Wednesday, June 08, 2011


“What comes first, character or plot? And do either of them take on a life of their own, so a story veers off in an unexpected direction, or characters say and do unexpected things? And how do you keep track of everything and everyone, so runaway bride way back on page 10....?" 

(That's Elle from Tempted By Trouble, btw!)

As with my earlier post on openings, there is no single answer to this question.  It isn’t even a one author/one method solution.  The genesis for each story is different.  And sometimes, I have to admit, it would be hard to pin down exactly where is came from.  A few, though, are absolutely clear.

Maybe, because inevitably it had a long gestation, I know exactly where the ideas for my first book came from.  It started with location.  Africa.  More specifically a safari camp I’d visited many times when we lived in Kenya.  Add to that a Clive James/Patrick Lichfield documentary about shooting photographs for a motor parts company calendar.  Add in a feminist demonstration at a Miss World competition and you have the background.  And from that, inevitably, I had a photographer hero and a feminist heroine. Plot took longer.  It started out as a revenge book, but the editor who picked it up didn't think the conflict would carry the book and asked me to think again.  Same characters, same location, but it became an "oh heck, I don't want to be here, or at least not with HIM because the last time we met...well, I don't want to think about that" book.  It was mostly about the growth of the heroine - because back then the book was totally in her viewpoint.

Another instance is very clear to me.  I was driving with my husband through Gloucestershire when I saw a small manor house high up in woodland.  We all know the phrase “Who would live in a house like this?”  Writer's instinct suggested a grumpy recluse.  And I could see my heroine pulling the old-fashioned door pull and said grumpy recluse answering the door - grumpily, but nothing else.

It was a couple of years later when my editor mentioned that the perfect title would be “The Bachelor, The Bride and the Baby.”  Every hook in the book.  And there is was, the conflict.  My heroine, tugging at the doorbell, was days from her wedding, the bachelor who opened the door - carrying a baby - is expecting her aunt, his old nanny.  She's been bamboozled.  He just wants to hand over the baby.  The best laid plans...  By then, the “perfect” title had been snapped up and mine became THE BRIDE, THE BABY AND THE BEST MAN.

Occasionally, an idea comes from Editorial who decide to run a mini series.  Marriage of  Convenience, Runaway Bride, What Women Want editor had a list of ideas for that one including "being thin" which I thought was pathetic. But then I saw this plump, lovely girl, hiding away, heartbroken by a louse needing to stand by her lovely thin sister on her wedding day. Celebrities, a Hugh Grant-type actor as best man and well, The Bridesmaid's Reward (or the one with chocolate as it became known) was nominated for the RNA Romance Prize.).  It was the character that led all the way on that one.

Baby on Board, High Society Brides and, most recently, Escape Around the World are other themes.  That one gave me the chance to return to Africa and the Botswana book I'd been itching to write.  It wasn't just the setting, though, I already had a character in search of a story, a secondary character from THE BRIDE’S BABY. You don’t have to be a published author for that method to work for you btw.  You can use any mini series title for inspiration.  In fact it’s probably a very good idea since they have a built in hook and editors love a good hook (I refer you to the Bride, Baby and Bachelor scenario!)

One of my favourite ways to build a story is with a character I already know.  Like Josie, in A WEDDING AT LEOPARD TREE LODGE, Amy and Jake in THE BACHELOR’S BABY, Veronica and Fergus in A SUITABLE GROOM (my editor said any woman with that much “cool” deserved a book of her own), had all played their part for other characters.  Sophie had appeared in two earlier books before she was given her own happy ending in A SURPRISE CHRISTMAS PROPOSAL.  When you know your character, all you have to do is put her in a situation where she’s out of her depth, struggling.  (When I say “all”, I’m leaving you to fill in the hollow laughter.)  But that's the same with every book.  Take an ordinary girl and put her into a extra ordinary situation. Remove her props - what they are will depend on who she is - and send her out into uncharted territory.

Then there’s the book that it’s impossible to pin down.  It grows out of a throwaway line in a soap opera.  A memory.  A photograph in a magazine.  Something your mother said thirty years ago (in my case it was a friend who had three daughters all with the same initial letter in their names... "That'll cause trouble when they're older..." muttered my mother - godmother to the youngest.  A tiny spark that just grows into character.   A story that seems to spin, like magic, out of thin air.  And I’m sorry, I don’t know how to make that happen, except by reading, watching, absorbing everything you hear and see.  Filling the well.

The important thing to remember about all of these “starters” is that an idea is not a plot, a setting is merely background, that romantic fiction is character led.  Not cardboard cut out characters that you move across the landscape — if you find yourself wondering what you can make them do next, you are in deep trouble — but real people with a solid, heart-wrenching conflict keeping them apart.  The emotion must be deep, sincerely felt.  The reader has to understand why they resist, empathise with them, weep with them, long for their happy ever after.

Did I say there was more than one answer to this question.  Wrong.  While a place may inspire an idea, it is character that leads the way.  I could have set my Kenya book anywhere - I saw a second Clive James/Patrick Lichfield photoshoot documentary and it was set in Moscow in mid-winter.  Those poor naked girls!  And while Botswana lent an added extra dimension to A Wedding at Leopard Tree Lodge, I could have written that story set in a stately home or castle in the UK and the setting would still have been spectacular.

And how can you have a plot if you don't have a character?  You can have hook - ordinary princess, abandoned baby, but it's what the heroine (and the hero) do when challenged that makes it a story. 

I’ll get to the second part of that question next time.    



Jessica Hart said...

Thanks for a really interesting post, Liz. I love hearing how authors come up with ideas! And I am SO envious of your titles, especially TEMPTED BY TROUBLE - sounds like fun before you even read the blurb!

trossachs trundler said...

This is so much help.It lets me know, I do get on the right track occasionally! Titles can grab you by the throat, and make you think I want to read that- or hmm doesn't sound very good, so hearing all this is great. Likewise ideas. I've one simmering about the cabin crew gut we had on a recent flight....
One day, I'll hopefully say.......

trossachs trundler said...

er GUY ...... no gut on him at all !

Vince said...

Hi Liz:

When I first saw the picture of Elle above, I thought it was the Mona Lisa with makeup! Really: the high forehead, the part, the smile, the hair, the cut, the coloring, the lips, the cheeks, the dress. Is there an archetype here, do you think? Squint your eyes and ‘see’.

I don’t believe you could move “A WEDDING AT LEOPARD TREE LODGE” to some old castle in Scotland and have the same story. Don’t even think it!

If Alexander McCall Smith moves his Botswana ‘number one Lady detective stories’ to Inverness, I’m not going to read them!


Liz Fielding said...

You're right, Vince, it wouldn't e the same story, in a Scottish Castle but it would have been just as much fun!

And yes, I see the Mona Lisa likeness. Clever of you to spot it!

Liz Fielding said...

Thanks, Jessica. I do love that title - it's just perfect!

Liz Fielding said...

The cabin gut - I was thinking everyone struck down by food poisoning and that famous "is there a pilot on board" announcement!

Always great to see a fabulous bod to inspire you. I once followed a bloke around the supermarket making mental notes...

Good luck with the writing!

trossachs trundler said...

Thanks for your good luck. One day I will suceed.
oops the guy with no gut ...... Actually, he's going to be gay!! SORRY.

Anonymous said...

Characters and plot? You make it sound so easy, Liz. Thanks for sharing some of your secrets.

I wonder, do you always work from a photograph of your main characters?

ChrisCross said...

Thank you. That was a fascinating insight into the way ideas germinate into a novel. Somehow I envisaged it being highly organised, but you make it sound a much more organic process (which is far nicer)... like a soup, simmering away, with things bubbling to the surface now and again, crashing into each other, and sinking back down, until you add a pinch of spice, or a magical new ingredient, and the brew is transformed into a unified whole...

Liz Fielding said...

Trossachs :) Don't apologise - I'm sure he's happy!

Liz Fielding said...

Gail - I'm glad I made is sound easy. Sometimes, as with The Bride, the Baby and the Best Man it takes years - and the right shot of fertiliser - for the seed to germinate.

I don't always work to photographs. I'm always on the look out for likely faces, but I have to admit that I thought of Rachel Weisz when I was looking for an image for Elle to put on my blog. She is absolutely perfect, though!

Liz Fielding said...

Chris, lovely way of expressing the combination of ingredients. Like my cooking, my writing tends to be surrounded by chaos!

Vince said...

Hi Liz:

What was your first book and is it available as an eBook? If not, what is your earliest book that is available as an eBook? I’d love to see how much layering you did in your first books. I'll read the first and then the latest. The difference should be a real learning experience. ARC.


P.S. While Scotland would be fun, Sienna would be funner. It’s time for Italy!

Alexandra said...

It's always fascinating to see how others get started with their stories. My stories always start with a couple of characters and a situation. I rarely plot, usually working from a vague idea of where the story is going. I don't know if that is what is called being a 'pantser' or just not having a clue! It certainly complicates things. :o)

Nas Dean said...

Hi Liz,

Thanks for sharing a great post!

Liz Fielding said...

Hi Vince

Tried to do this last night but blogger wasn't co-operating. My first book was An Image of You but it's not an eBook sadly.

The earliest were published around 2001 - you have His Runaway Bride, but there was also (this was a big year!)a trilogy - The Corporate Bridegroom, The Marriage Merger and The Tycoon's Takeover (Rita nominated) - Her Ideal Husband, The Bachelor's Baby (Rita nominated) and Baby on Loan. I think you might like The Bridesmaid's Reward which was 2003, I think.

And I loved writing about Italy. Maybe next time I could revisit Puccini's lakeside village and Lucca? :)

Liz Fielding said...

Alexander, that's definitely being a pantster - flying into the mist. Scary but a great adventure! Good luck!

Liz Fielding said...


AMS couldn't move Precious because her character and place are totally combined. But wouldn't you just love to see her in Edinburgh?

Do you read his Scottish set books?

Vince said...

Hi Liz:

With a title like, “The Sunday Philosophy Club”, of course I read the stories set in Scotland. I was in love with Isabel Dalhousie and then she had to go and marry this young man! He was perfect for her but I would have been better. : )

When I’m not reading Hamish Macbeth, I’m reading AMS. I just love M. C. Beaton. She was a wonderful Regency Romance writer as Marion Chesney. Her plots were so complicated and compact that she could write a 300 page book in 150 pages. She loved plot so much that I always thought she should just write mysteries. Well, now she is one of the best selling mystery writers in England. She uses her Regency social observations to do the same thing for the Scottish villagers.

Did you know that the lady who writes the Italian Blog for Transparent Language lives in Lucca? Her name is Serena and her posts could give you lots a useful ideas for a story set in Italy.

I’d like to see Precious win an award and have to go to Scotland to receive it. But I would not want her to live there.

Serena can even set you up in a B&B she helps her good friend run in the summer. They will treat you like family. Well, maybe better. : )


Liz Fielding said...

I thought you probably enjoyed the Scottish books, Vince.

And yes, Precious as a visitor in Edinburgh. Her social observations would be a joy and, of course, she would meet Isabel. :)

Thank you so much for the link to Serena's blog. I have visited Lucca, but it was a long time ago and of course one of my favourite fictional detectives, Aurelio Zen settled there.

I loved Hamish MacBeth on the television but haven't read the books. I only read one Agatha Raisin and confess I hated her and I hated the book - she was acting like a lovestruck teenager; no doubt excellent observation of the type but very unattractive! I am listening to an adaptation on the radio which is much more appealing. Maybe I just started with the wrong book - please don't ask me what it was called!

Vince said...

Hi Liz:

I think we are alike on Agatha.

My brother likes reading the books I read, except romances, and I turned him on to Hamish Macbeth and now he has read them all. He loves Agatha Raisin too and I can’t stand her. My wife also loves her. My brother says, “read some more of them. She’ll grow on you.” I don’t think so. I look at every Agatha Raisin novel as one less Hamish Macbeth novel that will see the light of day. (I guess you are blessed if you like both series.)

I’ve never seen a BBC Hamish episode so I can’t compare one to the books but the writing style is short and sweet.

I like Zen but Dibdin is very heavy. I feel like I’m working when I read him. I much prefer Donna Leon’s Venice mysteries.

BTW: I talked to three authors at a book signing and one of them said she was getting her rights back on her first books and she is going to put them out as eBooks herself. The other two are looking into it.


Liz Fielding said...

Whew - glad it isn't just me then. I always feel I must be missing something when I don't a character that so many seem to love.

Hamish MacBeth was played by terrific Scottish actor Robert Carlyle - it was a while ago, but is available on DVD.

Michael Dibden is not an easy read, granted. Zen is a complicated character and the stories do not flow easily from one to the next and each one tends to be quite different - unlike a series about one copper. You have to fill in a lot of the gaps yourself when it comes to his personal life. I've read them all, though, and enjoyed them immensely. I'm a huge fan of Donna Leon, too.

I'm working on the proofs of Flirting With Italian at the moment. The copy editor has changed all my signoras to signorinas. Sigh.

Vince said...

Hi Liz:

You wrote: "The copy editor has changed all my signoras to signorinas." I hope they were all single to start with.


Liz Fielding said...

They were single, Vince, but not ingenue, so they're signoras. At least according to my word of mouth source in Italy. Oh, and Michael Dibden.