Writing 101: How To Begin Your Novel

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a first chapter is worth an entire book. The first chapter of any novel is everything – the set-up for the story, a dramatic entrance, and the selling point. If your first chapter doesn’t appeal to someone, they won’t bother with the rest of the book. Obviously there are always books you pick up and don’t like the first chapter to. It doesn’t necessarily mean it was a bad chapter, it may just mean the book isn’t for you. But we’re aiming for the people who are the target market to fall in love with your beginning, right?

Make lots of notes before you actually start writing out your first book chapter. Source: Public Domain; Wikimedia Commons

How To Start

The very first sentence is the beginning of the beginning, and the ultimate tool at a writer’s disposal to hook people in. I did a post a while back about my personal favourite opening sentences and how to do a good one yourself, and you can take a look for some inspiration. I’m not going to repeat everything here, as I did a ton of rambling words on that post, hehe, but I’ll pinpoint the important things to remember here:

  • Go straight into the action. Don’t hesitate or worry about whether the story is clear at this point. An opening sentence is not about that. It’s about throwing yourself in, a bit like catching the middle part of an interesting conversation when you come around the corner.
  • Short and sweet is the key. Try not to use more than two commas in there, and think ‘snappier, the better’. I’m not saying don’t use a longer sentence, if it fits the bill (this especially applies to historicals and science-fiction). But we all know how much drama and impact a single word, or just a few words can have. Use that impact.
  • Think about what would catch your attention. Does your sentence do that? Imagine that sentence, and just that sentence are on a billboard. Would you stop to see what it was about?
Can you see your opening sentence on here? Does it make you want to stop and read more? Source: Public Domain; Wikimedia Commons

Can you see your opening sentence on here? Does it make you want to stop and read more? Source: Public Domain; Wikimedia Commons

How To Carry On

Okay, so we’ve got a strong opener, now what? Don’t let it fizzle out, but don’t rush everything, either. Draw the intro out, draw the reader in. But drop hints of the action or events to come (hopefully in the second or third chapters). A little bit of foreshadowing is okay, as long as you don’t hit your reader over the head with it! If you started your opening sentence as a part of someone’s speech, have it end in an argument. If the action started in a bar, why not have it end in a bar brawl and a crash where the main character becomes a reaper…okay, that’s a shameless plug for Reaper’s Deliverance. 😛 But you get the idea. The point is, pull the reader in by introducing your world slowly, but keep them there by blowing something up, or making enemies of two characters – or anything else that works.

  • Think of fishing – keep it slow for the intro, then speed things up. Make it comfy for the reader to settle in, then glue them to the chair so they can’t leave.
  • Foreshadowing is okay, but don’t overdo it.
  • Keep everything flowing at a steady pace.
You've got them! He'll be reading that for hours, now. Source: Randi Hausken, 2009 under a Creative Commons Licence, Wikimedia Commons

You’ve got them! He’ll be reading that for hours, now. Source: Randi Hausken, 2009 under a Creative Commons Licence, Wikimedia Commons

How To Finish Up

You’ve got the perfect opener, and you’ve drawn your reader in nicely. Now how do you keep them reading through the next several chapters? The end of the first chapter is often the weakest point, overlooked after so much care has gone into the rest of it. You have to keep a steady pace, otherwise your reader may go into the second chapter, and put the book down. For good. *horrified stare* So how to end it? The best (and classic way) is with that favourite – the cliff-hanger. They’re not just for the end of a book! Putting a cliff-hanger (or a ‘semi-cliff-hanger’, as I call them when it’s for a chapter) can be a great way to keep the excitement flowing. Did that argument end up in two friends becoming enemies? What are the consequences of that? Did they work together, and one of them fired the other? Are they a couple who have broken up? What if the chapter opened with a scene of action, maybe a person on the run from the law, or some dystopian police? Have they found themselves cornered? Lost their way? Been grabbed by an unknown person? End the chapter with another question, one where the answer will appear over the second chapter.

But there are other ways, too. How about revealing an early twist? This can be a good tactic in a murder mystery or thriller, for example. Perhaps the reader knows who the killer is from the first chapter? Or perhaps they see the scene through the killer’s eyes, but don’t know who they are yet? Putting a good twist so early in can also make sure the pages keep flipping over, to see what catastrophes or happiness come from it.

 

So, that’s a few tips I try to use myself – what about you guys? What tips can you add to making a great first chapter? Do you agree or disagree with the tips here? Let me know in the comments below, I love to know what you guys think! 😉

 

Other Sources of Tips

This lady has a TON of great advice, and puts a lot of stuff across that I haven’t touched on here – even offers a different point of view on some stuff. Well worth a watch (and a bit of note-taking). 🙂

 

And if you’re looking for some help on doing the synopsis (I like to do mine before I start the book, maybe you do too!), you can check out my Hubpage on the subject here. As always, my ideas are subjective, but see if it helps if you’re stuck in a rut for how to do it. 🙂

A How-To Guide For Writing The Perfect Book Synopsis

To Be Or Not To Be…That Is The Research

My last post was all about how writing about historical characters can actually improve your writing, just by their being real. This time, I’m considering how research can help flesh them out so that they’re not only realistic, but realistic for their own time. 

Stanwick Fortifications - it's not the best picture, but it was evening, raining, and my good camera wasn't charged. :)

Stanwick Fortifications – it’s not the best picture, but it was evening, raining, and my good camera wasn’t charged. 🙂 (© Miranda Stork 2015)

A few of you might know that I’m not only writing at the moment, but also doing a History/Classics degree. We’re currently doing the Odyssey, (which is an amazing epic poem, by the way) and part of what we’re doing with it is looking at how Homer may have put the ideas and culture of his own time (known as the Greek ‘Dark Age’, roughly 1200 – 800 BCE) into the poem, which is set in the Greek Bronze Age, quite a long time past when the epic was written! But it’s not an uncommon thing, to put your own ideas about things into the past. It’s the reason we get so angry when we read about injustices of the past, even though it was commonplace at the time, or get surprised when we hear about something we didn’t expect. And in five-hundred years or so, people will make assumptions about us, too, as well as generalisations. I don’t like to think about the negative things that will be remembered over the good things, but hopefully some of our culture will be preserved in ways they didn’t have even a century ago.

But getting back to the point…it’s something I know I have to watch out for in Daughters of Brigitania. Reading back over what I’ve done so far, considering I’ve still got a third or so to write, and it’s unedited, I can already see problems – mostly with speech. No, I haven’t got them saying things like ‘See you ’round’, I’m not that daft! Haha. But in some places, it feels a little too ‘modern’, and in others, they sound Shakespearean – which is closer, but it’s still not right. I can do research to find out how the ancient Britons looked, where they lived, what events they took part in…but how do I find out how they spoke? It’s made doubly hard by the fact that we don’t even know what language they spoke, even though there are modern descendants of it such as Welsh. Lucky for me, the period I’m writing about at least includes the Romans.

The amazing Vindolanda museum from the air. (© The Vindolanda Trust, 2014)

And there is a few ways to see how the Romans spoke. A few months back I went to the awesome Vindolanda museum, not far from where I live. (If you like in the UK, or you’re going to visit, and you love anything Roman, GO. It is a fabulous museum, and they have a live archaeological dig all year ’round). One of their biggest exhibits are the so-called ‘Vindolanda Tablets‘. These are a series of documents written down by Romans on thin wooden slices with ink, and cover a multitude of subjects, from shopping lists and writing exercises, to military documents and letters home to mum – there’s even an invitation to a birthday party. Seriously, take a look at them, they’re fascinating. But as a writer, aside from the excitement of seeing early writing, they are a look at how Romans spoke. When we write, we essentially put down the words we’re thinking in our heads, in the pattern of how we speak.

Look at them! I get very History-Geek Girl about these little bits of writing.

Look at them! I get very History-Geek Girl about these little bits of writing. (© The Vindolanda Trust, 2014)

As part of my degree, I recently learnt a bit of Welsh, too, and that helped with the pattern of how that language works – as well as a little ‘Cumbraek‘, another dead language from the same family that was spoken in my part of the country. By combining this with the Latin spoken by the Roman invaders/visitors, I can start to compile something which gives a hint not only of the patterns in which people spoke, but also any slang they may have used, contractions, and that sort of thing. It gives me a basis to work from, a framework of a language that will (hopefully!) give a flavour of actually being there with the ancient Britons. Having said this, there’s always going to be a little of my own impressions put in there, and I can’t avoid that totally, as it is being written in English.

So maybe I get a little bit of what Homer what aiming for with the Odyssey. A flavour of the old world, with some understanding from the present. But hopefully, I’ll get somewhere closer to the past to really transport people there – I’ll post up a teaser soon so you guys can judge for yourselves!

 

What are your thoughts? Do you think it’s possible to completely detract from modern ideas and culture in a historical novel, or is it inevitable that it will happen anyway? As always, leave your comment below, I’d love to know your thoughts! 🙂

Historical Characters in Fiction: To Exist or Not To Exist?

 

Caractacus, King of the Silures, delivered up to Ostorius, the Roman General, by Cartimandua, Queen of the Brigantes - print by F. Bartolozzi, British Museum

Caractacus, King of the Silures, delivered up to Ostorius, the Roman General, by Cartimandua, Queen of the Brigantes – print by F. Bartolozzi, British Museum

At the moment, somewhere inbetween using Nanowrimo to finish my paranormal novel and knitting small white and red stocking decorations for Christmas, I’m also writing my first historical novel, Daughters of Brigitania, that will (eventually!) be under the pen-name ‘Miranda Christon’. It’s going well, but I’ve found that, compared to the paranormal novels I put out, it’s going really well.

This isn’t me boasting, by the way. I’m just amazed at how much easier it flows. I don’t know if this has anything to do with the paranormal genre being something of a fluke/phase for me, and I’m supposed to be writing historical novels, but I suspect it also has something to do with the fact that the characters within the book (with some exceptions) actually existed. All other characters I’ve used in any book might hold traits of people I know, or actually be very similar to someone I’ve met, but they’re nowhere near real. Whereas with the historical characters, even if I have to use a bit of creative interpretation in their conversations and movements, there is also a solid basis to use for their character, their essence.

And sometimes it isn’t a lot to base them on, either. Take Cartimandua, one of my main characters. She was a client queen of Rome when they invaded Britain, and ruler of the Brigantes, the ancient British tribe who pretty much cornered the market on owning northern land in what is now England. All we know of her is literally summed up in two paragraphs, written by the Roman historian Tacitus, about 50 – 100 years after the events of her reign actually occurred. He’s pretty damning about her (as he is about Cleopatra, and I suspect, though I haven’t read his Annals and Histories cover to cover, about a few other women in charge as well. He didn’t seem to like the idea much). I’m also studying history at the moment, and the first thing we learn is that one source does not a conclusion make – in other words, he is putting his own spin on things. This makes the two paragraphs which are our only source for her life, pretty weak in terms of saying, “Yeah, this is how she was and when stuff happened. Fact.” But nevertheless, she did exist, she was a ruler of the Brigantes tribe, and she did exist in what is now the north of England.

As I’m writing, this does give me a certain basis to work from. By knowing what events occurred during her life, however accurate the times might be, I have a ready-made framework from which to pad out her story. I try to put myself in the mindset of an Iron Age ruler (because we’ve all been there, right? Ha, ha), and work out why those events happened. What other real-life events took place at that time? Who else was around her? What external events may have forced her hand in some situations? But then it also comes down to my own personal opinion, which I feel does have a bearing on how I’m going to portray her. I’m trying to be fair and balanced, but I’m wary of falling into the same trap as Tacitus did – for practically the opposite reasons – and creating a woman that I’m wholly sympathetic to without offering bias. But being able to refer back to the real-life events, historical knowledge from that time, and the little we know of how Roman writers thought, it’s possible to reconstruct something fair and balanced that helps with the writing. I’ve found this means there’s something gritty and permanent about the story once all of this is included, something that – in my humble opinion – doesn’t exist in a purely fictional novel. Because no matter how many people a fictional character is made up of, there’s nothing truly rooting that character down. And the ‘real, existing character’ doesn’t just apply to historical novels, of course.

So to go back to the original question – does writing about a historical person who actually existed make the writing easier? Yes, I believe it does. Because there’s a root for them, a template that writers can refer back to. We also have the indulgence of hindsight, and that allows us to look back over their decisions, and try to work out why they did such-and-such a thing. If it’s a fictional character, often this gets applied backwards. We want them to do a certain event, or make a certain situation happen, so we have to invent decisions for them that will fit. Real life doesn’t always include decisions that fit neatly, so this is – my hand firmly held in the air – something that can be worked into a purely fictional novel to create a story that is more realistic, I imagine. The reason I think this is that the method of working with hindsight for Cartimandua’s decisions is rubbing off on the characters I’ve invented around her, as well. (If I went with just those we know of, she would rule a tribe of three people, and that’s just silly). Because of her ‘real-life’ decisions, the invented characters suddenly also have a framework to work backwards from, like a vine gripping to a parent plant. When a situation happens that was unexpected, they have to change their plans. “Alrighty, then,” they say. “I guess we’ll put the pub crawl on ice, for now. The Romans are attacking. Drat.” Or something Iron Age-y.

So yes, having historical characters who actually existed doesn’t just make the writing better for them, it also applies to all the fictional characters around them. Mostly because a lot of the decisions made in real life throughout history would make a fictional book seem ‘implausible’, sometimes. So I’m going to try this with my paranormal stuff – I’ll make decisions for the characters, and they’re just going to have to work around it. Sod ’em.

 

Do you agree, or disagree with the idea of real-life characters having a better basis for writing? Can it be applied to purely fictional characters? Let me know what you think in the comments below, it’s always great to see what everyone thinks. 🙂