Last Sunday, I reported that I was the lucky recipient of a Bolt from the Blue, a story idea that’s very different from anything I’ve previously tried to write. After a few days of dithering, I decided to give myself a couple of weeks to apply myself and see if I can make anything of it. I’ve learned a lot this week and whether I decide to go forward or not, I’d say it’s been time well spent.
Process-wise, I’m not much of a planner. I’d like to create more detailed outlines, and I keep trying to develop the knack, but so far it’s eluded me. Once I’ve got the central characters, the spine of the story and the ending, I find I have to write the first draft to get to know the main players deeply enough to imagine their actions and reactions.
With the new story, it’s taken me much longer to create enough of a basic structure to start putting words on a page. My contemporary romance series is strongly rooted in what I know. It’s set in today’s London and the Scottish Highlands, and though I have to work out the details, I can immediately picture the general environment. The characters’ names are a product of their backgrounds, and that drives the way they speak. The stories take place in an entrepreneurial business world, so I can easily think of a whole range of plot points that might suit their purposes.
This time around, very little was established Everything was up for grabs, but it all had to tie together in a coherent fashion, so every choice had consequences. I knew the heroine’s situation and her goal, and the hero’s situation and his goal, how they meet and why they are forced to work together, but almost nothing about the setting.
I had to start somewhere, so I started with names.
On the heroine’s side I needed her name, and names for her mother, her father, her mentor, and her grandparents on both sides.
On the hero’s side I needed his name, plus two sidekicks, one brother, two sisters, their parents, the king, the queen and the heir to the throne.
I spent the best part of a day searching baby name websites. I checked out about a dozen before I settled on www.babble.com. The site offers the option to browse by alphabet, popularity, origin or theme, but I scrolled through the whole database. I wanted a strong unisex name for my heroine, and other names that would evoke characteristics (powerful, gentle, sneaky, caring) without being strongly associated with a time period or a place. I made a list of every name that instinctively felt right, without worrying about how I was going to use them. I found a name I loved for my heroine, and once I had that, I went through my list and matched my choices to the characters, making sure I clustered ones that sounded as though they belonged in the same society but weren’t too similar. I got a nice mix of short and long names, each starting with different letters of the alphabet.
Then I found surnames for the hero and heroine that reflect their place in the world. I don’t have any other surnames. I hope they’ll turn up as I write.
Starting with names worked really well for me. I instinctively chose different-sounding clusters of names for the hero’s world and the heroine’s, and that led me to a whole string of assumptions:
- the hero and heroine are from different countries;
- the countries are North/South neighbors who are not on good diplomatic terms;
- each country holds a series of unflattering prejudices about the citizens of the other; and
- the supposed stereotypes of each nationality flow from the landscape and infrastructure of the country; and
- the magical or enhanced abilities of the hero and heroine (and their communities) reflect the characteristics of their worlds.
Then I borrowed a few ideas from Maps of the World, created a map for the two countries, set the border between them (I considered a mountain range but settled on a river), and established their capitals. I needed an idea of distance and terrain, because at the beginning of the story the heroine is traveling by foot. I’ve done a fair amount of trekking in the past so I can imagine her journey.
I still don’t have a name for the countries or the capitals, and that’s annoying me. It seems that my Girls in the Basement work better with names, so I want to try to get these filled in as soon as I can.
Then I started to sketch out a scene or two, and as I did I filled in more pieces of basic world-building. Here are some of the main points:
- I also wanted a self-contained independent state, home to a monastery or other spiritual community. I looked at images of isolated monasteries, cave monasteries, and all kinds of amazing places before deciding that I want an island with strong defensive capabilities. I had lunch on Friday with a friend who spent some of his formative years on Malta, so I had a good chat with him about the history of the island, particularly the Great Siege;
- The island and the community need a name and a belief system; I have some ideas about this.
- I want the island to have a hospital or infirmary as well as a monastery.
- If I want Kings and Queens, I also need a hierarchy of nobility and forms of address;
- My heroine needs kick-ass self-defence skills. Fortunately I remembered that a good friend’s husband is a martial arts expert, so I got some preliminary suggestions from him with a promise of more in-depth consulting when I need it;
Finally, I started writing, and found that the story didn’t work in third person. I have a strong hero, but this is not his story. It’s all about the heroine, so I’m writing in first person, which feels weird but right. I wish I had more words on the page, but I think I gave myself a good start. This week will be all about putting words on the page and building out from there. I’ll let you now how I get on.
So…what’s been on your mind this week?