The ball of string theory of novel-writing

Penryn Market St - Copy


A novel starts out like a huge knotted bundle of string. You can see the ends of various pieces sticking out, and you must choose one to begin to try to unravel the mess. You’ve no idea where it will take you, but it seems the most likely to lead somewhere. Some of the bits of string will be too short to be of any use, and will be discarded; others will be too long, but may come in useful elsewhere, so you wind them up and put them carefully to one side.  As is the way with string, they will probably meet up with others and end up in a similar mess, but you can sort that out later.

I’m at the start of the new novel now, and I’m picking my way through the first knots. It’s a very strange process; I know who the characters are, in abstract, but I have as yet no clue as to how they will interact with each other. It’s one thing to know where I want them to go; it’s quite another for them to actually go there without a fight. I’ve got my first scene down, and already the people are surprising me. An entire new element to the story has come to light, right there in the opening pages. It’s a getting-to-know-you process at this stage, with lots of notes being written (a lesson learnt when writing Mrs Calcott’s Army) as backstory needs to be recorded.

Major Charles Danbury appeared in the first novel, so I know something of him; but there he was a secondary character, and now he’s the main man, so I have to flesh him out, and give him substance.

He has to be different in most ways from Major Mark Roper. I know what he looks like, and a few of his foibles – his knowledge of horses and his love of a good coat, for instance – but apart from his awe of his Aunt Wereham, and his loyalty, what else is he?

New characters are fun, but also a challenge; they have to fit their roles, and I’m not completely sure what they are yet. It’s a little like drawing in the dark; you never know what you’ve created until the lights go on.

I’ve got my locations in my head. The research trip to Cornwall threw up some unusual and interesting facts which want to work their way into the story – more odd bits of string from that knot which may or may not be put aside for later consideration.  It all depends on what the characters want to do, and until I give them (or they give me) the words to speak, I won’t know that.

So: Cornwall, 1818. It’s an interesting place to be. There is huge wealth from shipping, trade and tin, alongside deep poverty from social deprivation, crop failures, and depressed wages. Smuggling isn’t a choice, for some – it’s the only way to earn a living. For others it’s just greed and opportunism. There is more brought into the country than brandy for the parson and baccy for the clerk, and some of it a lot more dangerous.

The towns are growing and changing. Truro has no Cathedral; Penryn is still a busy harbour. Falmouth’s major shipping parks out in the Carrick Roads and the cargoes are unloaded onto smaller ships for bringing ashore. In the wider country, it’s a time of social unrest as mill workers try to organise – which is against the law.  There’s a lot going on.

How much of that will appear in the novel, I don’t know. I’m just the scribe – I write what I’m told to write by the people in the story. So like you, I’ll just have to wait and see – and keep picking at that knotty string.

©Lorraine Swoboda 2017

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About Lorraine Swoboda

Author of Mrs Calcott's Army. I write about the creation of a novel. It's a complete mystery, but I've done it. I also write about the basic building blocks of writing - grammar, punctuation, and those niggling things that you know don't sound quite right but you can't work out why. Writing is 20% inspiration, 40% perspiration, and 40% staring at the screen wondering what I pressed to make it do that.

One response to “The ball of string theory of novel-writing”

  1. helenlaycock says :

    How exciting, Lorraine! Yes, that’s exactly it, which is why writing is such a joyous pastime. Not only does it keep us out of trouble, it does a grand job of keeping us entertained.


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