Tuesday, March 18, 2014

How I Write

Recently I've had a flurry of requests for information about my writing process from students working on advanced projects. 

There is a FAQS page on my website and also a page devoted to Writing Tips, but because I believe that fiction writing is a craft that can be learned through study and practice – and because I am a teacher at heart – I have decided to to post some of the more recent questions and answers here.

I hope this helps some of you with your advanced projects and creative writing. Remember, writing is a personal process. If you don't like my answers, ignore them! I can only tell you how I write. 

How do you begin planning your books before writing them?

I make a wish list of goodies I want to include: fictional characters, real historical figures, themes, topics, ideas, myths, places, objects, food, plants, animals and sometimes even lines of dialogue. Then I map out a story structure based on a combination of Hollywood screenwriting templates I like: John Truby's Story Structure, The Hero's Journey and Save the Cat!®. This keeps me on track but I am not slavish about sticking to the route. 

Do lots of authors use similar methods of plotting?

Yes, I think many authors find a template useful. Some people can bake a cake by instinct, but I need a recipe to work from.  

Do you ever start writing without planning? 

Sometimes it's good to pour a stream of ideas onto a sheet of paper but at some point I will need a structure. For me, writing is a balance of the logical list-loving Left Brain and the creative, intuitive, Right Brain

Do objects enhance a story? If so, why? 

Yes! Objects and artefacts help bring a world to life. They also please the daydreaming side of our brain; the creative Right Brain likes music, sounds, smells, tastes and textures. Objects also help ground a book historically. 

Do you find weapons are frequently used in your crime novels? If yes, why is it so? 

Yes! I love my Western guns and Roman swords. I get quite nerdy because specificity is good.  

What are the differences, if any, between writing historical fiction and writing fiction which is set in the modern day? 

For me none. I treat my modern day fiction just like my historical fiction, with great attention to detail, artefacts, slang, dress, etc. For me this isn't a chore, but a delight. 

How do you research the factual portion of the story beforehand? 

The internet has a truly amazing range of literature available at the touch of a keyboard. Most of my sources for the P.K. Pinkerton books, set in Nevada Territory 1862, come from newspaper archives and old magazines, like Godey's Lady's Book, which shows up-to-the-date fashion and recipes among many other delights. 

For my Roman Mysteries I use my own collection of classical Loebs in Greek and Latin with translation on the right: Pliny the Elder, Josephus, Strabo, Herodotus, etc. They will soon be available online now, too. 

Do you have any go-to reference works? 

For my P.K. Pinkerton books I use the vast catalogue of letters and photos made available to the public at Berkeley's Mark Twain Project. I also use the massive three volume journal of Alfred Doten. This latter has not yet been digitalised so I invested in my own copy via Amazon.com. 

Do you regularly use any libraries? Which ones? 

My husband Richard is a member of The London Library. I often send him off on a quest for specific titles. Very occasionally I use the Classics Library at UCL. But I am intrinsically lazy and use the internet for 95% of my research. 

Do you use any paid-for information resources?

In writing the P.K. Pinkerton books I used Harper Magazine's online archive. I could access illustrated back issues from the mid 19th century. I also tend to buy books rather than take them out on loan. I found a book called Letters from Nevada Territory (the proceedings of the 1862 Nevada legislature) at the Nevada Legislative Gift Shop in Carson City. It was expensive but invaluable.

How do you record what information sources you use?

I usually just jot down key phrases or sentences on my computer but sometimes I will read a passage onto my iPhone and listen to it while on the go. 

To what extent does the fact you write for children and young people impact your research?

The fact that I write for young people does not affect my research at all. I access anything and everything I can. Any modification or softening of material occurs in the actual writing process. 

Do you find there are any differences between researching for an academic piece and researching for fiction?

Not really. The difference comes in the writing. In fact, I try to make my academic writing as accessible as my fiction. So you might not really call my non-fiction articles and blogs "academic" as much as popular fact. 

When writing historical fiction, how do you balance historical facts with creating an interesting story for the reader?

I try to use all the most interesting and engaging historical facts to flesh out my hero's journey. 

How far do you think you can go with historical references, given that the reading audience may not understand or recognise them?

I don't care if people get them or not. I know they give a sense of authenticity to my stories! So I use the ones that are relevant to my story. 

Which voice is more suited to historical fiction books: first person or third person?

For me, the choice of first or third person is more a feeling of trial and error to see which fits the character and story best. 

When you write, do you generally use 1st or 3rd person?  

My output as of 2014 consists of 30 novels and two collections of short stories. Roughly two thirds of those novels and stories are in the third person voice, but my half dozen most recent books are in first person.  

Do you think that there is a certain tense which is more suited to historical fiction?

Again, it depends more on the character and story being told. Present tense can be very powerful even when writing about two bronze age boys. 

How important do you think it is to visit the location in which the book is set, even if it may have changed considerably since the period that you are writing about?

Being able to visit the location of the book is one of the biggest delights in researching a book. Even though the flora may have changed with the introduction of new plants, temporal aspects like migrating birds and food in season, quality of light, atmosphere, and "three-dimensionality" don't really change. 

How much do you feel you have to stick to the known facts about historical characters and how much do you use your imagination when creating their personalities?

I like to give my characters a certain amount of free rein which is why I try not to let "real" historical characters play too big a part in my books. I failed slightly by making ten-year-old Suetonius and 18 year old Gaius Valerius Flaccus love interests in the Roman Mysteries. But I've been more self-controlled about Mark Twain's cameo's in my P.K. Pinkerton books. 

How far do you modernise the language when writing a historical character’s dialogue?

For my Roman Mysteries I use modern English because Latin would have sounded modern to them. I try to eliminate English and American phrases and cliches, while introducing a few expressions like "Pollux!" or "Great Neptune's Beard" to give the dialogue a period feel. Finally, I sprinkle in real Latin words like palla, triclinium and strigil without italicising them. 

For my P.K. Pinkerton books I am much more careful to use authentic vocabulary, word order and slang. In fact, I've composed a whole dictionary of authentic and non-authentic words for Nevada Territory in 1862. 

Do you have any final tips for would-be writers?

Always read your work out loud at least once in the final editing process. And have fun! 

P.S. When I go into schools, I talk about the Hero, the Seven Plot Beats, the Five Archetypes and other storytelling techniques like Crossing the Threshold, Save the Cat, the Dance and the Rubber Ducky. Here's a Mind Map made by creative speaker Jayne Cormie after watching a talk I did for 11-year-olds in a British prep school. Feel free to print it, use it and share it! To see more about my school events, go HERE.

Find lots more writing tips in How to Write a Great Story!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Bad Bandit, Good Writer

Recently I re-visited Terry Gilliam’s film Time Bandits, a beautiful example of historical storytelling (with a generous dash of fantasy) for kids. 

Over half term, children in London were invited to attend free screenings of three classic films followed by a talk from a children’s author. This event was co-sponsored by the Rio Cinema in Hackney and Victoria Park Books. They invited me to give a talk following Terry Gilliam’s fun 1981 film about a boy kidnapped by bandit dwarves and taken on a journey through time. At 10am on a rainy Thursday, bookseller Jo De Guia introduced the film by showing some student-made trailers for books by the three authors. (Here’s the one they made for my latest book). Then, two dozen children and their parents settled down to enjoy the main feature.  

Francesca Isherwood, Caroline Lawrence, Conrad Ford
Joining me in the balcony above were Francesca Isherwood and Conrad Ford. Fran, now aged 22, played Flavia Gemina in the CBBC Roman Mysteries series seven years ago. Conrad is the son of a family friend, a filmmaker waiting for his first break. I benefitted from their comments and observations. Fran had never seen it; she and I kept ‘snapping’ comments. Conrad has seen Time Bandits many times and kept pointing out details we might otherwise have missed. I had watched a non HD version on YouTube a few days earlier, and it was a completely different experience seeing it on a big screen where we could absorb the fantastic amount of detail that went into its making.

Time Bandits is the story of Kevin, an English boy obsessed with history. Six dwarf bandits emerge from his wardrobe one night clutching a map that shows time portals in the fabric of the universe. They have stolen the map as they want to leave their boring job in charge of shrubbery and lead the more exciting life of bandits. But they are being pursued by God (AKA the Ultimate Being) and Satan (AKA Evil), both of whom want the map back. The dwarves take Kevin with them in their flight. No more spoilers in case you haven’t seen the film. 

Jo De Guia from Victoria Park Books introduces the film
From our lofty vantage point above the stalls, Fran, Conrad and I could look down on the kids and see that they were enjoying the movie hugely. Afterwards, everybody moved a short distance to the Hackney Library where families produced a picnic lunch. As parents and children munched sandwiches and crisps, I led a discussion of the film and then offered some practical tips on how to write a gripping story. 

Good historical fiction – be it poetry, prose or film – should transport the reader to another place and time. In our discussion, we first identified the seven distinct settings or ‘arenas’ in the film Time Bandits:

1. Kevin’s World, especially his Bedroom
2. Napoleon’s Castiglione
3. Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest
4. Agamemnon’s Ancient Greece
5. The Titanic
6. The Time of Legends
7. The Fortress of Ultimate Darkness

The Rio Cinema in Hackney, London
As we discussed the film, it occurred to me that when a competent criminal commits a crime, he leaves no evidence, no clues, no eyewitnesses and no DNA. A bad bandit, on the other hand, scatters the scene with clues, witness and DNA. 

Storytellers have to be bad bandits. We have to leave clues, present reliable and unreliable eyewitnesses, scatter our DNA everywhere. If we do, our readers will be captivated. Here are some Time Bandit-inspired techniques that writers could use to create vibrant historical fiction. 

CLUES. Props and artefacts are the clues the storyteller leaves to help us decode a world. Kevin’s home was crammed with 1980 props like microwave ovens, blenders and a television. When the film first came out, these were state-of-the-art. Thirty years later, they are historical artefacts vividly painting a place and time. Props in Napoleon’s world included torches, muskets, Punch and Judy. For Sherwood Forest we saw carriages, rope traps, bows and arrows. In ancient Greece a kind of Corinthian helmet, as well as swords and daggers were more or less accurate, as was a Mycenaean death mask like the one Schliemann claimed to have found. On the Titanic the props crew got the champagne glasses right, along with deck chairs and a tennis racquet. The Time of Legends gave us a cauldron and a giant ship, not to mention a giant who became part of the landscape in this strange world. The Fortress of Ultimate Darkness was a nightmare world where every object was a grossly inflated or exaggerated version of toy or picture from Kevin’s room. Conrad pointed out that even the plastic film that covered Evil's henchmen hearkened back to the protective covers over the couches in Kevin’s sitting room. Conrad also drew my attention to the giant LEGO pieces, chessboard and skeletons in the walls, all magnifications of items in Kevin's bedroom. 

Bad Bandits and their Map
The outstanding prop of Time Bandits is the MAP. More than a clue, it is a kind of talisman but also the object of the quest, what Hitchcock would call the MacGuffin. The bandits have stolen it and the opponent, Evil, wants it in his battle against the Supreme Being. In storytelling, it is always good to make the goal visible. And if the goal is abstract, make sure you have a concrete symbol of the goal. 

‘WHAT WAS HE WEARING?’ Good storytellers have got to be geeky about costumes. Seeing Time Bandits on a big screen was a revelation. Fran pointed out that that one of Napoleon’s generals was wearing pink long underwear… and a corset! Agamemnon and his murderous wife Clytemnestra wear fine linen tunics and jewel-coloured silk mantles with gold thread. John Cleese as a foppish Robin Hood refused to wear tights but his outfit is still Lincoln green. 

SCENE OF THE CRIME. Gilliam is specific about the setting of the story. It’s not just any town Napoleon is invading; it’s Castiglione. It’s not just any forest full of robbers; it’s Sherwood Forest. It’s not just any ocean liner; it’s the Titanic. If it’s mythical, make it as detailed as any world, a technique at which Game of Thrones excels. 

TIME OF THE CRIME. Gilliam and the writers varied the time and place of the heists to make each arena more distinctive. Napoleon’s night time fortress was lit by torch and candle. Mist and rain shrouded Sherwood Forest. Ancient Greece – filmed in Morocco – shimmered with heat. The Titanic was fair weather, midday, until they hit the iceberg. Then everything got wet and white. 

SUSPECTS. When I write historical fiction, I often scatter a few genuine historical people in the background. Put in Napoleon and you know you’re somewhere around the year 1800; mention Castiglione and you know it’s 1796. Drop in Agamemnon and you know you’re in the world of Greek mythology. Set Robin Hood in among men in tights. Plonk Bertie Wooster types on the Titanic. 

MOTIVE. As writers, we need to find motives for all our characters’ actions. When writing a history-mystery story with a crime or crimes at the centre, we have to first establish the motive for that crime. Only then do we address the detective’s motive which is usually straightforward: to solve the crime and capture the perp. But we writers need a motive, too. Why have we written this story? What is our goal? Every criminal knows what he’s after. Do we?

METHOD. We need to learn basic techniques like plot structure. And flourishes like scene deepening. We need to assemble the team, the archetypal characters who will help the hero on his journey. We need to plan, plan, plan. Keep going over the heist. Get it right. Get it down. And then, after you’ve planned it all out on the day you have to be ready to abandon that plan and go with your instincts. And all the time, keep your eye on the prize. What is this story about? What are you after?

OPPORTUNITY. Like any good pickpocket, cat burglar or heist-meister, we need to prioritize time to hone our skills. Crime is a craft. Writing is a craft. We need to make time to do it.
So, to sum up: If you want to be a Good Storyteller, be a Bad Bandit. Leave clues. Leave eyewitnesses. Scatter your DNA. 

What do I mean by that last one? The DNA? I mean find your own unique style of writing, which is already as much a part of you as your voice or your eyes. It’s back to OPPORTUNITY. You just have to find it. And the only way to do that is to write, write, write! 

My latest book is The Case of the Pistol-packing Widows, about a 12-year-old half Sioux detective in Nevada in the winter of 1862. It's out in two different hardback editions, the US and the UK. Terry Gilliam's new film The Zero Theorem opens soon.