Today, I’m pleased to welcome Dale Harcombe to Tuesday Writing Tips. Dale is a writer friend and a woman with many words of wisdom who has generously agreed to share her writing tips with us.
I had lots of questions for Dale about writing and about how she created her new novel for adults, Streets On a Map.
You have a large cast of characters – all with separate voices and roles in the story. How do you keep them so distinct from each other and stop them from getting out of control?
It’s a matter of getting to know your characters so well they are real people. I have lived with these characters for a long while both inside my head and on paper. Early on in the piece, I started to write a dossier or notes about each of the main characters as I discovered them. I say discovered because I’m not a person who plot and plans everything out. I start with a character or two and go from there and see what happens.
For the person who likes to plot everything out in advance I would suggest making a dossier of each of the characters, family, likes, interests, description, hobbies, personality type etc first. It helps to have those notes so you suddenly don’t change eye or hair colour or forget names of the husband or children of a character.
If nothing obvious comes to mind or when stuck for a name I consult a baby name book and I always try to not have two names starting with the same letter, unless there is a reason for it, e.g. mother and daughter perhaps. There is a site where you can find out which names were popular in what era. http://au.wrs.yahoo.com/_ylt=A0oGkzQcqCJNbRwB09IL5gt.;_ylu=X3oDMTByZWgwN285BHNlYwNzcgRwb3MDMQRjb2xvA3NrMQR2dGlkAw–/SIG=11ic3n5s6/EXP=1294203292/**http%3a//www.babynamewizard.com/
The character of Abby came from a woman I saw once in Centrepoint Tavern years ago plus a whole lot of imagination and asking what if? Of course sometimes that means past observations and experiences also come into play
Laila and most of the other characters just stepped into the pages as I started to write. I’m always interested to see what the mind throws up and how they fit into the jigsaw that is a novel.
I often find titles hard to arrive at too, whether it is the title of a book manuscript or of a poem. It is often the last thing that is added. But in this case it was always Streets on a Map. It came like a gift. That’s always special when that happens instead of having to rack my brains, as I have had to with some other titles. The title reflects the way that people are interconnected especially in a small town and it also occurs in the text.
Your setting descriptions are very vivid. Have you been to the places you describe or do you just have a great ability to visualise? Is Astley based on a place you know?
Setting is an important aspect of any story, almost like another character itself. I lived for a number of years in the Central West of NSW in a village of 650 people and in Orange which has a population of 38000. During that time I spent a lot of time travelling around to various country towns and villages as a sales rep for Macmillan Education. The town of Astley is a fictional town. It is not based on any one town but a combination of observations from some of the towns I saw during that time and a combination of characteristics of a few. There is a certain commonality to country towns.
There are lots of story threads and themes in your book. Can you give us some tips on how you went about plotting it?
Now there’s the rub. I don’t plot. I start with a character and then start to write. I’m often as surprised as anyone, as to where my characters take me and the things they say and do. I let them guide the story where it wants to go. In the course of the story then certain themes come out because of the characters and their personality traits. I find it impossible to sit down and plot a story out. I tried it once or twice, but once it’s plotted out I have lost all impetus to write it. It’s the same as talking about a story while I am working on it. Again it is something I never do, because then I lose interest. I am happy to talk about it after it is published but not before. I write to find out about my characters and what I want to say. It’s perhaps not the most efficient way to work but the only way I can do it. I think that’s where writers fall into two categories. Some are plotters and others of us fly by the seat of our pants, so to speak. I find if the characters are real to me then they will take over and dictate the story.
Can you tell us a bit about the writing process for Streets on a Map? How long did it take from start to finish?
Streets on a Map was started some years ago and has undergone a number of drafts and edits in the meantime. Because I don’t plot that sometimes means things will need to be cut out is they are not revealing more about a character, of they are not adding something to the plot, or the dialogue is not telling the reader something about relationships. Or a scene might need to be moved to another more dramatic position in the story.
As to how long it has taken, again hard to say as it has been around a few years and other writing has been happening in the meantime. After I complete the draft on the computer, which is by then the second draft, as I always write the first draft longhand, I put it way for a few weeks at least and work on something else before I go back and start to revise and edit.
What is the word length of Streets on a Map? Do you have any tips for writers trying to sustain a story of this length?
It is now around 90,000 words, though it started off as over 110,000 words. The easiest way is to work in scenes. Each scene needs to advance the story, the end of each chapter needs a hook to make the reader want to turn the page and see what happens next.
I never just work on one manuscript at a time. I always have either poems or a children’s manuscript happening as well. That way if I get stuck I simply move over to the other piece of writing until the brain has worked out whatever the blockage seems to be. Going for a walk often helps clarify thinking of the story too.
Keeping a journal is good too for descriptions. Not that I ever go back and re-read them but just the fact of having written down a description of a person or a place etches it in memory. It’s like writing a shopping list. I often write them out and leave them at home. But the fact of having written it imprints it on my mind – mostly. There’s the odd glitch.
Another trick I found and it is and one I often used when teaching creative writing classes is to leave off in the middle of a sentence. That way when I come back the next day I am not staring at a black page. Yes, I did mean page not screen. All my manuscripts are written long hand first and only after the first draft is complete transferred to computer. This is because not being a touch typist I can’t type fast enough to keep up with my thoughts. But I can scribble that fast. Plus I need the feel of the actual pen in my hand to get the thoughts flowing.
If I’m writing an article as I do for www.famlies.com where I write for the marriage blog and home and a couple of other areas, then I write straight on the screen but fiction or anything more creative definitely needs to be pen in hand as the old Bobby Goldsboro song said.
Thanks, Dale for sharing your amazing journey and tips with us. Find out more about Dale’s fantastic new book, Streets On a Map by coming back here this afternoon to read my review. Hope you can join us then.