Saturday, July 8, 2006

The Blank Page - Starting A Story From Scratch...

So, you’ve sat down at the computer, you have coffee/tea/wine/nibbles and a quiet hour to work… You’ve opened a new Word Doc, you have your title page and your header and footer all in, the words Chapter One neatly typed and you’re ready to go…

There’s just that small matter of the cursor blinking at you…

The Blank Page (enter scary music that ends with Dah-da-da!!!)

The thing is, before you even start that first chapter, before you type that opening line, you need to go back a step further. To the BEGINNING…

And where is that I hear you ask. Why, it’s with your characters of course…

There’s no point even thinking about starting to tell their story if you don’t know them first. And I don’t just mean their age, height, hair/eye colour, what they do for a living or even the plot and conflicts that you have in place in your notes.

You need to know them like they’re old friends or are sat in the room with you. They need to be real so that they’ll jump off the page and draw the reader into their world!

That’s why I tend to need a few days to swap over from a newly finished story to a new still-to-be-told one. I need to be ‘in the zone’. So once I have a story idea in place, I take a few days to think about them, to get to know them…

And this is actually quite a good time for us to be talking about this. ‘Cos that’s where I am right now. Breathless is done and dusted barring the copy edits and I’ve been having to think about what I’m doing next.

So, here’s how I’ve approached it.

I named them.

Sounds like a dumb place to start maybe, and is a great source of debate amongst authors. Some find that it's better to plot out their story first, some will change the names to match the characters personalities as their story progresses... But I find just by choosing their names I discover a little about their personalities. Francis isn’t going to have the same personality as Jack, Louisa isn’t going to have the same personality as Cara and so forth. So, I go look up my database of baby names and I name them both…

I found pictures of people that fitted the names.

I know I’ve talked about this at length on this blog before, but having a visual reference is such a help, particular if I find a picture that shows a hint of personality; a sadness, or a mischievous twinkle, something that hints to me what my character is like. And then I add that little ephemeral something to the people I’m creating.

I created the outside conflicts/plot.

This is my back-drop, remember? It’s the tool I’m going to use to get them together so that they can take those first steps onto the emotional journey I’m about to put them through. I need to understand that part of the puzzle, and have it believable before I start. It also needs to sustain the story, draw them together when they'd maybe rather be apart, maybe even throw them together unde rone roof to heighten the tension...

I decided on a setting.

Now I tend to stick with places I know, to keep it simple. Remember the country or city you live in may not seem glamorous or romantic or cosmopolitan to you, cos you live there, but to someone half a world away it can seem as exotic as anything! If you pick a place you’ve never been to then that means research, or keeping it VERY simple… I’ve come to the conclusion that Ireland has more than enough great places to use. And I’m a tad lazy when it comes to research. And I want the focus on my characters at the end of the day. So I keep it simple…

I've done whatever research I needed to do on subjects I'm not familiar with.

This is where Google is such a wonderful tool in the modern age. If I want to use Braxton Hicks like I did in my pregnant heroine book, I can google it. How long it takes to train to be a lawyer or an architect, I can google it... And again, even though I may only briefly mention it in the end story, I'll have made sure that my information was correct to add to the believabilty of the story...

And then I spend some time with my characters…

When I’m writing I know the rest of my life goes to hell in a handbag so I clear the decks before I start. But ‘cos I’m a woman and can therefore multi-task I also spend that time walking in my characters shoes. Now I’m not one of those people that makes notes. I think it’s ‘cos the people become so real to me. But first time out, as an experiment, it might be worthwhile making out a character sheet so you get the gist of them.

This is where that old saying ‘Write what you know’ can come into play. There’s not much point trying to ‘write what you know’ if what you know is not much beyond surviving each day. But, as women, we tend to be talkers. We’re much more interested in getting into each others psyche than men are. So we’re more likely to understand why people do the things they do. We might disagree with how they do it, but we’ll get it. And it’s this knowledge you’ll need when you start to delve into your characters…

So let’s take a heroine. We know her height, hair colour, eye colour, what kind of clothes she wears, what she does as a job, her best friends name and her basic history. But we need to think further than that. It’s a running joke that actors will ask the question ‘What’s my motivation?’ but that’s pretty much what we need to know. We need to be inside these peoples heads!

If she’s been hurt in love before is she likely to jump straight in with both feet this time?
If she has lost a child how will she feel every time she sees one with a friend or a sibling – will they be different around her because of it?
If she comes from an open loving family how will she deal with someone who’s very private?
Is she afraid of spiders? What wine does she drink? Is she a neatness freak? Is she able to walk past a shoe store? Does she have a large group of friends or a few intimate ones? What’s her relationship with her parents like? Does she have brothers and sisters? A love for old movies? A pet? Own her own house or rent? Live in an ultra modern interior or a cosy chaos? Is she quit witted, sarcastic, open, reserved, shy? Is she likely to eat a meal she doesnt like to be polite?

And any one of a dozen other things...

All of these questions, and more, that you can answer like a questionnaire on your character sheets, will give us a in-depth picture of who she is even if we never use a quarter of it. It will give us her ‘motivations’ and make it easier for us to understand how she will react in a given situation or with a particular person. I find that it even tells me how she will speak, how she may spark off someone in conversation. How she may fight against herself when we, the reader, can clearly see that this other person is perfect for her. She needs to be a believable, rounded, multi-faceted being. Because that’s what people are. And she’s the lead player after all….

Then you get to do the same things all over again with your hero…

You could even make up a questionnaire and fill it in for yourself or someone you know, or a character in a book or film you've just read/seen so that you can see what you've learnt. You might be surprised by how much information you discover that wasn't apparent as you read/watched! And just think of the million and one small things that make up a friend you know...

So, my advice before you start would be; spend time with your characters. Maybe, like me, you’ll even find yourself rehearsing entire scenes in your head, speaking the lines out loud like you’re an actor playing the part. If I were to tell you the number of times I’ve been cleaning house, or sitting on a horse and been caught having a conversation with myself… Well, it’s as well I’m a writer really or I’d have been committed by now…

So when you feel you really know these people, you’ve created every facet of their personality and can understand what motivates them and what might make them draw back… (Even as I've said if you only use a teeny part of all that information!) Then and only then are you ready to open that brand new page and start writing…

Next up in The Blank Page: The importance of that opening line and what the first chapter should tell us…

3 comments:

Sharon J said...

I always choose a name and then build the character out of that, too. Several people have said it's a funny way of going about things but it works for me (and obviously for you, too).

Looking forward to the next installment :)

Donna Alward said...

Trish I have to say I absolutely agree with how to start. Especially since i just wrote my first 8 pages of chapter one. But I did a good lot of thinking and three days of "character work" first before I started ANYTHING.

Can't wait to see what's next!

Trish said...

Sharon - Good to know Im not alone in my mad ways of doing things! And it has always worked for me to name them first. Without fail. In fact, on the only occassions I have been asked to change names I've had to wait to the end cos they *are* those people to me... So I finish the story and then I search and replace...

Glad to hear it Donna! I still remember our chats about characters for the book you have in for consideration at the minute... ;) And ass to whats coming up next... Aha... watch this space...