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…

Researching a Novel The Old Fashioned Way

March 10, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

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 Ciji at ABC RadioI spent more than twenty years as a working reporter (mostly at the ABC television and radio affiliate in Los Angeles) and as a magazine journalist—and my first instinct when I get an idea for an historical or contemporary novel is to go where the book is set.Ciji in front of Caerhays Caslte nr. Mevagissey - Version 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

With That Summer in Cornwall—a stand-alone contemporary sequel to my “time-slip” novel A Cottage by the Seathe action takes place a good decade after the ending of the contemporary part of the novel.  In my mind, there was no choice:  I had to return to the area because the premise of the new book was: “What ever happened to that babe in arms in the first book…and what’s Cornwall, England like some ten years, plus, later?”

IMG_6786 - Version 2Once I determined I was, in fact, going to do a sequel to the original novel set in Cornwall, I immediately called up my good writing pal, romance novelist Cynthia Wright with whom I’d made my first trip to Britain’s West Country to research the original book (and she, a couple of her own) and said, “Wanna go back to Gorran Haven and Mevagissey with me and see what trouble we can get into again?”  Her answer? “Absolutely, if we can also go to that seaside village, Polperro and Lansallos, where all the eighteenth century pirates hung out. I’m thinking of doing a couple of books that deal with smuggling…”IMG_6743

So off we went in October of 2012, retracing some of the same areas we’d visited in the late 1990s and heading off into new territory as well.  We still managed the six-mile “Hall Walk” a second time, and paused at the bridge at Pont Pill where we’d rented a Lime Kiln Cottage from the National Trust on the first trip.  For the research jaunt last autumn, we decided to rent a suite at Caerhays Castle near Gorran Haven, the model for “Barton Hall,”  an important element in both books set in Cornwall.

Image 2This contemporary novel centers on the story of Meredith Champlin—a cousin of Lady Blythe Barton-Teague who is the mistress of Barton Hall and the heroine in CottageMeredith wakes up one morning in her home state of Wyoming to discover she is the official guardian of an unruly “Beverly Hills brat” whom she’s never met and hasn’t a clue how to serve as the unhappy child’s surrogate mother. Her elegant cousin Blythe, now the mother of two thanks to her second marriage to the wonderful Sir Lucas Teague, urges Meredith to come to their shabby-chic castle on a remote cliff in Cornwall for the summer to see if they can’t transform this angry, difficult child (whose mother is Blythe’s estranged sister and has died in a private plane crash) into “a decent human being.”  For me, returning to actually reside within the castle walls allowed me to capture the unique atmosphere of the place local novelist Daphne du Maurier called “Enchanted.”Image 8

Not only did I call on my reportorial skills to capture the local color and feel of this special part of the world, but I also conducted a number of interviews about the amazing volunteer search-and-rescue work in Cornwall performed by highly trained dogs and their handlers who find “holiday makers” known for falling off cliffs, down abandoned tin and copper mine shafts, along with “despondents” who have wandered up on the moors to commit suicide.  The enigmatic hero, Sebastian Pryce, a British Army veteran of the Afghan War who served as a K9 specialist in a dog bomb-sniffing squad, persuades Meredith to co-found a dog obedience academy, with many unexpected consequences flowing from their decision to work together—including, of course, their falling in love.

Image 11I even managed to wangle an interview with the chief Dog Unit Manager for the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary (ie the police), Anthony Jordan, who walked me through police operations that coordinate the volunteer corps, Coast Guard, Royal Air Force, and other organizations that make up the network of the search and rescue community.

Their work was amazing and thrilling in so many ways, and I hope that my use of reportorial skills to capture the authenticity of their various activities shines through That Summer in Cornwall–while also telling a ripping good story!  Image-20-199x300

And if any readers are of a mind, a nice review posted on your favorite e-retailer site would be most appreciated.  You cannot image how hugely helpful reader reviews are to get out the word when a book is launched.  The print version will be available sometime later in March.

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