One of the worst things that can happen to a writer is a happy childhood, a functional family, an optimistic point of view. What can there be to write about with such poor resources, such fallow ground? And yet, we are driven, no less than our unhappy colleagues, to form words into sentences, sentences into pages, pages into stories.
When we start a new story, of these, what is the first element we create to work with?
If we are writing historical romance, we’ve already have a place and time in mind. And, since it’s a romance, the plot has pretty much been constructed: as Norman Mailer once said about his midnight jottings of ideas: girl meets boy, girl chases boy, boy loses girl, girl catches boy. What goes into that model that makes our work unique?
Genre fiction has givens. All mysteries end with the murderer being caught. All suspense and psychological thrillers end with the criminal either dead or behind bars. All romances end with the happy couple happy forever/for now. We deviate at our peril. We’ve run across this expectation for conformity to the formula from some of our readers, editors, judges, agents. Tried and true, stick to the plan. (I wholeheartedly disagree with this but, if we conform, how do our books stand out?)
Along side the 3 Ps there are the 3 Ts:
Tales are the backstory of our people: the experiences that have made them who they are when they appear on the page. The whole of the backstory is unnecessary. It hints at the humanity of our people and places them in context. Every character has a pre-life. What were the circumstances of his childhood? How did she overcome that problem with her sister? Whether we write it out as notes or think it through or figure it out as we go along, something exists or the person doesn’t exist for our readers.
When I began writing my medieval Welsh romances, I didn’t know my characters. I discovered them as the story moved forward. Often, the nebulousness of my characters allows the creative process to feel its way through some of those plot glitches. Once the characteristics are fixed, the plot takes care of itself. As soon as I knew the story of Garmon’s mother, all of his actions regarding Heledd were substantiated. As Jehan-Emíl’s father came into focus, his desperation for his own children was justified.
Earlier this month, at my local RWA chapter meeting, one speaker was from an independent bookshop. She gave some good advice to the group regarding the marketing of our books. One area she mentioned was tie-ins: those links to a wider audience that help market our books to readers who would not otherwise buy a Romance novel – anything that presents an opportunity to speak to a specific audience.
What is especially important from the writers’ point of view is that the tie-in is something we’re also interested in and the detail plays a logical, significant part in the story.
I am a keen needlewoman: sewing, embroidery, textiles. My protagonist in the upcoming first book of my Pendyffryn saga, Invasion, is an embroiderer. This came as a natural development to the story, set in 9th Century Cymru where almost all women were schooled in this particular skill. For Gwennan, needlework is a matter of pride and her creative soul expresses her hopes and dreams through the clothing and articles she produces. Her cousin, Caryl Gernant, also takes pride in her skill with needle, thread and cloth but keeps to the more practical usage of mending and making clothing for her children.
How it came to be that Heledd Bannawg is a cheesemaker leads me back to my work in Cymru as a community arts manager. One of my projects included a tour of a new cheesemaking farm and the buildings, equipment and methods became a fascination for me while I was writing Traitor’s Daughter.
Giving Heledd an interest and a skill from which she could reclaim her self-esteem and build a future for herself and her children was part of a recurring theme that appears in all my books: self-reliance. In Invasion, Gwennan’s strength of character comes from her faith in herself and her abilities. This is shaken when she makes a decision that costs lives but her realization of her limitations allows her to feel empathy for her husband.
Several years ago, I had the opportunity to contribute to a collection of interviews with writers in Cymru. During the interview, the questions led me to realize that in all of my books, the search for ‘home’ is a constant. In both Invasion and Salvation, the second book in the Pendyffryn saga, this search for ‘home’ drives Jehan-Emí l and Christophe to commit crimes they abhor. In Traitor’s Daughter, Heledd is driven from her home but when she is offered an opportunity to reclaim it, she refuses – she has made another home with Garmon.
What are the recurring themes in your books? Discovering I had so many was a shock!