Perhaps other members might follow this, and we could have series of posts on the same theme – all of us work differently I am sure.
I was hooked on The Past from the first time I read The Pickwick Papers. I was extraordinarily young, I remember, about 7 or 8. I probably didn’t understand one half of the book, but I loved the illustrations and I adored the jokes, the characters, and so much else.
It’s a very lively book and like many of Dickens’ novels travel is an important theme; as a child I was fascinated by donkey carts and hired hacks, post-chaises, post-coaches, or people walking from one end of the country to the other. Pickwick is probably still my favourite Dickens and the jokes don’t get any less funny with time.
As I grew up I read voraciously, and my mother being a fan of historicals, I used to read everything she did. Her favourites were Victoria Holt and Norah Lofts but anything about Kings and Queens were hoovered up by her and me. I developed an appreciation for the difficulties of the genre and knew that one day I wanted to write.
When I finally started, I realised just what a Herculean task it was – it I wanted to get it right. By this point I’d read a lot of “not so great” historical fiction – modern acting and speaking heroes and heroines ponceing around in a Disney-esque past where all the English roads were tremendously flat and one could travel, like Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood, from Dover to Nottingham in one day.
So how do I write? Probably not in a correct manner. I know people who won’t write a word until they’ve researched the era to death, sometime researching for a year before they write a word – but I admit that I tend just to jump in with both feet and work through it as I go. This does to lead to interruptions, which can often be frustrating such as when, for my latest WIP I spent hours looking for the price of whores in the 19th century. You would not believe how hard that information was to find. Sometimes it’s easier “how much was a letter in 1815” or “or long did it take a ship to get to Venice?” or “daily newspapers?” but sometimes my Google-Fu fails me and I have to ask friends, yahoo groups and (shock!) sometimes have to resort to going to a library!
For me, the characters are the important parts of the story and although I have an inkling of who the two main male characters are, I may not even have names for them when I start to write. This might sound reckless in the extreme to others who have huge character outlines written down before they start, but I like it because it means that the reader is learning about the characters at almost the same speed as I do. I didn’t know how stubborn Ambrose was going to be in Standish until he grew that way and I didn’t know about Fleury’s doctor until he told Ambrose the story. Any author who says that this process of characters dictating the process is hogswash simply haven’t had it happen to them and I feel sorry for them!
I am a bit of a “jigsaw” writer too. If there’s a crux scene that I know will appear in the book (even if I’m not sure of the steps that will take the characters there) I’ll write that scene pretty early on. This is a good way of avoiding being blocked in your novel and for me it’s the equivalent of eating the best chocolates out of the box and dipping into the bottom layer and eating my favourites there too. In addition – and up to now, I always write the last scene/chapter early on too. I copied the idea from JK Rowling and I find it works well; It anchors me, and gives me a finishing line. Some of my other friends worry about ending and panic about how they’ll get the loose ends tied up, but I find writing the final scene early on helps enormously.
What I’m constantly aware of is the senses. I don’t simply concentrate on the thoughts and the feelings of the character because humans aren’t like that – they are affected, all the time, by external forces – and this can be used in historical fiction to good effect. Simply by having your character observe what is (after all) perfectly normal for him – the carriages/horses/sedan chairs, the muck in the streets, the smells of shops as he passes, the noise of street sellers, the tang of smoke in the air, the cries of prisoners from the barred windows of the prisons – all this can create a wonderful ambiance without you having to info dump on your readers at all.
Anyway – that’s my process. Scrappy, untidy, not at all organised but a lot of fun. I look forward to reading my fellow Macaroni’s processes.