Family skeletons and state secrets

What is a secret? Something someone knows about you that you hope they’ll never tell? Or something only you know and keep your fingers crossed that nobody else ever finds out? Or something just about everybody knows but hasn’t been admitted out loud?

Secrets are one of the most powerful ingredients in the mix of a great story. They can be international state secrets or personal, from yesterday or years ago, and publishers love the ones that work on both personal and political levels. Let’s see what secrets your main characters have lurking around.

Stage 3 – let’s go digging for secrets:

Take time to settle yourself in peace with your favourite writing materials. Give yourself plenty of time, a tea or coffee and favourite biscuit maybe, and invite your main character to come forward for a scribble-chat.

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We’re after the strange magic that comes whenever our invented people talk to us in our imaginations and we catch the conversation in writing as we go. Something about this process deepens our relationship with our characters in a way that day-dreaming and spread-sheeting our characters can’t hope to match, though those play their parts too.

As before, guide your character gently into the areas you want to cover but let the character be expansive. Have a go with the questions below and see what nuggets of gold turn up. As ever, ‘you’ is the fictional character you’re discovering and you are interviewing gently, like a best friend:

  • Are you now or have you ever been in love? How do you feel about it, looking back? How did it feel at the time? How did things pan out?
  • What was your first sexual experience? How did it feel then? How do you feel about it now? Repercussions?
  • What is your sexual orientation? How do you feel about it?
  • What is your most painful memory?
  • Your happiest memory?
  • Do you have any secrets?
  • Do you have someone else’s secret? How does that feel? Do you want to do anything about it?
  • Have you ever been betrayed? How has it affected your life?
  • Have you ever betrayed someone close to you? If so, how do you justify this to yourself? How has it affected your relationship?
  • What do you most regret having done?
  • And what do you most regret not having done?
  • What would you say is your world view?

Any one of these questions could fill hours if you let it. When you find that your scribble-chat is taking on a life of its own, coming to your page or screen as if it’s not your writing at all but somehow channelled from the gods, please please keep writing as long as you can. These are the pieces of writing that sometimes lead to whole chapters or can go straight, hot-minted, into your draft. For me this adventure is the most intoxicating thing about writing.

Prepare to surprise yourself. As Anthony Powell said, ‘One of the worst things in life is not how the nasty people are. You know that already. It’s how nasty the nice people can be.

Follow your own lead and add to the questions whatever way you like.

Next we will look at how to use your discoveries to unearth the most urgent and exciting parts of your story. I don’t mean that we’ll ditch the raw first-draft wildness – that can be precious and exciting – but these scribble-chats will guide you straight to the hot stuff, saving you maybe several exploratory drafts.

SHORTCUT

Now you’re in a great position to assess the main peaks and troughs in your character’s life. If you have time to write one or two of those turning points as short stories, those scenes will feel less daunting as you approach them later. You might find yourself writing something unexpected and useful.

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I’ll leave you with Robert Graves‘ desk (above) in Mallorca where I paid homage last week. Complete with a pot of fresh rosemary.

Next week, Stage 4 – where is your plot’s engine?

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