In this series of posts, I’m going to be taking you behind the scenes of Greythorne and the process I went through to write it. Click to read Part 1 (The Idea), Part 2 (Plot and Structure) and Part 3 (Setting).

I wrote in my earlier post on plot and structure about ‘architects and gardeners’ – those who like to plan out the whole structure of the book and see where everything is going to go, versus those who just plant a seed and see what grows. As I mentioned, previously I’ve produced in-depth character studies for my books, but this time I just took the four main characters – Nell, the Professor, Sophie and Lucy – and decided to see how they turned out.

The results from the first couple of drafts were mixed. Nell (who is the first-person narrator) had started to develop a strong voice, but was sometimes inconsistent, and the Professor was quite two-dimensional and risked becoming a bit of a caricature villain – what I like to think of as a ‘moustache-twirler’. Both of these things were pointed out by my beta readers, who read the second draft (more on that in Part 6 – Editing), so when I was doing the revisions for draft three, I sat down and did character studies for Nell and the Professor. The template for this came out of James Scott Bell’s Revision & Self-Editing, which is part of the Write Great Fiction series and which I swear by.  These are the questions I asked about Nell.

Personal problem:
Plot problem:
Risk (what she will potentially lose if she doesn’t achieve her objective):
Main positive traits:
Main negative traits:
Moral quandary:
Reasons not to act honourably:
Adhesive between Nell and Professor:

The questions I asked about the Professor were very similar, but I also gave him around 1500 words of backstory, because it was clear that I didn’t really understand who he was or where he came from. Once I’d figured this out, I was able to give him a lot more depth and, hopefully, make him a bit more sympathetic, because a completely blackhearted villain isn’t in fact very interesting. One of the most important things I learned in this process is that characters need to have yin and yang to make them believable – even the most likeable heroine needs the capacity for moral ambiguity, and the worst villain still requires a sympathetic streak. Above all, they need motivation, for if you can’t explain why they’re doing what they’re doing then you’ve got a massive plot hole.

In the (Australian) summer after I wrote the first draft, I spent a week at an artists’ retreat in Tasmania. There, I collaborated with a good friend, Pamela Horsely, who is a talented portrait painter – I gave her a 400-word description of the Professor, and in 24 hours she’d produced a portrait of him. She captured him exactly as I’d envisaged him, and really brought him to life. She very kindly gave me the picture afterwards, and he now hangs on the wall of my study. There’s nothing quite like seeing your character in the ‘flesh’ to bring a book to life.

Professor Nathaniel Greythorne by Pamela Horsely
Professor Nathaniel Greythorne by Pamela Horsely

 

In this series of posts, I’m going to be taking you behind the scenes of Greythorne and the process I went through to write it. Click to read Part 1 (The Idea) and Part 2 (Plot and Structure).

Like most Gothic novels, setting is crucial to Greythorne. Whether it’s an isolated, spooky old house (in traditional Gothic) or the threatening emptiness of the landscape (in Australian Gothic, which I’m planning to explore in my next novel), the place is as much a character as the people are.

I made a deliberate choice to keep the setting of Greythorne extremely tight – almost claustrophobic. All the action, apart from Nell’s initial journey and the epilogue, takes place in either Greythorne Manor or the nearby village of Grimly. I was inspired in part by memories of a long-ago trip to the north of England, but more by my reading of nineteenth-century novels (either those written at the time or published later and set there). I have a long-held fascination with the late nineteenth century – the Victorian/Edwardian eras – which was a time of great technological and social change, and I’m particularly interested in the stories of women, who tend to be written out of a lot of the history and fiction of the time. When I first conceived of Greythorne, I thought of it as a horror story, but it really isn’t – it’s a Gothic suspense in the tradition of Victorian popular fiction, such as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Frankenstein, Jane Eyre and Dracula, and it actually takes much of its inspiration from adventure writers such as Robert Louis Stevenson and Jules Verne.

The village of Grimly was inspired by J. Meade Falkner’s 1898 tale of smugglers, Moonfleet, and my character Arthur Greenslade’s observation that “This here were once a favored spot for smugglers dodging the Revenue men,” is my little tribute to that book.

I have a very clear picture in my head of what Grimly looks like, and I can only hope that’s translated onto the page. When I was writing the first draft, I scribbled a rough map to help me visualise the area and where the major locations were.

My rough map of the Grimly area, with the station, railway line, village, bay and Greythorne Manor (island).
My rough map of the Grimly area, with the station, railway line, village, bay and Greythorne Manor (island).

Likewise, I did a (very) rough sketch of what I thought Greythorne Manor would look like – by which you can tell I’m definitely not a visual artist.

A very rough exterior sketch of Greythorne Manor.
A very rough exterior sketch of Greythorne Manor.

I also sketched out the interior to try to orient myself a bit better, but even so,  the copy-editor pointed out that a rectangular house doesn’t have wings – which required a bit of revision (see my post on the usefulness of copy-editors here). I spent a lot of time looking at the floor plans of old manor houses (how did people do research before the internet?) and reading about the structure and function of Victorian households.

A rough floor plan of Greythorne Manor.
A rough floor plan of Greythorne Manor.

Greythorne‘s setting also gave me the chance to try out some really sensory writing – it’s a place so rich in smells and sounds and even the tangy taste of the salt air that I had a wonderful time describing it. No doubt your visualisation of it will be very different to mine, but I hope it stirs your blood the way it does Nell’s.

In this series of posts, I’m going to be taking you behind the scenes of Greythorne and the process I went through to write it. Part 1 looked at the development of the original idea.

When I tell them I’m a writer, a lot of people respond with “Oh, I often think I’ve got a book in me!” The crucial difference, however, between an author and someone who has a book in them is this next part of the writing process – the author is able to figure out how to get the book out of them and onto the page.

Exactly how you do that is a very personal thing. Some people like to know who they’re writing about before they decide what they’re writing about – so they start with characters. Personally, although I need at least a rough understanding of my main characters, I like to start with plot.

How-to-write books often divide people into ‘plotters and pantsers’ – those who like to outline every detail before they start, and those who would rather just fly by the seat of their pants and see where they end up.  George R.R. Martin famously described this far more eloquently, noting that writers are either ‘architects or gardeners’:

“I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows. And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.”

I used to be an ‘architect’ (or a ‘plotter’ – though that sounds far more sinister).  In my early novels (which were never finished, let alone published) I plotted things out obsessively – at one point even writing 10,000 words of character studies. These were mostly fantasy stories, and world-building obviously requires a lot of work behind it, but it turned out to be counterproductive, because by the time I got round to actually writing I found I’d run out of steam.

So when Greythorne came along I decided it would be a chance to try something different – I was going to start with a very rough outline of the major plot points, but from then on I’d ‘pants’ it and just see how it went.  And, oddly enough, it worked. The novel turned into a standard three-act adventure structure (which I’ll discuss more in Part 6 – Editing when I deal with the issue of saggy middles) without me even needing to think about it that much. Having the major ‘way-points’ to aim for kept me on the right track, but I also had enough freedom to explore the characters and the world without being tied down too tightly. So I’ve discovered that I’m not really an architect or a gardener, but more like a conservatory builder – the best of both worlds.

In this series of posts, I’m going to be taking you behind the scenes of Greythorne and the process I went through to write it.

One of the most common question writers get asked is where our ideas come from, and to be honest, I wish I knew! Generally, story ideas creep up on me slowly – they might start with the name of a character, who gradually gets a story, or I might get inspired by a place I visit or something that happens. Sometimes I’ll be turning something over for months or even years before it makes it to the page. The idea for my next novel (which I’ll be blogging about as I start writing it in November) has been like that – a slow-burn that started with a ‘what if’ question then gradually grew from there. Someone once described this process as a bit like archaeology – you start by uncovering one small fragment, then another, then another, and eventually you have something with a recognisable shape and form. It can be a slow, laborious and sometimes disheartening process, when you’re not sure if what you’ve got is a never-before-seen fossil whose discovery will change the world, or the leftover bones from someone’s barbeque.

Having been through this process a number of times, I’ve always scoffed a little at the authors who claim their story – or worse, an entire series – just landed on them fully formed (I’m talking about you, J.K. Rowling). Or at least, I did – until it happened to me.

I was home from work sick one day, lying in bed reading Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, when I dozed off. Something must have been going on in my subconscious, because when I woke up I had a fully-formed story in my head – including the main characters and a rough plot outline. I scribbled it all down in the notebook I carry around with me and Greythorne was born – or at least had begun its gestation.

The first page of my original notes on Greythorne (I've omitted the second page because of spoilers).
The first page of my original notes on Greythorne (I’ve omitted the second page because of spoilers).

That said, what was in that notebook bears only a passing resemblance to the final story. The major ideas and most of the major plot points are the same, but it’s a long way from a rough outline to a finished book. In Part 2, I’ll be looking at plot and structure – the first step in turning an idea into a novel.