Failure to Plan

My other half, who has worked for a mega multi-national organisation for more years than is good for him, is fluent in corporate speak. One of his favourites is failure to plan is planning to fail – a little gem about time-management, something which has never been my forte.

My WIP (work in progress) is currently zooming along at high speed but in a very haphazard fashion. This is because I’m a “pantser” – when it comes to writing I fly by the seat of my pants and I make my stories up as I go along – as opposed to a plotter who researches and constructs their novel – chapter by chapter in some cases – before starting.  

A first draft is allowed to be messy, it’s where you write down all your ideas and don’t worry too much about the finer details. However, a plotter will have a plan, while a pantser is constantly going back to join the dots to make their story work.

I can totally understand the need for some prior research if you’re writing a historical novel. I write contemporary fiction and look up my ‘facts’ as I go along. However, not having a cohesive plan does have its drawbacks when it comes to consistency or when a fact no longer fits the plotline. For example, at the very start of my WIP my heroine is attending an event which could only take place in the summer.  Several chapters in I mention something that implies we are in winter – so now I either have to find an alternative event or put her in the southern hemisphere to solve the problem of what she is doing, but there again she has to nip back to the UK pretty swiftly to deal with the initial point of change – the dilemma which sets the story off – so I have to delete the wintery weather, which then has other implications as the story progresses….

Of course a plotter would have little details like this sorted – they’d have a calendar, a timeline and full character profiles and CVs. They’d know exactly what their character was up to and where and when she was doing it.

However, I like watching my characters develop. My current hero has mesmerised my heroine but to be honest he hasn’t mesmerised me yet, therefore he needs more bulk to his personality; he has do something that will have the reader rooting for him. Looking good is not enough; my hero need more than finely chiselled features and few rippling muscles (although that does help). Therefore a fact he has kept hidden about himself until a later chapter will now need to come out sooner to evoke a little sympathy. So back I go again…

At the moment I am going back more than I am going forward, but that’s ok.  I’m more than a third of the way through the book now and I think my idea has legs so it’s worth perserving to see how far it’ll run.

Both hero and heroine have changed names, as have several minor characters. You can’t have too many names that begin with the same letter; sometimes a name that seems to fit at the start, no longer seems appropriate. Nationalities and occupations have changed. The sub-plot which kicked the book off has fallen a little by the wayside and will have to be brought back to the forefront  before the reader forgets all about it, and the secondary plot is  vital, not just to keep the reader engaged during a lull in the main action, but because I want the two separate storylines to come together at the end.  See I have done a bit of planning – even if it’s just in my head. I do know how this book will end – or at least I think I do…

So being a pantser keeps the story fluid and organic. My characters drive the story forward and although leap-frogging backwards and forwards to drop in clues as the story progresses might seem like a less constructive use of time, not having a set plan makes writing fun and unpredictable! I’m just as much in the dark as to what my characters are going to get up to next as I hope my readers will be. A heart attack? I didn’t see that one coming but it so works…

Meet Joan Livingstone

I think most writers are natural-born eavesdroppers, curious nosey-parkers with enquiring minds. Like squirrels hoarding nuts for the winter, we store snippets of overheard conversations or amusing anecdotes to transform and embellish into something far more intriguing.  So, imagine working as a small town journalist – the stories you could tell! This week I am joined by Joan Livingstone who talks about how her former job influences her writing.

How Journalism Shaped My Fiction

Isabel Long, the protagonist of my new mystery, Redneck’s Revenge, was a former long-time journalist before she became a private investigator. So was I although I didn’t become a P.I. I write about one.

Redneck’s Revenge is the second in my Isabel Long mystery series. The first was Chasing the Case, which was released last spring.

Both books are set in the small, rural hilltowns of Western Massachusetts, where I got my start in the newspaper biz. I was hired as a correspondent — paid by the inch — to cover the hilltown where I lived, Worthington, Massachusetts, population 1,200.

I had no previous experience, but that didn’t seem to matter to the editor who hired me. The experience grew into a 30-year career that ended after I was the managing editor of an award-winning newspaper in New Mexico, The Taos News.

But back to the start, I reported first on Worthington and eventually I covered several towns, plus did regional stories. I loved breaking a news story and getting to know what people did. I went to town meetings and covered what interested the community from truck pulls to school events to country fairs. I covered fires and what little crime there was. I did profiles. A few of my stories went national. I even went to the White House.

One of the greatest benefits was listening to the way people talked and writing it down. I believe it has paid off with realistic dialogue in my fiction.

It also gave me insight into how people behave, and certainly I had a total immersion into the hilltowns of Western Massachusetts, which I use as a setting for much of my fiction.

By the way, since Isabel snagged a bunch of cold case files from her newspaper, it was an opportunity for me to write news stories again — although for made-up subjects.

Here’s the start of one with the headline: Caulfield man dies in house fire.

CAULFIELD — A Caulfield man died when his house burned to the ground in an overnight fire discovered by his daughter Wednesday morning.

Officials are investigating the blaze that killed Chester “Chet” A. Waters IV, 69, who ran a junkyard and a vehicle repair shop on his Maple Ridge Road property located on one of the town’s back roads.

Caulfield Fire Chief Roger Dickerson said no one called in the blaze because of the home’s remote location and the time the fire apparently broke out. He said Annette Waters found her father’s body when she arrived to work in his garage.

Back to Isabel, who also covered the hilltowns of Western Massachusetts until, like me, she moved up to being an editor. She lost her job managing a newspaper when it went corporate. (To set the record straight, that didn’t happen to me.) In Chasing the Case, Isabel decided to revisit her first big story as a rookie reporter — when a woman went missing 28 years earlier from the fictional town of Conwell.

She relies on the skills she used as a journalist for that case and the one she has in Redneck’s Revenge, especially since it takes her to an unfamiliar town and group of people.

So what skills would Isabel find transferable? Certainly, breaking down the elements of a story and figuring out who to contact. Good interview skills are a must. Developing a network of sources for tips is another. And she’s got to be good kind of nosy.

Here I’ll let Isabel explain. She and her ‘Watson’ — her 92-year-old mother who lives with her — have just finished meeting with Annette Waters who wants to hire Isabel to find out how her father, Chet Waters, died. The cops say he was passed-out drunk when his house burned to the ground. Annette says he was murdered.

“What’s your gut feeling?” I ask my mother when we’re done.

“Gut feeling? There’s definitely something there. But I’m not sure what it is at this point.”

“I agree. But even though this happened only three years ago, it’s gonna be harder to crack this case. I don’t know anybody here.”

“What did you do when you had to report on a story in a place where you didn’t know anybody?”

“I followed the leads I had. One person led me to another. Yeah, yeah, I hear you. I should do the same for this one. Well, I have Annette to start me off.”

And there are times when a journalist has to be a bit brave. For Isabel, that means talking with somebody who has something to hide — like maybe murdering another person. By the way, she’s really good at that.

Joan Livingston Bio

Joan Livingston is the author of novels for adult and young readers. Redneck’s Revenge, published by Crooked Cat Books, is the second in the mystery series featuring Isabel Long, a longtime journalist who becomes an amateur P.I. The first is Chasing the Case.

An award-winning journalist, she started as a reporter covering the hilltowns of Western Massachusetts. She was an editor, columnist, and most recently the managing editor of The Taos News, which won numerous state and national awards during her tenure.

After eleven years in Northern New Mexico, she returned to rural Western Massachusetts, which is the setting of much of her adult fiction, including the Isabel Long series.

Joan Livingston on social media:

Website: www.joanlivingston.net.

Facebook: www.facebook.com/JoanLivingstonAuthor/

Twitter: @joanlivingston

Instagram: www.Instagram.com/JoanLivingston_Author

Goodreads: www.Goodreads.com/Joan_Livingston

 

Book links to Chasing the Case and Redneck’s Revenge:

 

http://mybook.to/chasingthecase

http://mybook.to/rednecksrevenge

 

ISABEL LONG’S SECOND CRIME MYSTERY

REDNECK’S REVENGE

Her next case. She’s in it for good.

Isabel Long is in a funk months after solving her first case. Her relationship with the Rooster Bar’s owner is over. Then cops say she must work for a licensed P.I. before working solo.

Encouraged by her Watson — her 92-year-old mother — Isabel snaps out of it by hooking up with a P.I. and finding a new case.

The official ruling is Chet Waters, an ornery so-and-so, was passed out when his house caught fire. His daughter, who inherited the junkyard, believes he was murdered. Topping the list of suspects are dangerous drug-dealing brothers, a rival junkyard owner, and an ex-husband.

Could the man’s death simply be a case of redneck’s revenge? Isabel is about to find out.

 

To Brazil & Back – Capturing The Imagination

I think it’s pretty much taken as read that if you want to be a successful fiction writer, you need to have a vivid, fertile imagination.

You can take inspiration from real-life events, or people, but when it comes to joining the dots – you make it up. The idea for The Theatre of Dreams was born during a walk on a blustery seafront and the discovery of a lost local landmark. Yes, the theatre in my novel was inspired by a real building, but the story itself is purely a figment of my imagination.  Sometimes it doesn’t take much to trigger a burst of creativity.

Last autumn my youngest daughter broke her foot and was incapacitated for a few weeks, so to fend off the boredom we undertook an exercise in triple-generation bonding – sorting out my mum’s photograph collection.    My parents took many cruises – but my dad, especially in his later years, didn’t like getting off the ship although he did like taking photographs. Therefore my mum has been left with several albums full of pictures of docksides. Great if you like a container port, but she and I were both of the opinion that if you’ve seen one container port you’ve seen them all.

The albums were sorted – twenty years of cruise holidays condensed into one ‘highlights’ album and not an industrial crane in sight. But, whilst going through Mum’s photograph collection, I discovered a selection she had inherited from her own parents stuffed into one of those sticky plastic albums that were very popular back in the 1980s.

A couple of weeks ago  I finally got round to retrieving the inherited photos from their sticky plastic grave with the intention of re-posting them into a scrapbook. My mum is  92 years old and prone to bouts of forgetfulness but she had no problem recalling the names of long-lost relatives she hadn’t seen since the 1950s.

Some of these pictures went further back – to the 1920s and beyond, the era of the austere Edwardian matriarch resplendent in her full-length frock. Wonderful names rolled off my mum’s tongue as she called relatives from her own childhood – who knew I had a great aunts Tizzy and Ahinoam -understandably always known as Inny.

There were pictures of my grandparents as young people– my grandfather added a year onto his age so that he could join up to fight in the First World War and only remembered to take it off again in the 1930s. He looked dashingly handsome in his uniform. How did he meet my grandmother?  It began with a book.  Grandma (Mary) had been fond of another young man of German extraction who had been waltzed off from his Lancashire village into a camp during the First World War never to be seen again. Apparently Mary had lent him a book and he made his friend Bert promise to return the book to Mary, and so Mary and Bert’s romance began, but meanwhile Bert’s step-mother was also trying to hook Bert up with her own daughter – an actress.

If these pictures could talk they might tell a different story – events might not have happened quite like that, or necessarily in that order, but it doesn’t take much to ignite a spark.  These sepia people might well have kept my mum  occupied for a happy afternoon of reminiscing, but they could provide me with a whole plethora of novel ideas.

Here are my great-grandparents who met and married in Brazil having both gone out there to work in a cotton mill in the 1870s. How brave were they? And we think our youngsters are pretty adventurous when they set off overseas with their i-phone, travel apps, and return air tickets.

I’ve never felt inspired to write a historical saga before, put off by the mountains of research involved, but I feel there could well be one brewing. Brazil here I come…

 

And if you want to read about the inspiration behind The Theatre of Dreams, it’s here –  Setting The Scene

Finding Inspiration

Once news of my book became public I was immediately bombarded with questions from friends, including the inevitable ‘are we in it?’ Of course I would never base any characters on people I’ve met in real life, that’s far too risky – one of the main reasons I’ve never turned my exploits as the only sane woman into LA into a book is because I don’t want to get sued. Seriously, you just can’t lift characters out of the real world and drop them into fiction.

I think most writers are great eavesdroppers, subconsciously soaking up anecdotes and snippets of information for later use. It’s a hazard of the job, and therefore inevitable that certain characteristics or personal mannerisms may well get transferred into the pages of a novel.


My two main protagonists in the Theatre of Dreams, Kitty and Tara, are both theatrical performers.  Kitty is probably very loosely based on my grandmother, a gregarious show off who was singing and entertaining well into her seventies – much to the embarrassment of  her teenage granddaughters! Although my grandmother didn’t have the ‘professional’ stage career she would have loved, she came from the era of the musical hall, part of our British cultural heritage which has gradually been lost (some might say not necessarily a bad thing!), and part of the entertainment industry in which my character Kitty would have thrived. 

The common link between Kitty and her younger counterpart Tara, is course their desire to pass on their knowledge and love of performing. Although I never appreciated my grandmother’s talents, my own daughter has inherited her genes; she started dance lessons at the age of four and loved nothing more than putting on a show. She later went on to study at the Royal Academy of Dance and qualified as ballet teacher. They always tell you to write about what you know!

As for the rest of the motley crew who grace the pages of The Theatre of Dreams, well hopefully none of my friends well recognise themselves. The love interest and there has to be one after all, is an architect. Despite what my family tell me, he isn’t deliberately based on the gorgeous George Clarke, he simply evolved from my imagination, but he does share George’s enthusiasm and passion for restoring old buildings – but there the resemblance ends. 

One of the underlying themes in The Theatre of Dreams is how repercussions of past trangressions can come back to haunt us and inevitably impact on our future. I’m a panster, as they say in the writing business, not a plotter. I fly by the seat of my pants and let the characters dictate the story. Any similarities to real life events is purely coincidental!