Saturday, July 19, 2008

A Novel Experience

Whenever I give talks, I am often asked about how I go about producing a novel, so I thought I'd break down the production of the forthcoming hardcover into its component parts and tell you about how a novel comes to be.

I have to decide what I am going to write about. This usually happens as I am finishing up the previous novel and preparing it for production. I thought with THE TIME OF SINGING that I was going to be writing about William Marshal's grandson, Roger Bigod III and the whole Henry III/Simon de Montfort debacle. However, in the course of the research, Roger III's grandfather claimed the stage instead, together with his wife, former royal mistress Ida de Tosney, and informed me that it was their story I had to tell next.
At this stage the work didn't have a title. It was just called ROGER AND IDA.

The subject matter decided, I have to read up on my research so that I can write a character study, synopsis, blurb, and first three chapters. These form the initial document that I present to my agent and editor for their approval and to show them what's in store. At this stage in the game the synopsis, although fairly detailed is still 'more like guidelines really.' Not all synopses have to be this detailed, but since I am under contract, my editor and agent need to see as much detail as possible - even if some is going to change during the writing. Reading matter consulted for The Time of Singing included a university thesis on the Bigod family, an English Heritage online report about Framlingham Castle, various other online documents, a genealogy report on William Earl of Salisbury and a biography of Henry II. There were many others, but this is just to cite a few examples. I have included a full biography at the back of the novel. I also employed akashic consultant Alison King so that I could 'interview' and observe the people involved in the story and get a handle on their appearance, their personalities and discover the story they had to tell.

Here's page 1 of the synopsis. If you click on it, it will enlarge.

Once the synopsis and first three chapters are approved, I get on with the nitty gritty of writing the story. My contracts are 15 months long. Some of that time is spent actually writing and researching, but I also have to build in time to write pieces like this for my blogs and for putting the show on the road and giving talks to the readers - because without readers I wouldn't have a job!
At first draft stage I write 100 lines a day on the PC which usually equates to around 1,200 words or perhaps a bit more. At this point I am researching as I write; the two go side by side. I am always very aware that this first draft is not clean. It will be full of over-writing, repetitions, unecessary paragraphs, and a few scenes that go nowhere. That doesn't matter. It's getting it written down in concrete wordage that is the most important thing and viewing the basic structure. It will probably take me about 7 of my 15 months. Once I have written that first draft (which I haven't revised at all except for the first three chapters which were part of the selling document), I read it through on the PC and tighten it up, taking out the over-writing and the repetitions where noticed, dealing with loose plot threads, and generally pulling it into shape. Giving the shapeless blob a six-pack is how I sometimes describe the process! At this stage I am still researching too. This will take me up to 11 months. During this time I will work on the 'soundtrack' to the stories. The explanation can be found at my music blog here, along with the soundtrack to The Time of Singing.

Here is page 1 of the 2nd Draft of The Time of Singing. Note that it still says 'IDA AND ROGER' at the top. At this stage I write on both sides of the page to save paper.
Font is Times New Roman 13 point and spacing is 'exactly' 22 points. It's what suits me.

Once the second draft is written, I leave the PC and read the typescript as if it were a book. This way, I am looking down at the words rather than across to a PC screen and it does make a difference when it comes to spotting errors and flaws. I make biro notes about what alterations needs making and then I return to the PC and key the alterations into the novel while once more reading it. Below is an example of such a page from The Wild Hunt. (I've thrown away my notes for The Time of Singing unfortunately). This stage takes about 2 months

Once I've finished this next lot of alterations, I print the work out again and read it aloud to my long suffering husband over a period of several consecutive nights and again I make biro notes. Reading aloud is yet another different discipline and helps out pick up dodgy word flow, repetition and manky dialogue. I revise again on the PC and then, finally, I send the manuscript by e-mail to my agent and editor. They will read it simultaneously which brings about stage 5.
The above paragraph will occupy a month at most, thus I am usually around a month ahead of schedule.


My agent and editor will report back with their opinions on the manuscript and I will ponder on their suggestions and alter the manuscript accordingly. Usually there aren't that many and it's more a case of general tweaks and tidying. At this stage my editor will begin asking me if I have any ideas for the jacket and the title. I have a consultation say in my UK covers and although we don't always agree and it's often a matter of compromise, we usually get something we can all live with!
When I was asked about The Time of Singing I had a clear notion of what I wanted. Ida was a skilled needlewoman and one of Roger's main concerns was his castle at Framlingham. I thought that a cover based on Edward Blair Leighton's Stitching the Standard would be great.
Click here to see the picture.
Now compare it with the book cover at the top of the blog. You can also see the rough drafts of this by going to my illustrator's blog here:
As far as the title was concerned we played with a lot of different ideas and suggestions. As always when I need inspiration, I turn to the bible (!) which is filled with excellent quotations and poetic phrases. A line from The Song of Solomon came straight to mind. The Song of Solomon is a love poem filled with a rich imagery of gardens and lovers, springtime and renewal. The novel contains several key scenes involving gardens and orchards, so the imagery fitted perfectly. Also, when Roger first notices Ida at court, she is singing and it is something she loves to do, and that he enjoys as well. The quote, taken from the New English Version of the Bible (rather than the King James) says: 'Arise my love, my fair one, and come away; for lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone, the flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come.' Perfect I thought, and different from the 'Queen' or 'Virgin' or 'Mistress' titles with which historical fiction is awash at the moment. You might also note in the illustration that the heroine gets to keep her head this time around!

The manuscript is passed on to a freelance editor who checks the punctuation and grammar and makes comments re the script where he/she feels appropriate. With The Time of Singing, I was very fortunate to have Richenda Todd, who was copy editor toDorothy Dunnett and is one of the best in the business.

Next the proofs arrive. These need to be read though and any teeny last minute alterations made. Now is not the time to suddenly realise you do not need chapter 4 after all - although I do confess to nearly having done that once! Not with The Time of Singing though.

Example of page proofs

While stage 8 is in production, the 'blurbs' will be prepared. These are the mini-synopses/teaser pieces of text that readers see on the inside flap of the hardback and the back of the paperback. These are difficult to write because the word count is restricted and you are trying to condense the flavour of a 150,000 word novel into a few sentences.
The PR department at the publishers will send out advance copies of the novel to interested parties in the hopes of good reviews - any reviews really! The author has to gear up and be prepared to suddenly become a party animal and court the spotlight for the first few weeks following publication. Of course, being prepared doesn't always mean it will actually happen. Sometimes it does; sometimes it doesn't, but one has to have a nice frock in the wardrobe just in case.
And of course there's the magical day when Ta Da! the postman arrives with his signature form and that wonderful box of first edition which time I will usually be at stage 3 on the next novel i.e. nose to the grindstone - see below!


Click on the text at the left to enlarge for a sneak preview of the first page of the new work in progress - which may, of course be totally different by the time it's part of a published novel!

Thursday, July 03, 2008


A few weeks ago, I packed the laptop, the husband and the dog and headed off to spend another week in Norfolk. This was partly by way of a break, partly by way of research, and partly by way of a talk committment I'd given to the Norwich branch of the Richard III Society who had asked me to talk about the Marshal family at Norwich Assembly Rooms.
To be close to Norwich, we stayed in North Norfolk in a red brick farm cottage just outside a village called Lyng. It was fascinating on the first evening there to see a little head popping up from the midst of a tall field of green wheat and to realise that we were looking at a wild roe deer. A little less delightful was the dog picking up an army of ticks from these otherwise beautiful creatures!
Further along the road was another farm boasting a plethora of gorgeously coloured fowl and poultry, including some rather spectacular peacocks. I felt rather at home hearing their haunting cries and seeing their shimmering, irridescent feathers, because they do feature in scenes within The Time of Singing and I felt it was a connection with Henry II and Ida de Tosney.
Other than going for long walks around and about - I can recommend The Fox and Hounds in Lyng - they do a fantastic steak and kidney pudding - you won't need to eat again all week either - we went for a look around the Norfolk broads. These are man-made water ways, created in the Middle Ages by people digging for peat and leaving long water-filled channels. These days they are filled with pleasure boats and barges and it's a strong tourist area. That same day we also visited Winterton On Sea. The Bigod family had an interest here in 1086 when my Roger's grandfather is mentioned as owning rights in it in Domesday Book, although it isn't listed in the family's holdings by 1306. It was a glorious afternoon when we arrived there. Hardly a soul on the beach. The sand was firm and golden and the dog got to run like a puppy. The beach cafe there is fantastic value and serves delicious home-made cakes. (providing your innards are not still living off the steak and kidney pudding!). I loved walking along that beach because it put me in mind of another scene from THE TIME OF SINGING where Roger is walking his own dogs and finds himself thinking through a momentous proposal.
This is my own husband, another Roger, pausing between romps with our dog. Note the broad grin on the dog's face. He was having a marvellous time!
Another day we returned to Thetford Priory. I wanted to pay my respects to Roger Bigod, who is buried there, as is his son Hugh, who I am writing about at the moment. I knew that Roger was buried in the choir and had a rough idea where this was, but there is no marker to show the place officially. Indeed, Thetford Priory rather saddened me. English Heritage do not seem to be much bothered with its ruins. Vandals have scribbled over or destroyed some of the information plaques and there is a generally neglected air to the place. I have no idea what this plaque would have told me. The Cluniac Priory of Our Lady at Thetford was once a great ecclesiastical powerhouse. It was one of the most important monasteries in East Anglia. The Earls of Norfolk were buried here.Some of the later ones were moved to Framlingham. Do my Roger Bigod's bones lie under the grass here, or have they long been scattered? I don't know, but I am sorry there was not a more tangible monument at which to lay my respects.
Perhaps his wife lies here too, but as far as I know the records are silent as to the whereabouts of Ida. Roger Bigod is not forgotten though. His name lives on in the local architecture. I just had to photograph this placard as we walked towards the priory. I wonder what he'd think. Of course it may be referring to his grandson Roger III, or even his great grandson, Roger IV, who was himself a renowned architect.
On our way back from one of our day trips, I happened to catch the glimpse of an interesting round-towered church from the car window and made my husband take a detour so I could photograph it. I can't remember where it was now - apart from in the middle of nowhere. St. Andrew comes to mind, but I could be wrong. It was locked up, as so many churches are today, but what did catch my eye on external inspection was that one of the stained glass windows bore a heraldic symbol called a 'manche' which was the de Tosney symbol. So I felt in a way that I was catching a glimpse of Ida - a shy hidden moment, almost like her elusiveness in history. It took genealogists many years to track her down as the mother of William Longespee, Earl of Salisbury.
If you look closely in the centre of the shield shape in the top window, there's a thing that looks like a sideways boot. It's actually a sleeve and is the de Tosney 'manche.' I've also enclosed a photograph of the church itself.

We went to West Stow Anglo Saxon Village, but that was not a good day. I left my camera card at home, so couldn't take photos and they wouldn't allow dogs on the site. Crazed children -yes. One small, well behaved dog on a lead - no. So I went in on my own, had a quick potter round and then we went for a walk in Thetford Forest and I imagined Roger & Co hunting there. It is a real shame I didn't have my camera for West Stow because in their museum exhibit they had a sword from the battle of Fornham, in which my Roger fought as a young man. I'd love to have had a photo, especially as there was an inscription running down the blade. I can't remember what it said. When I asked about it at the reception, no one seemed to know anything about it. Sigh.
Finally we went for a lovely walk along a stream round the back of Castle Acre Priory (The priory is well worth a look. Went there last year though), and then on to Castle Rising, which is a terrific little Norman Keep not far from King's Lynne and well worth a visit. I have been here as well before - in Norman kit with Regia Anglorum, but it was good to revisit. The open door at the beginning is from there. Castle Acre itself became the home of Mahelt Marshal during her second marriage when she became a de Warenne. I'm writing about her at the moment, but I probably won't get as far as her second match in this particular novel.

This is me standing inside what would have been the original entrance to the Great Hall at Castle Rising, but has since been bricked up and used as a fireplace by later generations. I just love the way my camera has made a swayed image of the reflection of the window, caught in the glass protecting the brickwork. With my use of the psychic as an additional research tool, I felt this fitted perfectly!