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Friday, 31 October 2014

A Sense of Wonder

After returning from from Lanzarote, relaxed, refreshed and raring to go, I've had flu which really knocked me for six. Not only did it leave me feeling rather fed up that all the benefits of my lovely holiday were wiped out but also quite unmotivated too. I had a new book waiting for the back-story to be worked on and for the first few pages to be scribbled down but I kept putting it off. Then last Saturday my son and daughter-in-law suggested we went to Canon's Ashby in Northamptonshire for a light lunch, and a gentle wander.

I have to confess that Canon's Ashby isn't one of my favourite National Trust houses but it does sit in the most beautiful Northamptonshire countryside and the view from every aspect is stunning and uplifting.

There's also nothing like spending time with a small child to restore your sense of wonder. To my grand-daughter, at 21 months, the whole world is new and exciting. She found a sleek white cat to stroke, piles of leaves to throw in the air, bags of freshly picked apples to run her fingers over. We pressed our faces to the glass of the garden shop which was closed and gazed at a huge pumpkin, before heading for the chapel where she and her Gramps discreetly played peep-po in the pews.

I came away feeling uplifted and much more like myself.

My week continued in a similarly happy way. I paid a visit to Farndon Fields Farm Shop in Market Harborough. Just walking in and seeing the fantastic display of vegetables and smelling the loaves of bread is good for the soul. On Wednesday evening we visited the local theatre with friends to see Gerald Dickens perform Great Expectations which is my favourite Dickens novel. It's a one man show with Mr. Dickens, the great-great grandson of Charles, playing every part and he was amazing. If you get the chance to go and see him, please do. Yesterday I nipped down the road for Literature at Lunchtime with Dr. Jane McKay and a talk on Edward, Lord Lytton's life and his best known book The Last Days of Pompeii. If you can't get to any of her fascinating talks, then she has a wealth of recordings on cd which are well worth investing in.

Today I have met up with some writing friends where we exchanged news, had a few moans and generally encouraged each other. We all got to hold a four week old puppy too which seems like the most perfect way to end the week. I haven't got a puppy picture but if you want to see three adorable Patterdale/Border Terrier cross puppies take a peek at my friend Bridget's lovely blog. Thinking of the Days.

A few brief outings, meeting up with friends, some cake of course and cuddling a puppy has put me back on track. I've even written the first rough couple of pages of the next novel. It's easy to talk yourself out of things - I'm really good at that - but sometimes making the effort to get out and about, even when you don't feel like it, really does have huge benefits.

Thank-you for reading. I hope you have an inspiring week ahead of you.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Building a Back-Story

I hate to be disappointed by a book but I read quite a few manuscripts and quite a few published books where the back-story seems scant. These are the books where, however hard I try, I just can't relate to the main characters, and however pacy the plot, the story does not satisfy me.

As a beginner writer, I too was guilty of skimping on the back-story but one day, when struggling with plot, I had a light-bulb moment. I realised that if I knew my characters well enough, what they were afraid of, what they wanted above all else, then the twists and turns of the plot would generally reveal themselves. And so it has turned out. If you struggle with your plots then I can guarantee that taking the time to build up your characters will make the writing process a lot, lot easier.

And that is one of the keys - taking time. Getting to knowing your characters with all of their blessings and flaws cannot be done in a hurry. It takes time to work out their hopes and fears as well as their parentage, their siblings, their characteristics and whether these were as a result of nature or nurture. It sounds complicated and time-consuming but it isn't really. You can be thinking about it whilst driving or shopping or washing up. It can be such fun, getting to know the people you are going to write about, who in the case of a long book, are going to be part of your life for a long time.

So these are some of the questions I ask myself when building my back-story.

What is it that my main character wants above all else?

What motivates them to strive for this?

What do my characters need?
(This can be quite different to what it is they actually want).

What do they doubt?

Who/what are they afraid of?

Who do they look up to?

What was their childhood like?

Is there someone in the family they are particularly close to?

What do they wear? 
(Clothes communicate a lot about a person).

How do they talk/walk?

Here are some of my beginning notes for the hero's mother in my next adult romance:-

'Jane is 60 and recently widowed. Her husband was 13 years older. She was 21 when she married and always deferred to him. She wears a large solitaire engagement ring alongside her platinum wedding band and likes to drink tea from a china cup and saucer. She escapes to the garden whenever there is a problem and knows the Latin names for all of her plants.She could become a good friend to Rachel (my heroine). This inter-generational friendship is an interesting possibility, especially as Rachel cannot rely on her own mother for sound advice, due to her nervous disposition.'

From these few lines I had the basis for my character and went on to describe her appearance and delve into the relationship with both of her sons. She developed depth and as so many authors say 'took on a life of her own'. I didn't necessarily use all of the information which I wrote down but that didn't matter. What mattered was I knew her, inside and out. I knew how she would react in any given circumstance. I knew her weaknesses and her strengths and what she wanted from her life. And because I knew her well I became very fond of her but also quite exasperated by her behaviour at times!

So, taking the time to build up your back-story is definitely worth doing. You will not regret the time spent even if the temptation is strong to just plough straight into the story. When writing a children's story, the same rules apply, whether your characters are human or animal. It is important to ask questions and to know them really well.

This is a constant reminder which I have posted up on the wall.

If I were this character in these circumstances what would I do?

I try to refer to this question with all of my characters, even the minor ones, so that no-one acts out of character, or if they do, there is a good explanation for it.

There are a lot more questions you can ask about your main characters as well, favourite food, places to go on holiday, do they like dogs etc. etc. The more you know about them the stronger they will be and the stronger your story will be.

Thank-you for reading. I hope for those of you who are beginning your writing journey and for those of you who get stuck with your plots, this will have helped. Wishing you all a very good week.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

A Delicate Balance

There is a delicate balance required to being a mother-in-law and to being a daughter-in-law too. I am lucky enough to have a beloved daughter-in-law who has accepted our family with all of its faults and idiosyncracies. I have also been lucky enough to have had wonderful parents-in-law who embraced me unreservedly into their fold. In spite of this there are bound to be ups and downs along the way but over the years we have all found an equilibrium at worst and an increasing closeness at best. But it never does any harm to be prompted into questioning the way you do things, the way you behave with people. On holiday in Lanzarote last week, whilst lying under clear blue skies and surrounded by exotic flowers, I was nudged into re-examining my dual roles, all thanks to this book.

I have read most of Joanna Trollope's novels and always enjoyed them. There is a comforting anticipation when picking up a book by an author you have read before but also, in my case, a frisson of anxiety. Will I like this story as much? Will I be disappointed? Well I wasn't disappointed and for me this is one of her best, but I also got much more than expected. Daughters-in-Law is a book of layers. At its most elementary it is a story about relationships, about what happens when your children have grown and flown and adapting to the changes which that entails. But it is also about so much more than that. It's about seeing each others' point of view, of letting go; for Rachel, the main character, it is about the difficult and painful journey of re-discovering herself and finding a new purpose, something I think many parents will understand; it is about the necessary adjustments which ensure the family, any family, doesn't just survive but thrives.

I didn't just enjoy the story and the accomplished writing. This book has a well defined structure and as a writer I have admired that and taken inspiration from it. Every character has a depth and strength which only comes from a detailed back-story. Only a few weeks ago at our writing group we were talking about back-story. I'm a huge believer in this. I have learned the hard way that if I have problems with my plot it is because I don't know my characters well enough. Plot and character are, for me, inter-dependent. My character should respond to events within the plot in a believable way and the plot should develop in a way which challenges that character so that he/she can shine.

I was going to do this anyway but this book has produced quite a nice lead-in so next week I'll write a little about the questions I ask myself when building up a back-story. But, in the meantime I'd advise anyone who is a mother-in-law or a daughter-in-law, or about to become one, to pick up Joanna's book. You'll gain so much more than just a good story.

As always thank-you for reading. Have a good week.