WHAT PRICE THE PREQUEL?

The prequel serves an important purpose if a novel, or more often a trilogy, has strongly drawn characters wrestling with a dramatic situation. After the resolution, some readers may wonder how the story really began. What was it in the characters’ pasts or early personalities that might predict this drama could occur?

A prequel can provide the historic context

Alternatively, what was the historic context prior to the main story’s events? This may pique the reader’s interest. Were key events such as a financial crisis, a war, a change of regime or of borders the influence over the story to come? Either way, it’s a search for origins.

Consider TV’s TRAITORS

For those millions who, like me, were thoroughly captivated by Traitors on TV -whether the British, American or Australian episodes, many wanted to know what happened to certain participants after the show ended. Equally, there was an appetite for knowing more about each participant. Their back stories greatly enriched viewers’ involvement in whether they were faithful, traitorous, winners or losers. The traitor who won the lot seemed so straight and trustworthy. How did he develop that ruthless streak? Wouldn’t we like to go back in his life to gain insight into how that happened?

A writer’s prequel to an existing novel

A good example of a compelling literary prequel is Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. A hundred years after Jane Eyre was published, Rhys imagined the reasons for the madness of Bertha, the attic-hidden wife. Keeping to the timeline of Bronte’s novel, Rhys set Bertha in Jamaica, just after Britain abolished slavery in 1834. Writing a story of Bertha’s childhood to her arranged marriage to Rochester, an English gentleman, Mr. Rochester, suggests underlying reasons for her “madness”. By this means, Rhys gives readers a social analysis of this historic period and setting. Rhys therefore enriched Brontë’s original novel both by introducing Bertha’s backstory and by providing an historical and cultural context.

A writer’s prequel to his own trilogy.

Whereas Rhys’ prequel was imagined from another author’s novel, predominantly prequels are written by the same author as for the main plot. La Belle Sauvage – although titled “Book One”, is really a prequel to main story in The Book of Dust. It is the back story of Philip Pullman’s characters in his latest trilogy. It is an in-depth extension backwards of an already developed plot and characters who figure in the world of His Dark Materials.

Similarly C. S. Lewis’s children’s book, The Magician’s Nephew, explained the creation of Narnia, the subject of his seven book series, The Chronicles of Narnia.

When should an author decide to write a prequel?

One pointer is when readers ask questions about the characters. Another is when the story offers many avenues to explore for which there is no room in the main work.

This is the purpose of a prequel, to provide context and psychological understanding of the novel or trilogy’s character(s). When not to write one? When the characters have not become real enough to garner sufficient reader interest, such as when the plot dominates and the characters are less important. Another reason is when the material is already known.

To be successful, a prequel has to offer new information.

“A fascinating peek into the story to come.”

In my own case, readers asked me what happened before the two main characters in A Relative Invasion (a trilogy set in Britain’s WW2 home front) became arch rivals, or rather, what made the boy ‘invader’ set out to acquire everything his cousin owned, an invasion over more than the course of a wartime, one that culminated in a disaster for everyone.

The Prequel has the adults narrate their issues back in 1925 before they married. My intent was to expand upon their personalities and conflicts. The prequel hints at the tensions that affect the way the two boy cousins are brought up. The war itself, the additional post-war hardships, evacuation, loss all inevitably play a large part in the boys’ experiences, but it is the adults’ personalities that are the greater determinant of the dramas and disasters in the final part of the trilogy.

Voice in historical fiction

Historical fiction needs an authentic voice

Studio portrait of a soldier in winter uniform and a man in an overcoat and cap official. Russian Empire. 1910s. Reproduction of antique photo.

For the readers, it’s connecting with a main character that arrests their interest when thrown into an unfamiliar time. For instance, apart from historians, who can imagine life as a soldier in Russia’s wars, the distances and climate and how their families fared without them? A convincing voice makes the difference between a factual account and a rich experience of distant and alien events – although the experience is second hand and in the comfort of an armchair.

Whether in prehistoric Britain, a Roman forum, a Scandinavian forest or an African village, the task of the historical fiction author is to persuade the reader that the story characters are real. For that, the narrative voice must strike as authentic. This validates the plot; what the characters convey are their life experiences.

Try one or two of these historical fiction authors FREE and test for yourself whether the main characters convince you that you are suffering or enjoying the same fate.

Fancy one of these FIRST in SERIES? Click here: https://books.bookfunnel.com/histficseries/fm3twqrsxe

Believability depends on accuracy

Why careful research is vital

An old literature books, inkwell with quill pen on a writer wooden table background.

I’m writing my 12th book, but the one I’ve felt most attached to is Book 3 of my historical trilogy set in 1937-1951, A Relative Invasion. I called Book 3 “Impact” – indicating the dramatic outcome of the two main characters’ lives to date.

Whereas I had concentrated on researching war and wartime experiences for the first two books, all of which is readily available from newspapers of the time, personal letters and first-hand written accounts, far less has been compiled for the years following the war. The invaluable archives of English record offices, many of which I visited while writing this trilogy (none more helpful than Surrey record office) provided a good proportion of this.

However, I came almost to a halt in a later section of Book 3. The lower part of this book cover shows the exterior wall of an “Approved School”. This was the name of institutions for youngsters who had committed offences more serious than opportunistic shop-lifting or street brawls. Much of what went on inside the secure walls of these places – and not a lot was academic education – has been confidential. This is even more the case for the personal histories of the children who attended such institutions. Sufficient time must pass, usually 100 years, between the lifespan of anyone affected, which could include children of the person of interest, and the release of the documents safely esconced in the archives.

Published first hand accounts are likely to be few. Not many people wish to write about their darker moments, and will be tempted to embellish or diminish their behaviour if they do. There is Borstal Boy by Brendan Behan, a remarkable work, but his background and experiences were very different from my character’s, who had no political leanings and whose journey would take a very different path.

I had to use dry government documents and academic articles about the treatment of young offenders to glean any sense of these institutions. For the emotional impact of attending such a “school”, and the experience of the responses of adults, I had to draw on my professional background as a psychologist, and upon the nature of the characters I had already built up.

In 20 years’ time, or so, I can return to a records office and see the information I had wanted but for my book, I had to search inner pages of local newspapers for court cases to gain some sense of what happened to young offenders.

Murders are much easier to research! Even so, writing about the impact of the lead-up to a climax and the extensive and widespread fall-out was much more satisfying.

On writing a trilogy.

A Relative Invasion – The Trilogy

Advice for writers typically suggests that a series works best for indies. Does it make sense for the first three in the series to form a trilogy? Not always…

A trilogy suggests an entity like the three-movement sonata in music, or the triptych in art. The form must be complete, whereas in a stand-alone the novelist has more freedom to finish where s/he likes, at any point, at any length.  

A Relative Invasion is probably the only trilogy I’ll write. It was meant as a novel. I began to write the story of a good-hearted boy, Billy, who was going to need all the resilience he could muster to weather the threat of war, as well as that of his manipulative cousin. A trilogy never entered my mind. I wanted to explore how the emotions that led to WWII might play out in micro, at home in a South London family. This is a story about a life-long rivalry that has lasting effects, just as a war anywhere has a long-term fall-out.

INTRUSION Billy was only five years old at the start of the story. His cousin, Kenneth, was six, but smaller and weaker. Just like a country feeling inferior by size and circumstances, Kenneth resented Billy’s health, strength and size, his more comfortable house, his better toys. Billy’s parents were charmed by Kenneth’s sweet (perhaps cloying) manners and his delicate features. The mother, particularly, had not wanted a sturdy, vigorous boy. How nice to meet one who simply wanted to sit and draw!

By around the third chapter I knew what the ending must be, and I wrote a draft of that. I then returned to where I had left the narrative, concentrating on getting the characters from that point to the end, but by the time I had written one hundred thousand words, Billy was still only seven. At that point I stopped, thinking I had better made the story into two books. Backtracking a little, I wrote a suitable ending to Book One, which came at around seventy-five thousand words.    

      

INFILTRATION. When Book Two reached a similar length, World War Two had just ended, but I was a long way from the climax and culmination of the story. VE Day provided a natural conclusion of Book Two. Billy was then twelve, and cousin Kenneth, thirteen. Adolescence and the terrible austerity of London’s 1940s lay ahead, together with the eventual climax and then fall-out from their life-long rivalry. That was more than enough for an 80,000 word novel.

IMPACT. Book Three had to bring the boys to adulthood, and by the time I’d written to that point, I had rewritten the climax and realized the fall-out deserved a full treatment. The “ending” was written just as I’d planned, except that it now came three-quarters way through the novel.

Billy’s story was now told, the arc I’d envisaged had been completed. I had written a trilogy when I’d intended to write a stand-alone novel. What would I advise if I, or any other writer, was intending to write a trilogy?

Early on, write a time-line.

Put in the historic events, check exact dates of these. Ensure you record each character’s date of birth, location, key events. In a trilogy, you may need to come back to them. Old incidents come back to bite the bottoms of the unwary.

Write your real ending before you get too far into the narrative.

You need to retain a clear sense of where your story is going as you write chapter after chapter. 

Mark out how much will happen in each book.

This way you can pace the drama evenly, making sure you don’t stack up the high points too closely together.

The flow of life needs to show:

precursors in Book 1, developments in Book 2, outcomes in Book 3. In music the third part would be recapitulation. Outcomes do have this element: a reworking of earlier events. If there’s a crisis in Book 1 it can resolve, but not really conclude there;  longer-term effects should pop up in Books 2 or 3.

There needs to be some sense of linear movement

even if the books are not arranged in chronological sequence. The reader will want to feel the size of the whole time span by the time s/he reaches the end.

Include several fully-imagined characters.

Three books are too many to focus on just one or two main characters. The work needs other characters with their own concerns for the main ones to knock against and react to. The range of possible interactions gives a more detailed picture of the protagonist(s) and a fuller character development .

Similarly, there needs to be more than one theme.

For instance, the main theme in my trilogy is the far-reaching effects of an ongoing childhood relationship. Connected to this is the theme of coming-of-age, bullying, parenting issues, the subtler effects of war service, and a re-examining where personal responsibility lies.

Although the trilogy will follow one arc, each book also needs its own arc

The three books fell into line with historic events: Book 1 – the tensions leading up to the threat of war until its full onset; Book 2 – the war years; Book 3 – post-war austerity until the war effects in Britain lessened – (“You’ve never had it so good”). Each book contained its own drama; each marked great changes in Billy’s life. 

It’s these changes that make for a satisfying place to end one book and start the next.

I’d also suggest the following about a trilogy:

The story has to be substantial.

It has to touch on something in human nature that will resonate meaningfully over the timescale of your three books so that the three properly comprise an entity, not three stories about the same people.

Finally, you need to be a sticker;

someone with a persistent, resilient personality who does not give up what they have started. I wrote these traits into my main character, Billy, and working out his story helped me to stay the course.

Satirical short story collection

 Me-Time Tales: tea breaks for mature women and curious men, 2nd edition

 Katie Fforde said: “Quirky and Intriguing”.

This short story collection is certainly not erotica; hardly a glimpse of bare flesh– but a subtly dark edge instead. Most, at first, seem light-hearted; then there’s the twist. After finishing the book, readers have second thoughts about the characters.

Ideal holiday reading – you’ll lie back enjoying the lives of women you think you know and feel elated that you’re away from it all. Kobo? Kindle?

Just right for the daily commute. Read one story before you reach your station and hurry off to work. Apple, Barnes and Noble or other ebook?

The paper-back — neat enough to slip into a handbag or breast pocket — is available in bookshops and on Amazon. It makes a good present for a friend, mother-in-law or male colleague. It can be a silent comment: you’ll know a woman in here! Some use it to make a point about the recipient…

A top 100 Amazon reviewer said of the short stories “…their hallmark of wry humour reminds me of a female, modern-day Saki.”

 In the collection, you’ll encounter obsessive women, an array of fish, a pile of hot money, a loving mattress, a mangy dog, a range of bras and a prosthesis. I hope each story will perk up your commute or dispel your night-time preoccupations, and send you to work or to sleep with an uneasy smile of recognition on your face. Do enjoy, do write a review.

A writing plan: are you a planner or pantser?

Overly organised?

Do you have a writing plan?

It’s assumed there are two kinds of writers: those who have a writing plan, and those who write on the seat of their pants.

I would love to write a synopsis, the theme, the backgrounds of each character, the main events of each chapter before I ever begin, but that just won’t work for me.

 When I start a novel I only have a germ: a snatch of dialogue, an incident, never a theme. I don’t even know what kind of characters will pop up or which will prove to be major or even where the setting of dramatic scenes will be. But despite the discipline of degrees and diplomas and a Ph.D. I’m an irrevocably, irredemiable pantser.

Pantser Process

Working on the small germ, as I write something happens to the character speaking or experiencing the incident. That turns into a chapter. At the end of one chapter, I know what has to happen in the next but not further. By about the fourth chapter something emerges that enriches or expands the plot, becomes a sub-plot or develops one of the characters.

The novel outline falls into place when I know the ending. Usually that’s before I get halfway. Then it’s a matter of laying out the remaining ground, including character backgrounds, needed for reaching that end.

All my fiction has one thing in common (as well as their manner of creation) — they are character-led. I can’t write any other way. There’s no great plan but interesting things gradually emerge.

Example

Here’s an example of my writing process. A Relative Invasion (a trilogy set in the Home Front of WWII) began with one tiny thread.  An elderly man told me his school had been evacuated to a village where after milk and biscuits, the children were walked around the village in a crocodile seeking billets.  A tall seven-year-old, (‘He’ll cost a bit to feed and clothe’) this man was the last to be chosen.   

I thought, children must have been so resilient at that time. And so Billy was born, a sturdy well-meaning child. He was only aged five in 1937, and so I found myself writing historical fiction (with all the research that entails). The key figure at that time was, of course, Hitler, and his rise to power came as result of German resentment, humiliation and envy after the end of WWI.

Consequently, a cousin for Billy surfaced. He would experience these negative emotions and be a psychological bully to make Billy’s life a misery. I made him artistic and physically frail. However, this Kenneth would need to be a charmer for the adults to be blind to the bullying.

Now I had a theme for my novel: the feelings and tensions in Europe (macro scale) would be mirrored in micro by the two cousins in their developing rivalry.  Billy then needed a secret symbol of power to support him. I hit upon a Cossack sabre, that then needed a background story of its own. This led me to research the Russian/Germanic conflict at the start of WWI. I realised that the sabre icon would need to filter right through the story.

I am not recommending this approach to writing, just showing how a novel can unfold as the narrative continues, and in this case, it was a trilogy that emerged.

Remedies

Ideally, have a writing plan. There are loads of HowTos on Amazon. Don’t risk half-baked advice from ebooks. Some may be good, but play safe.  A good book is Diana Doubtfire’s classic writers’ guide a paperback you may get cheap as it’s been around some years.   

Are you are you an inveterate pantser? Then buy Scrivener and let it organise you. See my last post.

(I first wrote on this subject for the ALLi blog)

In Writing: hidden undercurrent

 

hidden undercurrent
What lies beneath

Writers’ undercurrents: in the novel you’ve just read — or in your own writing?

Sometimes it’s only after finishing a novel that you become aware of its undercurrent.  For instance, in Dead Water (Simon Ings) the fast paced plot involves the protagonist in a deadly international chase after an evil target; but the undercurrent is the dangerous potential of shipping containers which cruise the globe; an understandable preoccupation.

You may be more unaware of hidden undercurrents in your own novels.  After a while without reading your work again, consider what you’ve actually ‘said’. It may be a romance or a crime story, but what you have allowed to happen in the plot, or between the characters – such as unexpected capitulation –  or within the protagonist him/herself, can suggest unspoken drives or attitudes in your writing.

Even when there’s a distinct variety in the subject matter, authors may unconsciously repeat themes that have marked their lives.

Take two important writers Kasuo Ishiguro and Elif Safak. In 2015 they happened both to be speaking at the Bath Literary Festival, but on separate days, and were probably unlikely to have conferred. However, both authors had a ‘burying’ undercurrent in their novels.

buried
Fons Heijnsbroek

Ishiguro’s first novel for ten years, The Buried Giant, is a fantasy. Its fantastic beings form the plot but the ‘buried’ in his title refers obliquely to the human tendency for suppressing memories about painful matters. Ishiguro suggested all his novels had an underflow of this unspoken, part-forgotten material.

Talking of The Architect’s Apprentice, Shafak referred to the ‘collective amnesia’ of Turkey, saying so much has been suppressed. Sadly, historic artefacts are not being preserved perhaps because, then, uncomfortable events in history are more easily ignored; the role of the woman, the existence of minorities.

Shafak said that there is little urban memory:  residents do not know the origin of their street names, for instance, and are not encouraged to ask questions or to care about the past. She mourns the loss of cosmopolitanism in Turkey. The variety of cultures, nations, sub-groups is precious and stimulates creativity.

This strong feeling about burying discomforting events and feelings, drives these authors’ writing; the undercurrent enriches the work. What undercurrent can be detected from your writing?