I blogged last month about myths, legends and fairy tales: the wisdom they contain and how they can be a wellspring for all kinds of storytelling. This month I’ll talk about building my new novel, Heart’s Blood, from the structural framework of my favourite fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast.
First up, I had no intention of re-telling a traditional story. I wanted to write a novel about acceptance: learning to see beyond a person’s exterior to their inner qualities; learning to accept yourself, flaws and all. My characters would go on a journey through which they would learn that lesson. Along the way they’d make mistakes, endure trials and come close to losing everything they cared about. With its theme of loving the apparently unlovable, Beauty and the Beast already held the kernel of that idea.
Writing a book begins, for me, with a fairly fluid ‘ideas’ phase, when there’s a lot of stuff swimming around in my mind: themes, settings, character development, and if there’s a fairy tale element, how I want to use it. After a lot of thinking, I start making notes and doing research.
Visitors to this blog will know that I am one of those writers who must have a framework in place before beginning to write the story. Once the plan’s in place, I start on page one and write sequentially to the end, editing a few chapters at a time as I go. For me there’s no such thing as a first draft. There’s one continuously evolving draft up till the time when I submit the manuscript.
My plan interwove Beauty and the Beast – a love story – with three other threads: a historical story, a ghost story and a dark family saga. Beauty and the Beast is wonderfully romantic, but its basic form would not satisfy today’s reader as the plot of a novel. I knew straightaway what would go into the Keep, Discard and Change baskets.
The fragile relationship between the two main characters
The isolated household with its odd retainers – creating them was one of the best parts!
The peril of miscommunication
The overarching theme of acceptance / self-acceptance
Magic mirrors: There are more of these in my story than there are in the fairy tale.
Beauty’s passivity: she’s often the victim of her family’s poor decisions. My character, Caitrin, is on a mission to be her own woman again after going through a traumatic experience.
Beauty’s goodness: Caitrin is a good and beautiful person, but she is no ministering angel. She’s a real, imperfect human woman, who comes with her own emotional baggage.
The ending: No click-your-fingers beautification for my Beast. I dislike stories where people are magically transformed into perfect specimens. How much more satisfying if the hero’s physical imperfection has, by the end of the story, simply become unimportant.
The reader will find plenty of fairy tale elements sprinkled through Heart’s Blood, starting with a forbidden garden, but all presented in my own way. As a reader, I feel a thrill of recognition when a writer uses a powerful traditional element in a new book. We’re sharing the brew from that ever-simmering cauldron of story.
The plan for Heart’s Blood ended up looking complicated. Along with the passage of time it showed the development of four story threads in parallel, and a ‘who knows what when’ indicator for its mystery element. Then there was the mode of storytelling. Most of the novel is in Caitrin’s first person narrative. This is interspersed with excerpts from the diaries, letters and records in Anluan’s disordered library, where Caitrin is employed as a scribe. There are also secret margin notes in a botanical notebook, the unreliable memories of the characters, and mirrors that can be windows into the past. It was challenging to fit all these elements together while retaining a good pace and keeping the story coherent.
As I’ve mentioned previously, Heart’s Blood was written in two stages. I had written as far as Chapter 4 when an editorial decision required me to set the manuscript aside and write a completely different novel, Heir to Sevenwaters. It was extremely hard to get back into Heart’s Blood after almost a year’s break – several times along the way I nearly lost my faith in the project. Anluan’s dark bouts of depression didn’t help my state of mind! Having that plan to follow was immensely helpful in keeping me going, as was the support of my writers’ group and family.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Heart’s Blood is out this week in the USA and Australia for readers to sample. I hope everyone enjoys it, whether it’s as pure entertainment or on a deeper level.