Adding to the Novelist’s “Idea Bank”

June 13, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

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Image 2Writers are constantly asked the perfectly sensible question: “Where do your ideas come from?” I certainly heard that often enough whenever I speculated aloud that I might do a new novel, That Summer in Cornwall, as a spin-off from an earlier book, A Cottage by the Sea. People would exclaim, “You’re going to do two novels in the same place with some of the same characters? Haven’t you run out of ideas by now?”

For me, the notion for a new book to which I’m willing to commit months–if not years–to bring to fruition usually comes from my garden-variety curiosity and from my previous life as a working reporter. Back in the day, whenever in my travels around town or around the world, I’d encounter something that set off an “Oh, what a good story!” mini-explosion in my brain, I would jot it down to tell my editor or the news director. Now I jot it down under “Ciji’s Book Idea Bank.”IMG_4676

Take this trip we’re on right now: first to Talloires, a tiny (pop. 500) village in the French Alpes where my husband is attending a board meeting for the MacJannet Foundation, a modest educational non-profit that awards prizes each year for “Global Citizenship” and grants college students scholarships to learn the language at the Tufts University European Center, housed in Talloires’ eleventh century priory.

IMG_4912Visitors arrive at this lovely spot on Lake Annecy, often by bateau at the charming landing dock you see on your left and enjoy the Michelin starred restaurants in the immediate region that are well-known to Foodies throughout the world.France June 2006 130

What is less well-known to most Americans, at least, is that little Talloires and the jagged mountains behind the village were a hotbed of the French Resistance in World War II. Those opposed to the Vichy “collaborators” and to Hitler’s invading armies holed up in the rugged back country and were deeply involved in the ultimate liberation of France in August of 1944, a mere three-and-a-half months after the landings at Normandy Beach.

Musée_Départemental_de_la_Résistance_Haut-Savoyarde_à_Thônes,_Haute-SavoieDuring the many trips we’ve made to Talloires over the years, we have always said, “We must visit the Resistance Museum this time,” and somehow competing events always cropped up relating to our primary purpose–to wit, the MacJannet Foundation meetings–and we never have seemed to get there…until this time.thones-war-memorial

Sunday, May 8th is the day celebrated in France each year marking the end of WW II in Europe and the moment when local French in and around Talloires and Lake Annecy were finally able to begin rebuilding their lives. Visiting the graves there of those who fought in the French Resistance and, among other heroic acts, helped ferry downed British and American flyers back to safe territory, prompted a number of ideas to swirl in my head. There were women who served in this effort, which intrigues me, and also disputes that fester still in these villages about local families that supported the Nazi occupation (or at least refused to join the Resistance) and some who even betrayed the resistance fighters, and the families that risked all to free themselves from the occupiers.

Hmmmm….the imagination boggles over the possibilities. Once I finish my Four Seasons Quartet series, I could–

And that, dear readers, is one way an author gets her ideas: get out and see the world!

Researching a Novel–Honestly!

May 16, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

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envelope IMG_6338In less than a month I’ll be heading off on what, to an outsider, probably looks like a lark.

Researching a work of fiction might sound like an oxymoron, but as a reporter with more than twenty-five years of experience in the world of “fact checking,” I’ve discovered after seven novels that getting the details right about the real world aspects of a story is just as important in a piece of “make-believe”  as it is with “breaking news.”  If a novelist screws up the data, believe me, you hear from your readers.

And that’s just as it should be.IMG_4903

In That Summer in Cornwall, the first in the 4 Seasons Quartet series, I’d been to Cornwall several times previously as my English cousin, Gay North, has hosted me in the West Country several times over the years, and especially during the research for an earlier novel, A Cottage by the Sea.  

Image 7However, as I embarked on That Summer in Cornwall, I knew virtually nothing about the world of search and rescue, nor about the amazing canines trained to find visitors who fall off the cliffs skirting the English Channel or down abandoned shafts that dot the beautiful countryside. So my trip to Cornwall last October was fun and exciting, to be sure, but it was also spent interviewing the Dog Unit Manager of the Devon and Cornwall Police, to say nothing of tramping up moors, along fast-running rivers, and peering down dark, forbidding mine shafts clinging to remote parts of the local landscape.Ciji in Chinatown

Whatever the setting of a novel—even one that took place in my own backyard of San Francisco–as with A Race to Splendor about the rebuilding of the legendary Fairmont Hotel atop Nob hill after the 1906 earthquake and firestorm–the reportorial skills of “who, what, when, where, and why” are essential to getting the facts right so the world that a novelist creates for the reader rings true.

Jamie, Helen Mirren-Taylor-Tony-Ciji-Scotland wedding

 

 

 

 

That Autumn in Edinburgh will be the third book I’ve set in Scotland—Wicked Company being the second and Island of the Swans (the prequel to my next project there) the first. And each research trip to the land of my mother’s ancestors has been a joy–but also involved some rather arduous work as well.

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However, this time, the action is set not only in the spectacular city of Edinburgh, which I know well, but also in the Scottish Border country between the capital and the often-contested area of land where England officially begins.

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On my upcoming research adventures, I’ll be learning about present-day factories producing ancient tartans; about cashmere manufacture and the struggle to stay afloat in a global economy where operations in the Far East have been allowed to pay their workers $37 a month—and where conditions are so unsafe, entire buildings collapse, killing a thousand women in their wake.

Ciji Jamie McCullough Castle

Oh yes…given my experience on trips past, I expect to have a wonderful time visiting a part of Scotland I’ve never seen, but, to me, this story I have percolating in my brain night and day right now is also serious business—and I’ll do my best to get the facts straight.

 

Creating Characters: Their Actions Drive the Plot!

April 25, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

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IMG_4304Next time you look at a row of books on a shelf, think of how the authors of these novels had to figure out what was going to happen in these stories to keep you turning the pages—in other words:  the plot.

When I was in the process of planning out my next novel, That Summer in Cornwall, which is a stand-alone sequel to A Cottage by the Sea (a book I’d written a decade before), I remembered the words of a very experienced storyteller that once said, “What do your characters want, and what are they willing to do to get it?”photo-7

After going the distance on six 100,000-word-plus novels, I finally get it:  doing something to get what a person wants implies action…and action and conflict are elements that drive a plot.

It’s not that complicated, when you think about it, but figuring out what “they” are willing to do to get what they want requires imagination, for we all know that people will do all sorts of things—either admirable or despicable–to get what they want.  It’s the author’s job to figure what a character would do, depending on—well—their character…what sorts of folks they are.  (We can take up the all-important “biographical sketch” many authors write, early on, in another blog post here…)

Image-20-199x300Meredith Champlin, the heroine in blue jeans and Wellington boots, basically wants to re-boot her life. With her service dog, Holly, trotting at her side, she escapes a dead-end relationship with a charming but alcoholic rodeo rider, along with her grueling job as a pediatric emergency room nurse at a children’s hospital in Wyoming to spend a few months at the “Money Pit” belonging to her cousin who has married an impecunious British landowner with a castle and an estate that is reeling from the current economic crisis.Finding-the-Right-Dog-Obedience-2

 

 

 

 

Added to that, Meredith, who ran a pet therapy program at her hospital, wants to help raise much needed cash by founding the Barton Hall Canine Obedience Academy, to say nothing of trying to turn her computer-addicted, eleven-year-old “Beverly Hills Brat” legal ward–whose mother has just died in a plane crash–into a decent human being.

And what does the hero want?

13980_10151339222221781_863939389_nSimple.  To be left in peace–far from the woman who betrayed him before he departed for Afghanistan as a member of the Royal Army’s bomb squadron—and to avoid his mother who lives in a Cornish village near the castle, a woman who virtually abandoned him and his two brothers when they were young.  Now a newly-minted veterinarian and large farm animal manager, the only living creature he likes and trusts besides his employers is his Border Collie, T-Rex, who is his partner on the local Cornwall Search and Rescue Team.Image 8

And what do the canines want?  To stay as close together as possible, which is how the two protagonists in That Summer in Cornwall meet in the first place!

See how this works?  Ask what the main characters seek, and the rest practically takes care of itself!

Ciji at work in Portofino Office 4-07

 

The hard part, of course, comes when the author has to start typing….

 

How to Build a Cottage in Your Mind

March 2, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

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Grandpa Ware stone cottage Carmel circa 1950s

I admit it:  over the years, I’ve become a rather obsessed “cottage collector.” Perhaps it’s because, at around ten years old, I began visiting my Grandfather Ware at the tiny stone cottage perched on a sand dune on Carmel Beach that he rented the same year we moved as a family from Los Angeles to the amazing village of Carmel-by-the-Sea.DSCN0267  My father, writer Harlan Ware, would escort me along the streets-with-no-sidewalks to the Forest, Studio, and Golden Bough theatres thriving in our town where I would perform in semi-professional plays when I was growing up.  We’d pass by cottage after cottage that could have served as illustrations in the Book of Mother Goose.  Cottage life, to me, seemed an idyllic way to live, even during the years when I dwelled in the cities of New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

c10So, when I first walked through this gate fifteen years ago on the central coast of Cornwall, England on a research trip for A Cottage by the Sea, I knew this was the perfect spot to set this story and had in my mind  exactly how the fictional “Painter’s Cottage” should look.  It would be a stone structure with a slate roof and floor-to-ceiling artists’ windows facing the English Channel. However, on that day, all I could see across a broad field was a tiny structure clinging to the cliff on a curving bay between Nare Head on the West and Dodman Point to the East.

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As I picked my way across the loamy turf, I began to make out what was actually an abandoned “lookout” stone structure, a small, squat building–and in 1997, minus a roof.   Never mind, I thought, enraptured by the sweeping view and the sheep and Scottish Highland cattle dotting the slope, this was the place I would build my perfect cottage in my imagination.  On another research trip years later to prepare for the sequel, That Summer in Cornwall, the field’s owner—the Caerhays Castle estate–had recently restored the roof, perhaps in the hope they could add it to a list of estate outbuildings they offer to paying guests.  Luckily for me, I had that privilege last October at Bottom Lodge…once the gatekeeper’s cottage.

IMG_6352Talk about a novelist surrounding herself with the atmosphere of the place she would write about!  This is “Bottom Lodge” where visitors to Caerhays Castle (aka “Barton Hall” in my two novels set in Cornwall) can book into the left turret. I was “in residence” in October of 2012 and it was totally an experience of a lifetime!  I spent my days tramping all over the estate, reveling in what it must have actually been like to live here a hundred and fifty years ago, and also got a solid grasp of what a struggle it is in the modern world to keep these big houses solvent.IMG_6375 - Version 2

 

IMG_5654In the two, stand-alone novels (and certainly in my mind), I easily expanded the small structure I’d spotted perched on the cliff into a two-story cottage with a sleeping loft and a faintly baronial fireplace opposite windows facing the English Channel–and no cattle wandering in and out! (This cottage with the sailboat actually exists in Talloires, France–but I loved the fireplace and imagined it as part of Painter’s Cottage!)  On  my most recent trip to the environs of Gorran Haven in central Cornwall, I dared to get pretty close to those long-horned Scottish Highland cattle who’d made the old stone lookout hut their personal shelter…and what a view! Beyond those clouds, that’s Brittany across the English Channel…IMG_6534

The vistas through the abandon lookout’s glass-less windows were even more incredible. Imagine, I thought, if the Caerhays Estate eventually rehabs this stone lookout and allows their “paying guests” to stay here as they did with bottom Lodge?  But I loved the location so much, I decided as I was writing That Summer in Cornwall that the heroine would claim the “newly rehabbed” Painter’s Cottage for her own while she pitched in to help her Anglo-American cousins return the eight-hundred-acre estate to solvency.

Image-20-199x300I could easily imagine the overstuffed furniture in front of a cozy fireplace, surrounded by the magnificence of the Cornish coast.  To me, Painter’s Cottage truly exists as part of a shabby-chic castle clinging to a remote Cornish cliff–even if all you can see if you visit there this very day is a small, squat, abandoned stone hut that may one day see new life again.

In a novelist’s mind, anything is possible…

 

Rescue Dogs and the Making of a Subplot

February 13, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

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Image 14Like many millions on our planet, I love animals and have had a cat or a dog in my world virtually all my life.   My current pooches, seen here around Christmastime, are two Cavalier King Charles Spaniels: Ensign Aubrey and Charlock (a.k.a Cholly Knickerbocker).  They prove to me each day that dogs teach us our best lessons about noble behavior and unconditional love.9-11RobCimaHarley9-14-01

Around the time I was noodling about the plot for my stand-alone contemporary sequel to  the “time-slip” novel I wrote nearly fifteen years ago, A Cottage by the Sea–Hurricane Issac was bearing down on the Gulf Coast.  One day last August, I did an Internet search to see if an amazing group based in Ojai near Santa Barbara called the Search Dog Foundation would be sending dog/handler teams as first responders, an assignment they have shouldered for many of the cataclysmic events this past decade: 9/11; the Oklahoma City bombing; hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, and the earthquake in Haiti, and even traveling as far as Japan after the earthquake and tsunami in 2011.

WilmaTeams11-09EliotCrowleyI began to drill down deeper on their amazing website and learned more about their fantastic work of rescuing dogs languishing in shelters (where many unadopted animals, sadly, are ultimately put to death) and then training these lucky canines survivors to be part of search-and-rescue teams all over the United States.  The Search Dog Foundation, the brain child of the amazing Wilma Melville (on left, red jacket), is in the process of building a $14 million dollar K9 training “ranch” where firefighters and police officers are brought together with their newly-graduated “partners.”  As I gazed at their intriguing picture gallery on the site—I had a major epiphany!Image 15

The new book would return to central Cornwall where a craggy, windswept coastline, woods and moors often lured “day trippers” to this glorious part of Britain into dangerous situations requiring all out search and rescue efforts.  Did first responders in the UK use dogs on their search-and-rescue teams, I wondered?

Image 12On my first Google look-see, up popped all volunteer “Cornwall Search and Rescue Team”—and the stellar men and women who employ air-scenting dogs to help find missing persons who may have fallen off a cliff or down one of the many abandoned tin or copper mines in the area, or have wandered into trouble on the rough terrain of the many moors.

As I dug further into this subject, a sub-plot unfolded effortlessly:  that of stories about these wonderful people who bring others to safety in cooperation with official “rescue” organizations and institutions such as the Royal Air Force, H.M. Coastguard, and the local constabularies of Devon and Cornwall that coordinate both military and civilian enterprises engaged in search-and-rescue work.  Hey, even Prince William is a part of this world!Image 13

And then another brainwave!  Why couldn’t the hero be a veteran in the dog bomb-sniffing squad, late of the British forces in Afghanistan?  I remembered seeing an image of a TDH (tall, dark and handsome) fellow in a Ralph Lauren ad who was the perfect “model” for Sebastian Pryce, a mysterious figure that returns to Cornwall with a newly-trained search dog—and some secrets of his own.1004_MBlackL_LP_EN-FR-02

He suddenly appears at Barton Hall, a shabby-chic castle on a remote cliff near the village of Mevagissey, with the novice T-Rex, a Border Collie who very inappropriately attempts to have his way with a female dog on the estate belonging to an American woman who just stepped out of a battered Land Rover!

Image 18Suddenly the “search dog subplot” became key to the entire novel, That Summer in Cornwall about this same American who is stunned to learn that she is now the legal guardian of a child she’s never met.  At the urging of the child’s Anglo-American aunt (Lady Blythe Barton-Teague, heroine of the first novel), Meredith Champlin and her eleven-year-old “Beverly Hills Brat” decamp for Cornwall for the summer and—IMG_6723

Are you surprised I felt the need to return to the enchanting land of my Ware ancestors to refresh the research?  The workings of a novelist’s mind are mysterious, indeed…

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