When I begin the first page of a new novel, I’ve already invested months in research, made notes on yellow pads, obsessed about it on my morning walks. I have a mental picture of my characters and I know in a general sort of way what they’re likely to be doing. I’m telling myself the story I hope will become a novel that teens will read fervently, talk about enthusiastically and love forever. At this point nothing is set in stone.
At first I’m talking to myself, describing the story: first she does this, then she does that, then he says and she says, then they do something else. But that’s not a novel, it’s a treatment – a story about the story.
Then comes the real work: turning the story-about-a-story into a sequence of scenes, each building on the last. In that first chapter I must also provide the teen reader with enough information to understand what’s happening. I approach the writing as though I’m making a movie, fully visualizing each scene. If I can picture it, I can write it and the reader will “get” it.
I decided to begin Cleopatra Confesses with Cleopatra’s long-absent father’s return to Egypt. I used a series of scenes and flashbacks to introduce principal characters and establish family relationships, as well as to create tension. The chapters are brief and the scenes move the story along quickly. Here’s how I structured the first chapter:
Scene 1: Cleopatra hears a commotion and goes out to investigate; a messenger brings news that Ptolemy XII is on his way from Rome.
Scene 2: Cleopatra visits her younger sister, plays her with sister’s pet monkey and her sister’s bodyguard is introduced.
Transition: description of Cleopatra’s older sisters, brothers and father.
Scene 3: Cleopatra, in borrowed servants’ clothes, leaves the palace for the marketplace.
Scene 4 (flashback): Cleopatra with her father before he leaves for Rome.
Scene 5 (flashback): Cleopatra with her jealous sisters.
Then on to the second chapter, with scenes in the marketplace with Cleopatra waiting for father’s ship; then in the palace, dressing for her father’s welcome.
Total pages for first two chapters: thirteen.
Contemporary teen novels usually take place over a relatively short time – days or weeks, rarely covering more than a year. A teen historical novel may span years, even decades, and that requires tracking the passage of time in a way that keeps teen readers oriented. One strategy is to use the day or date in chapter titles, but the calendar in Cleopatra’s era was so confusing that I indicated the time in other ways: “It is the season of the Inundation, the time of year when the Nile overflows its banks….”, “In the evening of the first day as the royal boat drifts….” or “It is winter now…”
The structure of Cleopatra Confesses evolved as I added and deleted scenes; lengthened, shortened and divided chapters; and changed chapter titles. This process continued through successive drafts and revisions, as it has through all of my teen novels. It may be worth noting that I never get it right the first time but only through trial and error.
Carolyn Meyer’s author website: www.readcarolyn.com
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