Monday, 16 May 2011

What is more important - plot or character?

Part one: plot
There are many books that are successful and have no plot as such – they rely entirely on charismatic characters and their interaction. Strangely enough I can't remember the titles of any of them.
Some people think the most important thing is the plot – never mind the characters or their motivation – all they want is a gripping story that keeps them on the edge of their seats. Dan Brown is a master of this.
For me the combination of the two is essential. I want my main characters to leap off the page they are so real but I also want an enthralling story for the hero, heroine, villain and other sundry characters to move about in.I don't mind if it's a thriller written by Lee Child or Michael Connelly or a historical action adventure by Bernard Cornwell – they all have the required ingredients.
 A well-written saga, such as Perhaps Tomorrow by Jean Fullerton, will also keep me engrossed. Recently I read House of Silence by Linda Gillard which is a Gothic type contemporary romance and this held me from the first page to the last.I have just reviewed two books for the HNS which were equally gripping. One, The Blue Suitcase by Marianne Wheelagen and the other The Wordsmith’s Tale by Stephen Edden. Both are historical, quite different, but they had believable characters, excellent plotting and totally absorbing historical detail.I can recommend any of these books if you want an absorbing read.


There are various schools of thought on the best way to plot but all of them would agree that a book without a plot is rarely worth reading.My books have a linear plot, a story that runs through the book chronologically. This works for me and for my genre, Regency romantic adventure. Initially I divided pages into sections to represent each chapter then filled in the main points of the story – this was very useful if I got the dreaded "middle sag". Nowadays, with my Regency romances, I start with the main characters and then work the story out in my head before I start. I jot down the names of any new characters as they appear but apart from that write nothing apart from the story itself. However, when I'm writing a Victorian family saga or World War II romantic suspense, I revert to written plotting. This is because these books are more complex and it is essential to get actual historical events in the right place.
Jean Fullerton works on an A4 grid system for her complex Victorian sagas. Before she begins to write she fills in all the relevant historical events in the correct box. Next she adds the names of the characters that appear in each scene and what actually takes place. She then follows this grid until she has completed the book. She colour codes the names in order to keep a check on points of view. 
Linda Gillard used a different method when she wrote A Lifetime Burning. She wrote individual scenes and then assembled the book afterwards. This book is non-chronological, rather than linear and her method worked perfectly. The end result is still a riveting read.
 There are, no doubt, several other ways of plotting which work equally well. The main thing is for the author to produce a good book. A natural storyteller is a rarity – most of us have to work hard to achieve an engrossing story.
In my next blog I will discuss characters.

Fenella Miller

Monday, 2 May 2011

What Shall I say? A Guide to Letter Writing for Ladies

I came across an amusing book that was published in 1898 which told  a lady the correct way to write letters on various subjects. I hope you find this Victorian insight as fascinating as I did.

The notepaper should always be clean. A woman who uses soiled notepaper must not complain if her correspondence  suspect her of being slovenly and untidy.
White notepaper is always correct. Those who prefer paper in fancy colours should see to it that the colour is not  so dark as to render the handwriting difficult to read.
Don't use very common paper unless compelled. Stationery is so very cheap now, that there is very little excuse for writing letters on paper that is apt to run or show through on the other side.
Black ink is always 'good form.' Those who prefer violet or fancy ink must at least consider their correspondent sufficiently to avoid inks which are so faint as to make the handwriting difficult to read.
The Letter
First, a word in regard to the handwriting, which cannot be too plain. Legibility is the first requisite. Never mind about flourishes or 'style'. If your handwriting is pleasant to the eye as well as easy to read, so much the better; never sacrifice legibility to show. Avoid underlining as much as possible. This is a bad habit which belongs to women rather than men.
Letter to neighbour regarding the gossiping of servants.
 Dear Mrs Maitland,
         Do you think we could combine in any way to prevent waste of time on the part of our respective servants in gossiping over the garden fence? I'm sure it must be as annoying to you as it is to me.
        The spot chosen for these lengthy stolen interviews is, unfortunately, out of sight both of your windows and mine, or the matter could be readily dealt with. Can you suggest anything?
        With kindest regards,
            Believe me,
                Yours sincerely,
                      May Willman.
Laurel Bank, Monday

I should fail miserably on the handwriting and and probably on the note paper and ink as well. I only have one correspondent  and that is an elderly lady of 83 who still handwrites letters. I'd much prefer to e-mail all ring, but feel it only fair that I write a letter back to her. My handwriting is so appalling I doubt she can read it anyway.

Next time I shall give you an example of how to write a letter rejecting your lover, complain of being bitten by a vicious dog and how to address a bishop or a duke and other dignitaries.

Letter writing is definitely a dying art, I think the only time anyone puts pen to paper now is when writing Christmas or birthday cards. I must say I do like getting cards through the post instead of junk mail and bills.