Monday, August 10, 2015

Planning Masterclass with Jane Jackson

Your intrepid bloggers have attended many talks and workshops in their quest to learn the craft of writing.  An author we will travel many miles to study with is Jane Jackson.  Here Jane explains how to plan a novel using her latest work, The Consul’s Daughter, as an example.  Jane’s forward planning extends to her working life where she can be relied upon to file her blog copy many weeks ahead of publication date. For that we are most grateful!

How to beat the deadline rush, avoid panic, and reduce the risk of that stomach-churning, terror-inducing, spirit-sapping condition known as Writer’s Block.

That’s a bold claim. But if you’re relatively new to writing you might find what follows worth trying.

Some people prefer to set off on a journey with their characters and see where it takes them.  Those who use this method successfully are usually established writers who understand their genre and have highly developed instincts honed over many years.

I’ve done that and been successful. But now I plan. Why?
1. If you have a partner, children, a day job, or fall ill, there will be times when you can’t write.  Without a plan it can be really hard to get back into the story.
2. Putting character profiles, details of location, period and story background, and a plot outline (the sequence of events in which character choices influence the plot and plot action forces the characters to change) onto paper or screen means you don’t have to carry all those details in your head.  

A plan is simply a map: it shows the starting point (just before the event that forces the main character into a course of action that will change his/her life)  the intended destination, and several dramatic high – or low - points along the way.  

A plan helps me ensure my background is rock solid and will support the story. It helps me understand my characters, their strengths and weaknesses, their backstory and baggage, their secrets and hopes. Knowing all this helps me choose situations that will bring out the best and the worst in them.    It gives my book shape and enables me to divide it into sections. 

A very rough example: an 80,000 word book in 20 chapters of 4000 words each. 
Chapters 1-3 – Set-up
Chapters 4-16 - increasing complications leading to  –
Chapters 17/18  crisis and climax when it looks as if the characters will not only fail in their ‘quest’  but lose everything they have gained so far.  
Chapters 19/20 - resolution when the mystery is solved, the characters either do or don’t achieve what they sought, all loose ends are tied up, and any remaining questions are answered. Not all stories need a happy ending, but they must leave readers emotionally satisfied.

A plan is not a cage. It frees you from confusion and makes it easier to work out a timescale for writing the book.  Some people prefer to write a complete draft then revise and edit. Others (and I’m one) revise the previous day’s work each morning before starting; the previous week’s work each Monday morning, then another complete edit once the mss is finished.   Whichever method you choose it’s wiser not to submit your mss until it’s the very best of which you are capable.  Why? Because you’re competing with people who will have taken that time and trouble. Anything less lets down your book.

In The Consul’s Daughter the action is seen through two viewpoint characters:  Caseley Bonython and Jago Barata.

What gave me the idea for the story?

I was reading a biography of Cornish engineer Richard Trevithick in which he spent time in Mexico installing big pumping engines for use in silver mines.  Though some silver is found as nuggets like gold, most is extracted from copper, lead or zinc ores.  The process of extraction requires mercury, and this was shipped out from Spain.

So I looked up Spain in my encyclopaedia and discovered that in 1874, right in the middle of the Victorian era – a favourite period of mine - Spain was in the grip of a series of civil wars over the laws of succession that had killed many thousands and soaked the country in blood.

What started them?  When Philip V took the throne of Spain in 1700 he was a member of the French royal family.  But the Treaty of Utrecht forbade the unification of France and Spain. So Philip decided to relinquish his right of succession to France under one condition: that succession to the Spanish crown was limited to his entire male line before it could pass to any female.
In 1830 Ferdinand VII of Spain managed to get his fourth wife pregnant which opened up new possibilities for his direct descendants and six months before the birth he changed the law relating to succession.  This infuriated his brother, Don Carlos, who was next in line to the throne and had ambitions for his son.
Ferdinand’s first and only child was a girl, and when the king died three years later, little Isabella was proclaimed queen with her mother Maria Cristina, acting as regent.
Don Carlos’s son, (also called Carlos) Count of Molina, refused to recognize Isabella as the queen. Instead he was proclaimed the rightful king by those opposed to Ferdinand’s change in the law, and so the wars began.
I started drawing these threads together:
First I wrote character profiles:
Jago Barata:  28, 5’10”, muscular build from physical demands of life at sea. Black hair and close beard, grey eyes.
Half Spanish (father’s family) half-Cornish (mother’s)
From his Spanish side he has inherited self-assurance and determination. He’s ruthless and can appear arrogant. At sixteen he stood firm against his father’s anger and displeasure when he refused to join the family business and chose to go to sea. He started at the bottom and worked his way up to ship’s master at 28.   So he has seen the world. Having worked under captains who were tyrants, rogues and superb seamen, he knows how to handle men and his crew would go through fire for him.
From his Cornish side he inherited a quick dry wit. Behind an expressionless façade he’s perceptive and deeply emotional.
These two sides to his character are often at war, making him hard to read and unpredictable.  
His parents live in Mexico where his father has a cattle ranch and silver mines.  The blockade of Bilbao has held up a cargo of mercury needed by Felipe Barata at his silver mines in Mexico.
Jago owns a schooner, Cara, currently trapped in Bilbao, and has shares in another, Cygnet, part owned by Teuder Bonython, owner of a ship-repair yard and cargo brokerage. His daughter Caseley also has shares in Cygnet.
Caseley Bonython:  21, 5’4”, slim, chestnut hair, green eyes. Youngest of Teuder’s three children and the only girl. She knows that despite his reliance on her, in her father’s eyes she can never replace her older brothers: Philip, who died young, and Richard, a talented artist with no interest in the yard or shipping business he will one day inherit. 
The accident that killed her mother left her with a crippled foot and a limp. In 1874 being a graceful dancer was an important social attribute and offered opportunities to meet potential suitors.
Unable to take part in dancing lessons, Caseley learned Spanish instead and this has proved invaluable to her father who is consul for Mexico.
Responsible, kind-hearted and a worrier, awareness of her flaws means she has little vanity. But her quiet manner masks a strong sense of justice and, despite hating confrontation, she will challenge behaviour she considers unfair.

When Caseley first sees Jago she is shaken by his impact on her.  At their first meeting her cool distance (born of terror that he will see through her pretence that her father is still in charge) irritates then intrigues him.  With numerous problems of his own to deal with he’s annoyed that she sticks in his mind like a burr.

A word about names:  I’m careful to choose names that ‘fit’ the characters, their class, location, and the period of the story. More than once I’ve had a character I couldn’t get a grip on.  After a change of name they sprang to life. Not only could I see and hear them, they arrived with a full history they couldn’t wait to tell me about.

Caseley is an old Cornish surname originally spelt Casley. In the past family names were often used as first names to honour grandparents or perhaps a wealthy distant relative in the hope of being remembered in the will.
Bonython is also an old Cornish name, and the two go well together.  ‘Teuder Bonython’ has a definite ring to it!

The same applied to Jago Lansallos Barata. Jago is Cornish for James, and Iago is the Spanish equivalent.  Lansallos came from his Cornish mother’s family, and Barata is his Spanish father’s name.  So you see how the characters’ names suggest their family histories.

Appearance is really only important when it affects how a character is perceived either by themselves or others.

Assisted by housekeeper Rosina, maid Liza-Jane and manservant Ben, 21-year-old Caseley is responsible for running the house, looking after her sick father, translating foreign correspondence and managing the office while keeping secret from everyone including her two uncles the true state of her father’s health to avoid loss of confidence in the business.   

Writing a brief overview of each chapter allows me to pace the story and avoid mid-book sag.

Ch. 1   Set-up: Teuder’s illness, Ralph’s drinking, Caseley’s heavy responsibilities, her reliance on housekeeper Rosina, maid Liza-Jane and manservant Ben (courting Liza-Jane)

Ch. 2  Scene 1:  Jago with his mistress. His anxiety over Cara trapped in Bilbao. His relationship with his crew and the yard foreman.
Scene 2:  Thomas Bonython (Teuder’s half-brother) has financial problems, henpecked by wife Margaret, hints at money-making scheme.

Ch. 3   Scene 1: Ralph’s hangover, his quarrel with Caseley who overhears Rosina and Liza-Jane gossiping about Louise Downing and her new ‘fancy man.’  Teuder questions Caseley about the business.
Scene 2:  Caseley to shipyard. Sees Jago for first time as he brings Cygnet alongside. To office where Teuder’s other half-brother Richard (manages ship-repair and cargo-brokerage) asks after her father.  Jago Barata walks in.  (Major plot point – end of Set-Up and start of Increasing Complications)

Ch. 4  Jago’s impact on Caseley, her instinctive wariness. He presses to know when Teuder will be back. He wants the senior captain’s post.

Ch. 5.  Scene 1:  Thomas worried about Teuder’s return.
  Scene 2:  Jago’s reaction to Caseley; visits George Fox (consul for Spain) for update on the war.  Jago receives a letter from solicitor – he has inherited his grandmother’s house on Greenbank. Letter from his father – cargo of mercury needed for silver mines not arrived from Spain, can Jago help?
  Scene 3:  Dr tells Caseley her father is dying, advises letting him return to the office.

Ch. 6  Scene 1:  Angered by his dreams of Caseley, Jago discusses repairs to Cygnet with yard foreman Toby who reveals his suspicions that Caseley, not her father, is running the yard.
            Scene 2:  Jago to office. Friction with Caseley as he reveals he knows what she’s doing.  Insists she’s present when her father comes in next day.

Ch. 7  Scene 1:  Teuder and Caseley in office. Reactions of Teuder’s half-brothers, Thomas and Richard. Jago arrives. Teuder agrees to him being senior captain.  Jago blackmails Caseley into refurbishing his house.

Ch. 8  Scene 1:  Caseley and Jago to his house. It’s effect on her.  They share revelations about their pasts. First touch as he wipes away her tears.  Renewed friction – why is he insisting she oversee work to the house?  He won’t admit the truth to himself, let along her.

Ch 9.  Scene 1: Thomas and Margaret – her fear Teuder will leave the yard to Caseley. If she marries Barata what will become of them?
            Scene 2:  Ralph questions her working on Jago’s house. He’s been commissioned to paint portrait of Emily Lashbrook. Caseley delighted/relieved.
            Scene 3:   Jago at hotel packing for voyage to Spain to collect mercury from Santander. Thinking about Caseley. His mistress Louise Downing bursts in having just heard about his house.

Ch 10.  Scene 1:  Teuder and Caseley in office, letters.  She leaves for Greenbank. Calls into shops for fabric samples. Show her feelings for the house, knowing when it’s finished she’ll never see it again.  Louise arrives. Caseley realises she’s Jago’s mistress. Excuse she needs to sever any connection with him.  Writes letter and leaves at hotel.
              Scene 2:  Arrives home. Father tells her of letter from Spaniards in Mexico with interests in both countries. Sealed secret docs must be taken to Spain.  He can’t go so she must.  (Major plot point)
And so on....

When I needed a break from writing the sequel to The Consul’s Daughter  I wrote the third in my series of Polvellan Cornish Mysteries. Now it’s finished and with my editor I will return to the sequel.  Without detailed plan of both the sequel and Polvellan 3 (I also have outlines of the next four Polvellan stories) I couldn’t have done this.   

If you’re already a planner you will know the value. If you’re not, why not give it a try?  It really does make life easier!

The Consul’s Daughter  Jane Jackson  pub: Accent Press  July 2015.
Ebook £2.99  POD paperback £12.99

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 Thank  you, Jane. We will be looking at our WIP's in closer detail now!

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Rosemary Morris said...

I enjoyed your article.

I write traditional historical romance, by which I mean that I don't open the bedroom door wide.

The theme of my novels is usually prompted by something I read in historical non-fiction. Once the theme and the historical facts are in place I complete detailed character profiles for my hero and heroine.

When I begin to write the novel I know what the conflict will be in the first few chapters and have a mini-plan for the plot, however, I like the characters to surprise me.

Just Another Bloke (John Jackson) said...

A Masterclass! (or Mistressclass??)

and one I'm going to find particularly helpful.


John Jackson
(No relation)
(We think) :)

Unknown said...

A great interview from Jane and wonderful advice.
Insight into how successful authors do it is always interesting reading.