I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to understand this, but I now realise that when I go wrong in my writing it is usually because I start from the setting for a novel and not from the characters. The setting, no matter how lovely or sordid or exotic or homely, has to be subordinate to what the characters do there. I have somewhere on one of my computers a whole comic novel about a museum curator, which I abandoned because the museum setting had completely swamped the story. Similarly, if there’s a theme or ‘moral’ (to use an extremely old-fashioned word) in a novel, which I think there should be, it has to be appropriate to the set of characters, otherwise it won’t make sense and will stand out like a knit row where there should be purl, or wool of a different dye number in a batch used to knit a jumper!
Needless to say I am often tempted to break my own rule – what else are rules for, after all? – when a particular setting appeals to me, so I suppose my New Year resolution for 2012 has to be to learn from previous mistakes and not to give into that temptation. Even as recently as the end of November, in the wake of NaNoWriMo, I had an idea for a whole series of thriller novels set in interesting places across Europe. But during the mulling over phase that precedes planning in my case, the idea seems to be gradually morphing into something quite different. I am still strangely drawn to the idea of writing something set in Berlin, but I know that’s mainly because it’s a place where huge world-changing events have taken place and there would be lots of scope to put characters in danger.
Meanwhile ‘Death at the Happiness Club’ is taking shape. In the case of my Pitkirtly mystery series, the characters have well and truly taken over the asylum. Although they have been formed to some extent by the small town they inhabit, I like to think of them as having wills of their own. I just shape their stories, imposing a kind of order on their messy lives.
[yes, I know some of them would definitely object to their lives being described as messy!]