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.

Edinburgh_Castle_Scotland-Wallpaper

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….

 

Creating Characters: What Do They Want?

April 22, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

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Image-20-199x300When I originally had the notion for That Summer in Cornwall, my plan was to have my heroine, arriving in late May at shabby chic Barton Hall from Wyoming, get involved in the nursery business that had saved her cousin’s family mansion from bankruptcy a decade earlier in the prequel, A Cottage by the Sea.images

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ella-holding-Targhee-sheepHowever, Meredith Champlin, an emergency room nurse at a children’s hospital, is no gardener like her cousin, Blythe Barton Teague.  She was born and raised on a western sheep ranch, so I began to ruminate on what her life goals and desires might be, recalling what a wise person in the writing business once said.  “Ask what your characters want—and what would they be willing to do to get it!”

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First I had to ask myself: what elements are common both to Wyoming and Cornwall?  The latter is a place where many immigrants came  to the American West from Britain’s tin mines and fields to work in the copper and coal mines in Pennsylvania, Wyoming, and Montana and till the vast open stretches of land, raising animals for the nation’s food supply in the years following the pioneer days.

 

corgi_1Cattle and Sheep need herding, I thought, which meant dogs. Meredith, 35, is a pediatric nurse, so what if she had raised Corgi herding dogs as a rancher’s daughter, and also developed a pet therapy program at her hospital?url-1

Bingo! Corgis are known as “The Queen’s Dog”—so obviously they would exist in Cornwall, too, especially because a lot of sheep are raised in the beautiful fields and on the moors in the West Country.

 

 

 

 

So, I had the answer to “what does Meredith want?”  She wants to be deeply involved in the world of working dogs and would never leave her beloved Corgi, Holly, behind when life’s circumstances land her six thousand miles from her home. It was a natural fit that she could help keep Barton Hall solvent by founding the Barton Hall Canine Obedience Academy on the castle grounds.

 

images-1And what about her past?  She also wants to forget an unhappy love affair with a charming, alcoholic rodeo rider and forge an entirely new life away from injured and dying children after a decade of intense, worthwhile, but exhausting service.  In other words, she wants a new beginning and a way of re-inventing herself and her life’s work.Image 12

And as it happens, in Cornwall, working dogs are also trained in the field of search and rescue, due to the type of terrain where “holiday makers” routinely fall off cliffs that skirt the dramatic coastline facing the English Channel, or get lost on the remote moors, or disappear down deserted mine shafts left over from the previous century’s tin industry.

 

article-1362275-0D710BF7000005DC-485_468x365Then one of those “Eureka!” thoughts struck.   The hero could be a veteran of a dog bomb-sniffing unit in the British Forces, late of Afghanistan, who, along with his Border Collie T-Rex, has returned to Cornwall and is now a veterinarian and a member of the Cornwall Search and Rescue Team.  All he wants is to be left alone to nurse his psychic wounds that vastly predate his service in the Royal Army, though at his core, he yearns for a sense of safety, connection with kindred spirits, and “home.”

So, through the magic of asking (and answering) “What do the main characters want?” I could begin to write Chapter One of That Summer in Cornwall.

The question “What are the characters willing to do to get what they want?” is the engine that drives the plot…a subject that I will probably discuss another time for readers who speculate about such things.  It’s a subject I am certainly wondering about as I prepare to start work on That Autumn in Edinburgh..a sequel two hundred years after the conclusion of my first novel, Island of the Swans

Dogs as Characters in Fiction

March 29, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

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Image 8I often am asked, “Do you base some of your characters on real people?”  Well, fictional characters are just that:  made up in the author’s mind.  However, there’s no denying that there are often ‘real life’ figures who sometimes serve as inspiration.   And, as I learned this year writing That Summer in Cornwall, the same goes for dog characters.

However, just to show how tricky a subject this is, you should know that this Border Collie actually is known by another name as a ‘real-life’ member of the Cornwall Search and Rescue Team…  In my novel, the Border Collie T-Rex–aka Rex–became the name I gave my hero Sebastian Pryce’s dog after I met this dog, seen here having coffee at the famous Poggio’s Trattoria .IMG_6240

Say hello to the real T-Rex…the Great Dane, affectionately known by his intimates as “The Mayor” of a maritime village in the San Francisco Bay Area. This big boy truly was what inspired my naming this important search-and-rescue dog who figures prominently in the novel.

(Well…at least, both boys’ coats are black and white).

IMG_6241And both animals have tremendously good hearts—to say nothing of their amazing noses—and, of course, I asked permission of the original T-Rex’s mistress, artist Lucinda O’Connell, if I could “borrow” his moniker.Image-20-199x300

And then there was the heroine’s dog, a sheep-herding Corgi from the pastures of Wyoming.  The sassy, smart little dog started out in the first draft with the name of “Jasper”—called that in honor of my godchildren’s ‘real-life’  Corgi.

But there was just one problem:  Jasper the Corgi is a boy dog with a boy dog’s name, and as I got into the plot, there were some very compelling reasons to make “him” a “her”—especially since the two dogs have a memorable “meet-up” in Chapter One—much to their human companions’ chagrin.

Therefore, in urgent need of an appropriately feminine name, the first thing that popped into my head was my friend, romance writer Cynthia Wright ’s late, great black lab, seen here with her daughter, Jenna.  So “Jasper” was transformed, via a “global search and replace” on my Mac, into “Holly”– along with profuse apologies to my godchildren Andrew and Grace.

CindyHollyJenna

So, there you have it!  Life in the fictional world can be just as rough as Hollywood…and some of the best performers are left on the cutting room floor…

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…