My efforts at novel writing during the recent NaNoWriMo contest this past November has provided the ground work or perhaps better stated, the initial soil, for a novel that has completely captured my senses. This jump start has provided a tremendous launch into a project that feels in some ways to be the project of my life. It is the corner on the street that, once I turned, I was brought face to face with a breakthrough in my life’s purpose. Strongly stated I know. Perhaps a bit dramatic. But it’s true. I absolutely love writing this novel, each day, in every way- love love love it!
I have stopped writing plot and have backed away from the 53,000 words I had accomplished during the contest. It is time to pause and to learn how to organize, structure, outline and develop the characters, plot, theme and purpose of this novel. I take a step back to ask vital questions and make sure I am on track. It seems a little out of sequence, but this time, because of how those 53,000 words poured out of me during those thirty days of writing, I find it important to step back and look at it with different eyes. It’s the only way. Next time, meaning with my next novel (crazy how I am even consider that prospect), I will likely outline first. But to be honest, I didn’t even know what outlining was before I started this past NaNoWriMo contest. As such, I proceeded based on what flowed best from me at the time.
So, I am now starting with what are called: Character Sheets. These reside in my fairly newly purchased Scrivener program. Several authors have given me some tips with their own books on: how to write a novel. Before me, I have these 46 character questions that I am meant to answer for every character in my novel. For each and every character, I am called upon to answer specific questions. It starts with the basics: name, age, height, eye color, physical description. Then, there are some deeper questions that will help shape the character: favorite clothing, defining gestures, fondest memory, special skills, religion, favorite food, physical health, any phobias. There are questions relating to the character’s role in the novel, his or her purpose and goals. The list goes on: 46 questions.
I am amazed that this is a strategy employed by so many writers. I understand the benefit of this step. So far with my novel, my character introductions and developments have been an organic process. The characters have shown up on the page when they were needed. And now, I can see going back and filling in the gaps in terms of their individual backgrounds. But I am not sure how I would have known at the very beginning, before my novel was to the point where it is now, who these people would have been. I understand the concept of creating the main character first, and perhaps his or her major supporting role players. But there are many background characters that I simply would not have known about until the main character had encountered them.
For instance, in one scene, the main character in my novel has just moved to Oslo, Norway from her farm village situated south of the city. One night, after a full day of work at a family run bakery & grocery market, she stops in at the butcher shop on her way home. I wouldn’t have known about the young boy behind the counter that is helping an elderly lady and how he then turns to help Nina with her own order of pork and beef ground mixture planned for a meatball dinner that night. I would not have known about this little sprout until she opened the door to the butcher shop and walked in and found this adorable young boy working behind the counter. His stature is so slight that he can barely reach from behind the counter to provide the customers with their order. His thin wheat colored hair sticks straight up at the back of his head, perhaps from the dryness of the air and the electrical charges he is capturing in the room. He swims in his apron. His thin arms work hard as he digs into the meat mixture for Nina, using a very heavy metal scoop. Nina watches him work hard behind the glass case. He has wonderful manners and Nina wonders if he is the son or grandson of the butcher shop owner. All of this unfolds before my eyes as I brought Nina into the butcher shop. How would I have known about him before starting my story? And in my view, he is not a minor character, not really. Because I have this feeling in my gut that he and his family will play an instrumental part in a subplot surrounding the occupation of Norway and the ensuing underground movement. But even that is forming in my mind as I type this paragraph.
My way of writing forms as I go. I am on the adventure myself. The scenery changes as I pass through the scene with my characters, I layer in past impressions of places I have seen in these locals, images of people I have encountered, and actual moments I have experienced. Then, my imagination mixes it all together, and I create the tableau. It’s mesmerizing. Great fun. And I can only hope that one day, someone else will enjoy reading the adventure as much as I had enjoyment in writing it.
So the instructions I have to write out for the Character Questionnaire Sheets for every character in my book, before writing the novel itself, feels challenging to me. But, perhaps, I could complete this exercise for the major characters and since I have those 53000 words of the novel to work from, I have what I would consider to be some basic ingredients with which to craft the novel and it is exciting. All the while, I read anything I can get my hands on from as many expert writers as I can, to learn strategies on how to write a novel well.
In particular, I like ideas presented by Elizabeth George as well as K.M Weiland- and there are many others. It feels as if I have signed up for a Master Course on novel writing which I am taking on my own, without paying tuition, just diving into books written by great writers and applying principles to my daily efforts. It’s so much fun! While frustrating for moments, in the end I press on and progress happens.
One character question that launched me into a marvelous exploration yesterday, was the idea of favorite music. Suddenly, Nina is lying on her bed with the door open so she can hear her younger brother Gunnar practicing the piano downstairs. The music flows to the upper levels of the house. Nina loves to spend time listening to Gunnar because although he often practices scales, he also delves into the Romantic Era pieces which are Nina’s favorites. She relaxes completely on hearing Debussy’s: Girl With The Flaxen Hair. Sergei Rachmaninoff’s: Elegie in E flat minor, Op 23, No 1 – helps her to consider sadness mixed with moments of joy. There is despair in that piece as well as hope. When listening to music, Nina finds herself experiencing a movie in her mind. She imagines herself running free or riding Lilly, her fjord horse, along the fjord’s coastline. Schubert’s Trio No 2 in E Flat brings images of a horse show, with several horses in the ring – dancing in cadence with one another. With some pieces, she can actually feel the wind on her face and watch and listen to the birds soaring overhead. Music provides the backdrop for her day dreams.
And as I considered all this yesterday, it occurred to me that Gunnar, her little brother, has an amazing gift. He is not just talented but intimate and passionate about his music. He is gifted and a natural. He likes composing his own pieces and can spend hours playing. The rest of the family thoroughly enjoys his practice sessions and they look forward to them each day. And here, as I type, I suddenly sense that later in the book, after the war is over: is Gunnar still alive? Perhaps not- and does the silence from his absence and lack of playing become unbearable for his mother Mona.
These moments of character development are moments that simply happen. But, this moment happened by answering questions #29: Favorite bands, songs or type of music. I like these questions.
And it occurs to me that this cast of characters, this geographic area, the time period, the historic events, the nuances of plot and the main theme of war and romance and purpose, all of these things will likely bring me several years of writing pleasure. I hope that in the end, this novel will capture the hearts of others. But my goal is more natural than that- my goal is to get to know these people, the historic events of the Nazi occupation of Norway, and how these ordinary people get caught up in an extraordinary life.