Character, setting or plot? How to write a novel? How to generate that killer idea for a new story? That’s a question I’m asking myself as I prepare to begin work on my next novel. Thinking back to when I started writing about Jacob Penhallow, the protagonist of my surf inspired debut effort, I wonder now how on earth I did it.
At the time I was going to a creative writing workshop run by the magnificent Kath Morgan. All I had to show for two terms of toil was a rhyming story for young children. I hadn’t anything to take with me to class, I hadn’t written for weeks. It was embarrassing. I needed the start of something, or at least a plan.
At the time I was thinking these thoughts, I was sitting in my clapped out ex-Post Office van, in Porthtowan. I remember I was munching my way through a portion of chips. I’d been surfing . Surfing makes you VERY hungry.
I happened to look across to the surf lifesaving club – a few young lifesavers were running about, all sporting Porthtowan SLSC t-shirts. They say write about what you know, and I was a lifeguard, and I was a member of a lifesaving club – so why not write about that?
The first thing then (for me at least) is setting, the place where the action is to take place. But who’s going to do what, and with whom? Questions, questions. I wiped my greasy fingers on my shorts and grabbed a pen and an old envelope.
This is what I wrote:
The mermaid of Zennor.
It’s an old Cornish folktale. A mermaid hears the sweet sound of a local lad singing in church. She creeps from the sea on her fishy tail to listen. She does it a few times. She gets more and more intrigued. She sneaks into the back of the church. The boy turns round, catches her eye and is enchanted. When the mermaid plops back into the sea, he follows and is never seen again.
I thought, right well that’s easy enough, I’ll write a tale of obsession about a kid in a lifesaving club falling for an unobtainable girl.
And then I started writing.
OK so that’s a very simple plot, and not even my plot – but what does it matter? How many new plots are there are anyway? None that I know of. It’s a starting point, and that’s all I needed. Like looking for the end on a roll of Sellotape. You just need the point to start unpicking from.
But who was I writing about? How did I get that distinctive Jacob Penhallow voice? I’m so used to writing as him now, I’ve almost forgotten where he came from. Was it really just a case of, I started writing and out he popped. Well yes and no.
I do remember I was in the sort of mood where I wouldn’t have minded if someone were to say the wrong thing to me. Bolshy – that’s the word I’m looking for. I was bolshy. I put that attitude into the opening paragraphs of my story and Jacob Penhallow was born.
That’s the voice. Bolshy boy in a lifesaving club gets obsessed with a girl. But that’s not the story now. My book isn’t the Mermaid of Zennor, but that theme is still there, albeit a minor part of the plot. The writing and the rewriting is what revealed the story and refined the character’s voice. I had the bones of Jacob Penhallow from the get go, but the act of writing was what fleshed him out.
So there you have it, the answer to the chicken egg question. Setting, plot, character. The rest is a load of work, and letting your characters take you where they want to go.
But if you were to ask me why I think Jacob Penhallow is an awesome character, I have a simple answer. This character kept me interested and engaged for the two years it’s taken me to write the book. Why? Because he’s not me.
Makes sense when you think about it.