Getting Story Ideas And Writing Them Into Novels, by Pauline Francis
Where do I get my ideas? Lots of ideas pass through my mind. I usually wake up with them. But only some stick. That’s how I know which idea will probably become a new novel. If I try to force it, the book doesn’t work. When I have that lovely excitement of something coming up to the boil, I don’t start to write until I have the beginning and the end. The end is really important. If you’re using historical characters or events, a twist in the story that doesn’t change known events can help get past readers knowing how things turn out.
What happens if an idea sticks but your publisher doesn’t like it? Well, there are only two choices: don’t write it – or write it and hope that another publisher will take it. I’ve just made that second choice. The novel that I’ve just finished (which my publisher didn’t want) and sent to my agent is based on a theme that has always gripped me: how people are treated in war. One day, I saw a photograph in the Guardian newspaper of a frozen Inca (16th century Peru) girl. She was sitting up, hair and skin intact because she’d frozen to death. She completely captivated me. I couldn’t get her out of my mind and she sat on my notice board for a long time as I tried to get my publisher interested. This is how Ice Girl began. Some pressure was put on me to make this a forensic novel with a contemporary setting, which would have been really interesting, except it wasn’t the forensics that interested me. What if that frozen girl had been captured by the Spanish conquistadors when they arrived in Peru?
I’ve had many problems with this novel. Peru is inaccessible to most readers, although they might know that Paddington Bear came from darkest Peru. I decided to give the book two narrators: an Inca girl and a Spanish soldier. This gave it the right balance as UK readers are usually well-travelled in Spain.
I’m satisfied with my decision to write without a contract. It was the right thing for me to do.
I can only begin to write if I have the main character, and a beginning and an end to my story. Then I do some research. My novels are rich in symbolism and I look for research that supports it. The novel I’m now writing is set against the French Revolution and the symbols are heart/blood/corpses, linked to the novel Frankenstein. When you have your symbols it’s amazing how much they come up in research.
I don’t write out a plan of the chapters, but see the events unfolding visually as if I’m at the cinema. I always use a short timeframe – usually one or two years – and I almost always use two narrators. I like this technique, especially if present tense is used, because it moves the story along very quickly and makes the character very now, rather than distant. It also gives my characters the contemporary feel that I like so much. I love short narratives, especially where characters are quarrelling and they keep breaking into each other’s narrative. It brings the story alive. I’ve never written a novel in third-person yet. I’d like to, because it can give breadth to the novel and lots of different points of view.
Language and character interest me more than plot. I detest too many adjectives and adverbs. I rarely use exclamations marks.
I’m a full-time writer now and I write every day, even if I don’t feel like it. I write new work in the morning. In the afternoon, I check what I’ve written the day before. Every week or two, I read my work out aloud to feel the tension and rhythm. I do a lot of cutting and pasting after that.
I don’t believe in writer’s block. There’s always something that can be written. If the book isn’t flowing well, I might spend a week writing individual scenes that are bothering me. I’ll do this by hand, on A4 paper headed with the name of the scene. Listening to music just before writing is good, as it stimulates creativity.
Writing is using your writing muscle. If you don’t use it, you lose it – and very quickly. Our muscles slacken within 36 hours. So does writing. After a holiday, it does take longer to get back into it, just like any job. Then I just read a teen novel by one of my favourite writers and I’m so full of awe and envy that I can’t wait to get back to mine. Or I might watch a TV series aimed at young people and this works. We’ve just had a series on TV called Merlin and I love the repartee between the young Merlin and young King Arthur.
I start work at about 8 o’clock and always finish at 5.30 to watch Neighbours. I used to watch it with my children, but they gave it up a long time ago. It relaxes me and I find the way that issues are dealt with interesting.
I love writing on trains, especially when I’m travelling to schools or festivals. We have many literary festivals in the UK and it’s a great honour to be invited. Sometimes it’s just me on the stage and sometimes it’s a discussion. I don’t mind what it is. Meeting my readers is the most exciting part of being an author. If I’ve managed to change their life in any way, I’m humbled and moved by that.
Paulines Francis’s author website: www.paulinefrancis.co.uk
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