Sunday, December 17, 2006

Where Do You Start?


All books begin with a core Idea—some spark that makes the writer think—or say—Hey, that’d make a great book! But the best books, in my experience, actually come from the conjunction of two or three separate Ideas that capture a writer’s imagination. The ugly truth is that one Idea, by itself, is usually too thin to carry a book to its conclusion and sustain reader interest to the end.

So what do I mean by an Idea? Even when we’re talking about books, it’s usually easier to use movies as examples because the unfortunate truth is that more people see a given movie than read a given book. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARC, for instance, is the joining together of three main Ideas: 1) a conscious decision on the part of its authors to recreate an old-fashioned adventure tale complete with a classic clash of good and evil; 2) a swashbuckling archaeologist hero; and 3) a Nazi attempt to gain control of the lost arc of the covenant.

This is typical. One of the initial Ideas to grab a writer’s imagination is often a Colorful Character (Indiana Jones), while another is a Intriguing Situation, or Mystery, or Struggle (in this case, the race to find the arc of the covenant). A third or fourth Idea, if present, is usually for a significant complication or Subplot (the relationship between Indie and Marion), an unusual or spectacular Setting (Nepal; Egypt), or—as in the case of RAIDERS—a conscious decision to retell a fairy tale or classic construction--what I like to call a Plot Frame. I'll talk more about Plot Frames later.

The idea for my own WHAT ANGELS FEAR began with an intriguing Character—my hero, Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin—and a Plot Frame I call the Innocent Man Accused of a Crime. To this I added a Intriguing Situation—the discovery of a young woman raped and murdered on the altar steps of a church—and two other elements that appealed to me: the involvement of Sebastian’s own father in the crime, and a Machiavellian powerbroker who moves through the shadows. I also knew I wanted a strong Subplot involving the French, and Sebastian’s relationship with a woman from his past. All these Ideas were buzzing around in my head for several years before I ever sat down to plot WHAT ANGELS FEAR.

But as a mystery series progresses, the time allotted for this leisurely brewing of plot lessens, as do the options. The series writer finds herself with a pre-existing cast of main characters as well as a new set of constraints: Is this murder too much like the last one? or, Oh, wait; I can’t have a chase through the sewers; I did that already in book number two. And so on. These constraints—and the time pressure to get a new proposal in by January 1—change the plotting process slightly. But only slightly.

Next time, I’ll talk about the Ideas that form the genesis of WHERE DRAGONS LIVE.

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