
A bride, beside the Cypress pencilled skyline.
Wild cyclamen, purple flag irises,
Gargoyles, monumental architecture,
Dwarfing statues and confusing the gods.

It is Hadrian’s Villa
The insistent clamour of modernity,
Juxtaposing
The silenced weight of the ages,
Muffling the shadow stained ruins.
Pierced by the delight of children, untroubled by time,
Yet to become their own slight slice of history.
The might of erstwhile empire
Captured by omnipresent electronic aids.
A terrapin floating serenely in the great pool
No carping about the past there.

Italy is an ice cream diet.
Being woken by words at 5 in the morning,
Grappa fuelled brain stumbling.
An early evening promenade,
A carousel in the park,
Evening’s silky silence, punctuated by footballing children
Twisting, tumbling.
The gossip and smoke of their elders.
The riot of oranges, artichokes, tomatoes
Pastries, flatbreads, pizza slices and olives.
Wine stained plastic bottles
Peroni filled shelves.
Hustling bustling restaurants,
And a woman gently selling Chinese novelties.

Italy is:

The curling call of the hoopoe,
Pining in Farnese woodland.
The sonorous symphony of church bells,
And the threading road
That laces up to the Palazzo Farnese,
Cluttered and steeped with mourners,
Gathered, sombre coated and 10 rows thick
Though not for that, once great family,
Now extinct,
Who left us frescoes and blue gold maps of the world –
The impressions of exploration –
The vulgarity of GPS yet to be discovered.

It’s you in new Ray Bans,
Gracing my movie,
Dreaming downstairs.
Giving me,
As only you know how,
La Dolce Vita.

It’s life, vigour, the weight of history
For this one week
It’s the street where we live
Carpe Capena
Pot planted and balconied,
Lamplit and almond blossomed,
Monastic, mosaiced and modern.

It’s the joy of today,
Of spring and of sunshine
Balanced, cushioned and unclouded.

Italy is – a holiday.

Research – reality or virtuality?

Twelve years ago, when my editor, Rosemary Cheetham at Orion Books originally asked me to write a series set in the Second World War in London, I was delighted because I was actually living in London at the time. Plus I had countless museums, libraries and World War Two ‘attractions’ within easy access. The research would therefore be relatively easy, I thought. And relatively speaking it was. I had great days out at the Imperial War Museum (wading through French naval history books in search of ships moored up in Toulon harbour in Nov 1942), at the Florence Nightingale Museum (where I found a terrifying wartime matron on whom I based the character of the indomitable Sister Morris) and the Concert Artists and Actors Club in Soho where I met the wonderful Mary Moreland, who had sung and danced her way through the war.

Twelve years on and I am once again researching the Second World War, this time for the fourth novel in the Lavender Road series. This time things are completely different. I am not living in London but nor do I need to take lots of days out on research errands. This time (unlike twelve years ago) I have Google, Wikipedia and the internet. At the click of a mouse I have the whole wartime world and its dog at my fingertips.

It’s so much easier. Or is it?

As always, the problem with research is knowing what you need to know. The amount of information I found last time was daunting enough, this time it is overwhelming. One click leads to another and soon I am awash with detail, recollections, personal histories, eye witness accounts, reports, military lists, lists of battles, bomb sites, casualties, I could go on and on (and often do …!)

How can I possibly remember it all, let alone include it in my book?

The truth is I can’t. Nobody could (at least not if the resulting novel was going to be remotely readable).

The trick is not to worry about forgetting things. Just having known them briefly is often enough – enough to add a tone of authenticity. A tiny appropriate detail here or there adds so much more than reams of facts. Atmosphere, a sense of reality, of being there, is what historical novelists should be striving for. My method it to take an overview of the period, enough to let me find a really compelling story, and then I can focus in on the details I need. Which is why I am off to Italy tomorrow (at least that’s my excuse!) to find the one thing the internet can’t give me – a real sense of the place and the people.

It is important to get the details as correct as humanly possible but even the most meticulous and comprehensive research won’t make up for a lacklustre story or unbelievable characters.

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