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Plot: Turning Ideas Into Books

So, in beginning my first book, I started with this germ of an idea for a scene (the boy in danger, running for his life) and now through my research, I've come up with the ideal setting. Now all I needed was a plot. I don't know about you, but for me, story ideas often come in the form of a single scene--sometimes just a small kernel of a scene--and then I have to stretch and twist it to see if I can shape it into a 400 page manuscript.

To do this, I begin with characters (I'll talk more about them later). Who is the boy? Why is he in danger, and from whom? What will become of him if he survives this trauma? What kind of person will he be? You know, I'm talking about the writer's favorite game: "What if . . . " Some writers play 20 Questions as they begin brainstorming their books. I tend to get a brain cramp around Question 12, so I usually just stare out the window until things start to click. Then I start scribbling like mad in my Ideas notebook, a three subject spiral that I divide into Characters, Story, and Notes.

Something I've started doing recently is brainstorming a list of potential scenes for a new story idea as I begin to plot the book. Very often, those scenes are sexual tension or conflict scenes because in romance, those are the key scenes to the book. I try to come up with interesting places to set them (interesting in terms of mood/tone of the setting, or interesting because I can weave in some of my historical research at the same time). I don't always use all of my scene ideas, but sometimes the ones I discard end up springboarding other ideas I hadn't thought of before.

Very often, additional plot ideas will develop out of your setting and/or time period. For example, in LORD OF VENGEANCE, I based my revenge plot on the lawlessness of King Stephen's rule in England. In LADY OF VALOR, I used the Third Crusade as my vehicle for widowing my heroine and giving her the power to run her dead husband's estate. I also incorporated the political strife of that period, creating a villain with allegiances to Prince John, and a hero who's sent to help the heroine hold her castle for the absent (kidnapped and ransomed, actually) King Richard.

In WHITE LION'S LADY, my August 2001 book, I took the era of the Third Crusade a bit further, using the political turmoil of the time and Prince John's misbehaving as the catalyst for my heroine's troubles. I even gave the prince a cameo appearance in the book, just for fun.

I had another reason for setting WHITE LION'S LADY around the time of the Third Crusade. I wanted to write a sequel, and I wanted to set that sequel in the Holy Land. Why, you might ask? Because in my research for LADY OF VALOR, I ran across a fascinating bit of history that I was dying to use in another book. (This happens often, which is one of the best parts of writing historical romance--there's never a shortage of material!)

It so happened that during the Third Crusade, a radical clan of Muslim warriors gained notoriety among the European crusaders. They were known as the Assassins, dagger-wielding masters of disguise who killed on the orders of their wicked leader. In fact, two assassins, garbed as monks, murdered the Christian king of Jerusalem, Conrad of Montferrat, and there were rumors that there had also been a "contract" on King Richard. What if, I thought in a burst of sheer writerly excitement, one of those assassins were female? What if she had orders to kill the English king, and, what if, in her infiltration of the enemy's camp, she fell in love with the king's right hand man? That book is soon to be my May 2002 release, BLACK LION'S BRIDE.

Plotting: Flying Into the Mist or Adhering to An Outline

I used to consider myself a strict outliner. I plotted out each scene of my first book, working out an intricate "W" structure for every chapter, and then I tried to write within those lines. At the time, I thought it gave me focus, but in retrospect, I think it was a bit confining. I can recall struggling with scenes that just didn't want to go according to plan, and I think that strict outline was partly to blame for the two years it took me to write that first book.

When the time came to write my second book, I didn't have two years to work on it. I had something like 9 months (which sounded like two days to me)! I knew I was going to have to trust myself a bit and let some of the story "tell itself." So what I ended up doing, and what I still do now, is draft a brief synopsis that takes the story from beginning through the black moment and to the end (which always changes), then, as I write the chapters, I plot out in longhand in my Ideas notebook, a paragraph summary of the upcoming three or four chapters based on what I have written so far. A friend of mine uses chapter headings (one line chapter summaries, like you find in children's novels) to keep her focused on what needs to occur in the chapter.

I think it's important to have some sort of structure on paper before you begin writing your book, but how much detail to include, and how strictly you adhere to it, should be based on what works for you.

Now, on to the next topic: Characters vs. Characterization