Picture the scene:
A DVD of the hottest new release is ready and waiting. A bottle of your favourite merlot is winking at you from the coffee table. The drapes are closed on the chilly night. But instead of indulging, you walk bravely out of the room and go up the stairs, up to the small box-room. Over by the desk, you connect your butt to the chair and your fingers to the keys of the laptop. In a short space of time, you are in the imaginary world of your imaginary characters.
Only of course, these fictional people are real to you. They have to be real to you, and you have to believe in them, in order to bring them alive for your readers. I think this is one of the main cornerstones of writing a book, along with switching off the telly, ignoring the mobile as well as the wine, and logging off the internet.
The best writing manuals tell us that well-crafted, engaging characters walk off the page and creep into our hearts. Caring about their hopes and dreams, empathising with them when life goes belly-up, and wanting to know what happens next in the context of how they’ll deal with it when their worst fears are realised, are the ingredients that keep us turning the pages. It also helps to make us feel we are not alone, even in that box-room.
There is lots of wise and wonderful advice out there for getting to know your characters inside and out and creating a brilliant plot, but for me, no matter how in-depth a profile or sketchy a plot I initially put together, the best way I get to know my characters and discover what makes them tick and what would work with the plot is by starting the book and writing about them, dropping them into scenes, and seeing how they interact with other characters and deal with difficulties, even if it means my first draft (and particularly my first few chapters) has to be extensively re-written as I come to know them more and more and fine tune the plot.
It’s a long, challenging journey between Chapter One and The End, but by and large, those fictional people keep you company as you push them to the limits of their endurance with surprising plot twists, and then rescue them at the last minute. The characters kept me going through the hours of butt-in-chair when I was writing The Compromise. They lured me to the laptop, whether I was in the mood or not, because I just had to commit their stories to the page. The Compromise spans over forty years, from the time the vibrant, rebellious Juliet meets the anxious-to-please Rose, and her down-to-earth loyal and loveable sister Rebecca, on the historic ‘contraceptive train’* from Belfast, right through to the present day.
Into the mix comes the eager, self-assured Matthew, who wants to go all the way to the top, and later in the story comes Danielle, Rebecca’s daughter, who has fled to Rome following her broken engagement. Before the plot has developed, there already is scope for conflict in the dynamic between these people.
I threw my characters together against a Chapter One plot-point in the present day, where Juliet finds herself clinging to life at the bottom of a cliff as the night deepens around her, not knowing if she fell or was pushed. Spiral back to the significant, plot-point day she met Rose and Rebecca, against a 1970’s landscape where women had to give up their jobs on marriage, and men had control of the family home. By the time they laughed and cried, and shared secrets and lies through the lean grey 80’s, the optimistic 90’s, the promises of the Celtic Tiger and beyond, you can guess who was the activist, heedless of the drastic consequences; who wanted to settle for a quiet life, until her husband’s ambitious plans put that at risk; and who was caught in the middle, wanting everyone to be happy only to find herself trapped in a dilemma when the people she loved seemed hell bent on a path of self-destruction.
So the plot developed by knowing the characters so well that I knew where to push and pull and how and where to make them face their greatest fears. It wasn’t easy, and there were times I had to walk away from the laptop, overwhelmed myself. By the time I’d reached the end of the book and the long, challenging journey, I didn’t want to say goodbye.
I wanted to share a bottle of wine and a spag bol meal with Juliet, and sit on her patio overlooking the sea: I wanted to go to a pampering spa with Rose and bring her on a totally relaxing chill-out day. I wanted to sip hot chocolate with Danielle in Rome, and laugh with Rebecca and feel her loving hand on my arm.
But I had to type The End, and leave them and all the colourful twists and turns of their lives, and turn off the laptop, and go downstairs to that DVD and bottle of merlot.
Then again… there’s always the next book…
*Early one Saturday morning in May 1971, a group of women from the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement took the train to Belfast to buy contraceptives, which were illegal to import or sell in the Irish Republic. They returned to Dublin with thousands of contraceptives and challenged the Customs Officers with their contraband. It was a milestone in the history of the Irish Women’s movement and it became known as the ‘contraceptive’ or ‘condom’ train.
PS: Thanks to Vanessa for the wonderful opportunity of being part of the writing.ie experience. It’s a truly fantastic resource for writers and reader alike.
About Zoë Miller:
Zoë lives in Dublin with her husband, and has three children. She has been writing since her childhood. The Compromise is Zoë’s fifth novel published by Hachette Ireland. Zoë writes glitzy, racy novels full of drama and intrigue, designed to help you escape away to a different world. Find out more by visiting http://www.zoemillerauthor.com
About The Compromise:
Childhood friends Juliet, Rebecca, Rose and Matthew grew up in a small village outside Dublin. Now, privileged, wealthy and powerful, they appear to have it all. But when Juliet is involved in a suspicious accident and lies trapped between life and death at the bottom of a cliff, a secret, hidden for years, threatens the seemingly perfect lives of the close-knit group.
For the beautiful, fragile Rose, Juliet’s accident brings unwanted attention on the sins of the past. For her husband, the ruthlessly ambitious Matthew, it removes a critical obstacle from the path of his political career. And as Rebecca discovers more about the night of the incident, she begins to wonder if she ever knew the real Juliet Jordan.
Rebecca’s troubled young daughter Danielle, hiding out in Rome, knows a truth that can shed light on what happened. But as secrets are revealed, the childhood friends are about to discover that, sometimes, old friends are the ones you know the least.