by Michelle Knowlden
Philip Henslowe: Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.
Hugh Fennyman: So what do we do?
Philip Henslowe: Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.
Hugh Fennyman: How?
Philip Henslowe: I don’t know. It’s a mystery.
… from Shakespeare in Love, by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard
It’s not just theater Norman and Stoppard describe here. In a few lines, they also nail every engineering project and every fiction book I’ve managed. Any designer, author, or wedding planner will tell you the same.
Let’s talk about what stalls most writing—the insurmountable story obstacles. How does it all turn out well in the end? Persist. Play. Plot.
Want to daydream again with me? Last time we created a premise. Ready to develop your story’s promise and more? Join me for a garden walk in this three-part adventure series.
Mennonite Heirloom Tomatoes
Every year small shoots of green appear on my west hillside. My Mennonite heirloom tomato volunteers have distinctive leaves and a warm odor. It’s no mystery how they sprout. Doves, sparrows, and towhees eat the fruit, leave seeds for next season, and bird poop to fertilize the soil.
We talked about our story seeds in part one. Now it’s time to talk about the birds, the soil, and poop. People in the business call it “story development.”
We write from a premise (discussed in part one) and a promise. Our promise is our contract with our reader. When I write, I want my readers hooked from the start, to thoroughly enjoy the journey and savor the story long after they finish.
A message is also part of the promise to our readers. The tale needs meaning/purpose/a theme; that’s the spine of the story or it flops like a jellyfish.
In part one, I used mystery stories for my examples. Now I’ll use a romance. Typical messages promised in romance novels are “a second chance for love,” “the right one is waiting next door,” and “a Navy Seal can un-break a heart.”
Example: Lillian in the Doorway
I gravitate towards romance stories that start with a general denial of love. My favorite stories are Much Ado About Nothing, Emma, Here Come the Brides, Crocodile on the Sandbank, and The Grand Sophy. I grin when Beatrice says “I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.” We know she’ll soon ache to hear Benedict declare “I love you.” I laugh out loud as I read Amelia say, “But why should any independent, intelligent female choose to subject herself to the whims and tyrannies of a husband?” And sigh when she finds a man as sensible as herself.
When I wrote the 1920’s romance novel Lillian in the Doorway, I began with two people who deny their attraction for each other. I set it on an orange ranch in Southern California because I knew the area. I threw in a boardinghouse because that doubled my interest.
Naturally a writer would now be stuck, so I look for my Mennonite Heirloom Tomato volunteers.
Tomato #1: I check for local boardinghouses in north Orange County. I find Basque boardinghouses and details about them. This adds color.
Tomato #2: When visiting the George Key ranch, the docent mentioned two things that resonated with me. One, a vast migration of Americans to Southern California occurred between the late 1890s and early 1900s. Two, that heroin was prevalent as an over-the-counter drug. I decide that Lillian will arrive from Chicago, and my hero Jens is a pharmacist.
Tomato #3: I read a local article about Americanization teachers in the 1920s and 30s who taught migrant Mexican workers. Eureka! I find the reason for Lillian and other teachers to be at a Basque boardinghouse.
These three volunteers triangulated the book’s time period to the 1920s, which opens the box for post WWI shell shock, prohibition, and families decimated by influenza.
The volunteers continue to excite neurons. What if Lillian was hiding from gangsters? Jens could be a recent widower. Both have good reasons not to get involved, but both have interfering friends. They agree to a fake engagement, and I have a plump tomato to start my novel.
Green Macerata Cauliflower
Paying attention to the volunteers in our lives is a fun way to find ideas, but not the only way. If I pay attention to how one thing masks as another, I can build in the unexpected and deepen conflict.
For example, I thought I’d planted a Brunswick cabbage with odd tasting leaves that never developed a head. Then it rained in torrents for many weeks and a two-pound apple-green cauliflower head appeared. Not cabbage, but the Green Macerata Cauliflower I thought had never sprouted.
Where can we find plot lines that transform into something entirely different?
Cauliflower #1: Lillian ran from Chicago when her boss was killed by gangsters. What if he isn’t dead?
Cauliflower #2: What if Jens isn’t the mild-mannered pharmacist everyone thinks he is? What did he do when he lived in Germany?
Cauliflower #3: What if Jens’s parents show up to help raise his motherless son? What if his mother decides that Lillian is not the right woman for Jens?
That’s a boatload of conflict to drive a couple closer or further apart. Perfect.
Peter’s Honey Figs
Throwing something nearly dead across the yard can grow a tree.
My potted Peter’s Honey Fig isn’t my favorite fig, but one can’t eat brown turkey figs all day. Peter’s tend to spoil on the branch so I’d toss them up the hill for the birds. Three trees sprouted.
What in Lillian in the Doorway is the nearly dead stuff, scenes I’d introduced but abandoned and that I can now bring to fruition?
Fig #1: What if Jens’s rejected balm sends his son into peril? How far will Lillian go to save him?
Fig #2: What if his parents show Jens the truth?
Fig #3: What if the issue that ended their fake engagement is what Lillian uses to save Jens’s son? Can she accept doing wrong for the right reason?
Cool. Peril, rally the troops, and tie up loose ends. The End.
If you’ve created your own plot points while following this process, then you have your own Mennonite Heirloom Tomatoes, Green Macerata Cauliflower, and Peter’s Honey Figs. If it’s easier, call them acts one, two and three.
That’s right, you just produced a three-act story.
How did you discover your volunteers, imposters, and the nearly dead? Did you develop your promise into a rough plot? Let us know in the comments.
More daydreaming is in store for part three of this series on plotting when we complete the journey we began. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.
Between 1992 and 2011, Michelle Knowlden published 14 stories with Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. The 1998 story “No, Thank You, John” was nominated for a Shamus award. Many of these stories have been included in anthologies and translated in multiple languages. She also published a science fiction story for the More Amazing Stories anthology published by Tor and another for Daily Science Fiction.
More recent mysteries include the Abishag mystery quartet, Jack Fell Down (Deluded Detective Series Book One), Egrets I’ve Had a Few (Deluded Detective Series Book Two) and The Admiral of Signal Hill, all of which are available on Amazon.
She has also written a 1920s romance under the name Michelle Dutton, and collaborated with Neal Shusterman on several YA Sci-Fi stories, including Dark Matter (An X-Files Novel) for HarperCollins under the name Easton Royce and Unstrung, an e-novella in Neal’s Unwind world published by Simon & Schuster.
After leaving an engineering career of many years, Michelle lives in California with her family and writes full-time. Check out Michelle’s Amazon Author Page!
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