Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Plotting Begins

(Above: Carlton House, now demolished.)

If you’ve been following this thread, you know that I am beginning the plotting of my fourth Sebastian St. Cyr book with three core Ideas: a historical event that actually occurred in London in the spring of 1812, certain developments in the gradually unfolding tale of Sebastian’s private life, and a spectacular murder.

The murder in this case is the brutal slaughter of eight former prostitutes in a house of refuge run by an old Quaker. Seven of these victims are simply collateral damage. The actual target of the attack is a young woman of nineteen who calls herself Ann Jones. The only witness to the murders is Hero Jarvis, the daughter of Sebastian’s nemesis, Charles, Lord Jarvis.

For me, the plotting process consists largely of asking a series of questions that flow inevitably from my initial ideas, then finding the most successful answers to those questions. The first, most obvious question is, What was Hero Jarvis doing at that house? The easy answer—that Hero was working with the women—I immediately reject. Hero is a strong-minded, independent woman with reformist ideas that trouble her father, but she is no Do Gooder. Thus, I realize I must take a closer look at Hero’s character in order to find the “right” answer.

After a bit of floundering, it comes to me. What if Hero is developing a theory—a theory that most women are drawn into a life of prostitution for economic reasons? She is researching this theory by interviewing the women at the house of refuge when the attack takes place and she barely escapes with her life. In fact, she is interviewing our intended victim, Ann Jones, when the house is hit. Yes, much better.

I remember reading once that a writer should automatically reject the first solution, the first character sketch, the first scene setup that leaps into his head, because that first concept is inevitably a cliché, or the obvious solution, or the expected. I’ve always found it a good piece of advice, but I don’t expect to be reminded of its importance again so soon, with my very next question.

I know I want Hero to ask for Sebastian’s help in solving this mystery, so the next obvious question is, Why does Hero go to Sebastian for help? Why not go to her father, the most powerful man in England behind the Regent himself?

The obvious answer is, Because she’s afraid to go to her father; he would disapprove of her working with prostitutes. The problem with that answer is that I see Hero as a strong, even headstrong, woman. Not only that, but for Hero to fail to step forward and provide evidence to a crime because she’s afraid of making Daddy angry would cast her in a despicable light.

For a while, I’m stumped, even panicked. I NEED Hero to go to Sebastian, but I can’t think of a good enough reason for her not to go to Jarvis instead. After banging my head against this locked door for days, it suddenly occurs to me: Hero does go to Jarvis! Of course Hero goes to Jarvis. Jarvis is the one, true to character, who squashes the official investigation into the murder because JARVIS doesn’t want the scandal. He sets one of his own men—the dastardly Colonel Epson-Smith we first meet in WHY MERMAIDS SING—to hunt down and destroy the men who endangered Hero’s life. But Hero doesn’t know this. And so, determined to find justice for the murdered women, Hero turns to Sebastian.

It occurs to me that one of the keys to successful plotting is to keep searching for explanations or developments that remain faithful to one’s characters. It’s one of the reasons I like plotting a book out in advance. If my writing had come to a screeching halt for days while I tried to come up with answers to these conundrums, I’d have been tempted to go with the easy solutions, the solutions that would have required me to play false with my characters. But since I hit those roadblocks at the plotting stage, I was able to just go around them and continue plotting other aspects of the story while waiting for the solutions to come.

Next time, I’ll talk about plotting the actual murder investigation.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

This seems similar to much of what I did for Cold in the Light, which gives me some hope for my own plotting future. I'm enjoying this thread.

Anonymous said...

Your point on choosing the "second idea" is an excellent one. It reminds me of a book Donald Maas discussed in a conference I attended once. I wish I could remember the fantasy trilogy he was talking about. In the first the hero had to capture some object of great importance. In the second, originally the bad guy was going to capture it back, but then another what if arose. What if instead of losing it to the villain the hero gave the object back? That set up a completely different "second act."

Your book sounds really interesting. When's it coming out?

cs harris said...

Hi, Sidney! I don't have a pub date for this book yet. Thanks to the havoc Katrina caused in my life, I barely managed to cling to my November 07 pub date for WHY MERMAIDS SING, the third in the series. They may want this fourth book by November 07 for release in Nov 08. But since I'm also writing another series now, I'd be more comfortable with a spring 09 release. I am a slow writer.

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