The beginning of the beginning

On January 2, 2013, Kathryn Briggs wrote, I was wondering if you could write a post on actually ‘starting’, about what you do as soon as you get an idea, then when you write notes, what notes you write, and how you start off writing with out hitting a big brick wall that stretches for ever.

Starting backwards with the brick wall, the problem may be a matter of perspective. I never expect smooth sailing. I do expect to mess up, find my way, meander, get lost, discover a new path until, eventually, I figure the whole thing out. If you don’t march into the wall but walk next to it, it may become a guide, like the guard rail or the shoulder on a highway (freeway, interstate, whatever); it may loop and curve and turn corners and take you where you need to go. Or there may be a gate. I would make friends with that wall. Examine it. Decide whether it’s made of bricks or stone or wood or chain link. Decorate it. If it’s brick, paint it. If it’s stone, stick messages or pretty things in the chinks. If it’s chain link, weave flowers through the links.

Right now I’m just starting to think about my next book, although I’m a long way from finishing the revision of Stolen Magic. I’m talking about it because Kathryn Briggs asked about getting started, and this is the earliest phase. I’m considering – although I may abandon the idea – of writing a prequel to The Two Princesses of Bamarre. If you remember the legend of Drualt, the Bamarrians had to leave their former home, which was “ravaged.” My ancestors had to leave Spain in 1492 because they were Jews, although Spain wasn’t ravaged (I don’t know how I’ll handle that), and I’d like to incorporate some of the history. So I’ve been reading up on the subject, looking for facts that intrigue me.

Here are a few things I’ve learned:

• Before the expulsion, some Jews converted to Christianity, under violent pressure, but many of these “conversos” remained in their Jewish surroundings and were accused of secret “Judaizing,” keeping up their former worship and traditions. This would stop, or so the reasoning went, if the Jews were removed.

• The Inquisition, which began before the expulsion and lasted long after, had nothing to do with Jews who weren’t pretending to be anything else. It tried conversos for Judaizing.

• In preparing to leave Spain, young Jewish girls, maybe even younger than teenage, but I’m not sure, were married off for their protection during the journey. This, in particular, has possibilities for fiction.

This is a passive stage. I’m collecting information and ideas. I am not – this is important! – forcing anything. The data and my thoughts are sitting in the back of my mind collecting mold and, I hope, fermenting, growing tentacles, connecting to each other. When I enter a more active phase, they’ll be waiting.

Here are my very first notes for Stolen Magic. None of these ideas – zero! – are in the story I’m working on now. My original idea was to write a sequel to the fairy tale “The King of the Golden River” by John Ruskin. It helps to know the story, so you might want to look it up. MM stands for Masteress Meenore and L stands for Elodie, because the book is a sequel to A Tale of Two Castles. I hope you can figure out my other abbreviations.

spose t youngest bro, Gluck, has always bn troubled by his bros as black stones.  Hires MM and L to turn them back into his bros.  Gluck cd b old by now.  He has no one to leave valley to.  This doesn’t seem so deductive now.  Maybe Gluck has been too generous.  He nds bros to hold him back, but they’re so evil.  Gluck has persuaded himself they’re not so bad.

Spose there have been groanings heard from t stones.  Spose G believes t bros have repented.  Spose tides have turned.  T river isn’t flowing.  T winds have returned and are wreaking havoc.  T river not flowing cd b bec someone has dammed it.  Too simple.

What if there’s a romantic feeling to t story?  Bronteish, so that nature reflects t feelings.  Is this me thinking, oh people will think this is great, not I think it’s great?

People believe they’re groaning.

Gluck wants them restored.  Mm says a fairy cd do it, but how wd she b persuaded to?  If there’s a king of t river, he cd do it, but how cd he b found and persuaded to?  Why does Gluck want this?  Is he somehow being threatened?  Was he not so great to begin w?

Gluck is demented in old age.  Leaves valley to his bros.  King or count or whoever wants to take it.  Two men show up, say they’re t bros.  MM & L are hired to find out truth, whether these are bros, who they are.  How wd they prove this?

Looking at this, it all seems very interesting and I no longer remember why I didn’t go this way.

My first beginning isn’t worth sharing, because it only introduces the characters in the first book. One of the problems with this early start is that it took forever for the action to get going. At one point, Elodie reads to the dragon and the ogre long passages from a book about philanthropy and greed. Yawn. I even say in the text, The book would make a cup of tea sleepy.

Here’s a segment from this early version:

I looked up.  A few clouds, a light breeze.  No immediate danger from the weather.  I looked around at the still forest.  A crow cawed.  Dead leaves rustled, likely a wood mouse.

A deep, aching groan.  His lordship reined in his oxen, and IT did the same with ours.

An elm tree crashed down on the count’s cart.

Chapter (I didn’t number them)

“Your Lordship!” I shouted.  I couldn’t see him.  Had he been hit?


Relief flooded through me.  Count Jonty Um’s voice was strong.  Nesspa barked, also sounding strong.

IT grasped my arm.  “Stay, Lodie.  More trees may fall.”  IT backed into the cart then hauled ITself out.

Why would be I be safer here than somewhere else?  IT wasn’t deducing clearly.  I waited a minute or two for a show of obedience, then stepped down.

IT and his lordship stood in the road.  His lordship held Nesspa’s collar.  Both were unharmed.

But the tree had smashed the front of the cart.  If the count had pulled the oxen up a moment sooner, he would probably have been killed.  I didn’t think even an ogre’s skull or an ogre’s back could withstand a huge tree.

The elm had come from the left side of the road.

“There may be footprints,” IT warned, advancing into the woods with surprising delicacy, balancing on ITs nails.

His lordship let Nesspa go and rose on tiptoes.  We both placed our feet with care.

None of this is in the current draft. The part you just read comes from the version (of a mystery) in which I forgot to include suspects. Oops!

Going back to the brick wall, when I remembered, after more than 200 pages, that mysteries need suspects, I had to trace my steps back to just about the beginning of the road and find a new branch. But I didn’t regard it as a dead end. I wasn’t precisely cheerful; maybe I was precisely irritated and unhappy, but I bulldozed sideways in a new direction.

Here are three prompts involving walls:

• Write about an attempt by someone (or more than one) other than the prince to get through the hedge that surrounds Sleeping Beauty. Start with a description of the wonders of that impervious hedge and keep going.

• Walls work two ways, obviously. Your MC is desperately reinforcing a wall to keep something out, a flood, a monster, an army of sentient termites, whatever you decide. Tell the story.

• Reread a few of your unfinished beginnings. Pick one of them and write a wall into the plot. See what happens.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. One way that P.G. Wodehouse outlines in one of his books is to have a journal, and write all of your story ideas in the journal. Eventually you will have a wealth of ideas that can be combined, or each one can be developed in their own story. However, this does not help with writing an actual book, so my recommendation for that is to write a couple of scenes that you are playing around with in your head, they do not have to be connected fluidly or anything like that. Then you have you A,B, and C to connect instead of just a blank page to fill.

  2. Mrs. Levine, I love your second paragraph (about making friends with the wall), and the part in which you say your ideas are collecting mold, fermenting, and growing tentacles. 🙂 Those are great visuals.
    I have a question, unrelated to the post. I'm writing a fantasy series for teens, and the first two books end with massive battles as a big part of their climaxes. Each are unique, of course, but they both involve armies numbering in the thousands. I intended for my third book to end much the same way (but even bigger, and spanning two worlds)…until I realized that the ending I had in mind was huge enough to be a whole book of its own. So then I decided to make this a four-book series. The only problem, however, is that now I have to figure out how that amputated book 3 should end. I have a tentative idea, but it involves pitting my two MCs against one of the main villains — alone. No armies, no battlefields, just three characters. Do you (and everyone else) think that could work? Would it be a letdown for readers, or rather an escalation in the intensity of the conflict? Just wondering!

  3. I'm back again. I've been a little too busy with senior year to do much writing – or blog reading. But recently I've gotten back to writing and I've caught up on the posts I missed. All excellent, but I always say that:)

    Quick question – what does B.O.B. stand for?

    The good news is, after the break from writing that I had for a while, I had a flood of new inspiration and determination for my current book. After about three weeks of madly writing, I (drum roll please) got to the end of my book! That's not to say I finished it – it needs some SERIOUS revision! – but I got to the end. I'm so happy!

  4. Gail- About what chapter do you usually start including suspects? Also, wasn't forgetting to include suspects a problem in A Tale Of Two Castles as well? I don't mean it as a insult I'm just really amazed how you can write 200 pages and then still have energy left to go back and change the plot to include more characters!

  5. I'm sure it depends on the mystery. In STOLEN MAGIC Elodie meets the first suspects in Chapter Eight. In A TALE OF TWO CASTLES, Meenore doesn't get the case until Chapter Thirteen, and then there are suspects instantly because so many people hate the victim.

    Energy is never my problem. Foresight is!

  6. I think that getting past brick walls, at least in my writing, comes from always asking questions. Some of the best questions start with "What if…?" and "Why…?" I recently wrote a short story for my Fiction class, and in my workshop my professor asked what the threat was. This got the ball rolling, and now my idea has expanded into one that would need a novel to tell it. It's still in the early stages, though, so it probably won't end up being the same. A lot of my stories start with "What if…?" and "Why…?" questions. Also, keeping a writer's journal with me to write down any questions, impressions, and ideas I have has helped me work through my questions and get past any blocks.

  7. Nice Post! And I do hate that brick wall!

    I was just wondering how you write your story, Gail. Do you write it by hand with pen and paper, or do you type your story on a computer? Just a general question.

  8. I am working on one main book at the moment, but aside from that, I'm writing on a little try-out book, I'm going to see if I can get it published before trying on what I consider my "big" story. It's a fractured fairytale about Snow-white and Rose-red. But it also incorporates TONS of other tales in it. I need more fairytales though. Specifically, fairytales with evil stepmothers. Can anyone help out? If you can just give me all the fairytales you can think of that involve evil stepmothers, or even tales with the main villain being a woman, I'd be immensely gratified. Thank you all in advance.

  9. um… Snow White. Cinderella. Hansel and Gretel (there's two evil women there–jackpot!). Sort-of-not-really Little Thumbling. Sleeping Beauty's evil fairy (also apparently her problems don't end with marrying the prince. Look up the crazy that goes down with her mother-in-law!). Rapunzel's evil witch. Technically not a traditional fairy tale, but Alice in Wonderland has the Queen of Hearts. um… The nasty sister and mother in Snakes and Diamonds (or whatever it's called… that one that inspired The Fairy's Mistake). This is stretching it, but the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood when he's pretending to be grandma.
    The sea witch in The Little Mermaid, although I'd argue that in the original version she's nowhere near as villainous as Ursula.
    The Juniper Tree (a creepier version of Hansel and Gretel).
    You could also go for Arabian Nights stories (of which I only know a few, and that was from years ago…), or mythology. Medea's a pretty nasty woman to look up, and Clytemnestra. And Meleager's mother–I think her name's Althaea. I feel like there's an evil stepmother there I'm forgetting…

    good luck! I'd be interested to hear what you come up with!

    • Going along with your myth idea theirs always Hephaestus and Hera(sometimes zeus), she's his mother and throws him out the window when she gives birth to him, after discovering he was deformed. That ones particularly interesting because she tries too get him back to olympus after finding out how clever he is. Unfortunately I can't find a real book on the internet with this version…

    • Thanks! Yah, I'm definitely using Cinderella, Snow-White, and I'm probably going to use Sleeping Beauty. I'm also going to use The Juniper Tree, only, it's gonna be a lot less gory, and I'm also going to use a few Norse and Greek myths. The Hera idea isn't half bad. I might incorporate it into the story somehow. My tale is a whole mess of characters that you'd probably recognize and even more that you won't. (I've even got Bluebeard hidden in there!) If anyone knows of some really really old fairytales, I'd like some of those too, but, the theme I need is still evil stepmothers. Thank you all.

    • For me, I can't seem to concentrate on more than two at a time. The first is my main one and the second is the one I work on when I'am absolutely stuck on my first. I had a friend who was working on twenty at once. Granted, she never finished any of them!

  10. This is an English question, so I figured that this was the best place to ask it! How do you spell the informal of yes? Is it yah, yeh, or yeah? I used to spell it yah, but then my sister said it was spelled yeh, and then I saw yeah in a book. Microsoft word recognizes all of them!

  11. I think they can all work, depending on your character. In one of my stories, my MC has a slight drawl on the word "yeah," so I write it as "yeh." But if that doesn't apply to your characters, then I agree with Agnes about "yeah" being grammatically correct.

  12. Has anyone else ever noticed that some of the fairy tales with an especially strange plot are repeated almost exactly except under a different title? Does anyone know why that is? I'm just curious.

  13. I have an unrelated question, this one about villains. I can make a villain, main characters, a plot, and a story, but I always have an issue with defeating my villain. I always get to the climax, and then I get myself stuck in a rut because I don't know how to have my MCs defeat the villain in a believable, non-cliche way that the reader will like to read. Anyone have any suggestions about defeating a villain?

    • The key to defeating a villain is locked up in her character. What's her weak spot? If she doesn't have one, you can go back and build one in. For example, if she has an exaggerated sense of her abilities she may not notice her own mistakes, which your hero can exploit to defeat her.

  14. Mrs. Levine, I know you mostly write fantasy, but you also wrote Dave at Night. I am writing a historical book loosely based on my family history. I love American history (I'm especially interested in the wars. I'm not a warmonger or anything, but more interesting things happen in wars to write about or read.) I have ancestors who fought in all the major wars, so I have lots of material to work with. At the moment, I'm writing on the two world wars and the civil wars (And am still figuring out my plot for the Revolutionary war book.) What are your thoughts on this genre? Do you have any tips for historical books. If anyone else has any thoughts on this, or enjoys reading books on American wars, I'd be grateful for input. Any good websites on writing stuff on the wars, or books on them, would also be helpful. Thanks a lot!

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