Tuesday, 15 January 2013

7. Can You Open the Doors of a Plane In Flight?

I had a great plot line planned for "The Blue Angels" in which Joshua Hayle, the novel's chief villain, throws Frank Quinn (a lapsed henchman) out of his private plane into the sea somewhere between Nunavut and Greenland. As an aside, the fact that this scene was to be set in December makes it feel worse somehow, but I’m fairly sure that the season wouldn’t be of primary concern to poor old Frank as he plummeted to his death. Anyway, I decided to research the issues around this particular plot line to see how realistic a proposition it really was. It turns out that I was right to do so as, for various reasons, it’s not actually possible to open an aircraft door in flight, especially if the cabin is pressurised (as is the case in “The Blue Angels”). The basic reason for this is that aircraft doors are designed for safety and, as a part of this effort, they have to be pulled inwards before they can be opened outwards. With the pressure difference between the cabin and the troposphere being huge (let’s say 8 pounds per square inch just to get a number in) it would take a large piece of pneumatic machinery to pull the door in against the huge weight of air pushing outwards. A human being – even a very strong one – just wouldn’t stand a chance. Of course, this is just one reason the doors won’t open and there are myriad safety systems in play in a scenario of multiple redundancy. It was enough to scupper my plans though. So, it’s back to the drawing board and Frank Quinn lives to fight another day.
On a personal level, I was pleased to learn of this impossibility even if it causes me extra work. Now, if I am unlucky enough to find myself on a plane with a nutcase trying to open the doors, I can scream along with everyone else but know, in my heart, that all he’ll be wasting is our time.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

6. Limnic Eruptions and Exploding Lakes

Part of the plotline of “The Blue Angels” concerns itself with natural disasters, so I set myself the task of researching different types. We can all name some: earthquakes and tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, tornadoes and other types of storm, forest fires, landslips… the list goes on. The chances are that most of you will remember seeing reports of many of these on television, or in the newspapers, even if the exact date or location eludes you. Most of the world’s population lives in the shadow of at least one type of natural disaster and with climate change tightening its grip, that proportion is increasing all the time.

Of all the ways in which Mother Earth can kill, however, the phenomenon of the limnic eruption is one of the rarest - there have only been two in recorded history. What might be surprising then, is that both of these were within living memory, and both occurred within a short distance of each other. In a limnic eruption, vast volumes of gas are suddenly released from a body of water, suffocating surrounding animals and people. In 1984, Lake Monoun in Cameroon erupted, which killed 37 people. In 1986, neighbouring Lake Nyos erupted too, killing between 1700 and 1800 people. The second of these eruptions is known to have produced 80 million cubic metres of carbon dioxide. So, what is it about these two lakes that makes them so dangerous? Could the same thing happen at Windermere, Huron, Como, Baikal or Victoria?

What Makes a Lake “Explode”?

For a limnic eruption to occur, the lake must be saturated with dissolved gas. In Lakes Monoun and Nyos the gas in question was carbon dioxide, but at Lake Kivu (a limnically active lake that lies on the border between Rwanda and the DRC), methane is also a worry. The dissolved gas may come from volcanic sources under the lake bed, or from the decomposition of organic material, or it may be dissolved in the lake’s inflow. While the lake is building up to this point, it behaves like an unopened soda bottle: gas under higher pressure dissolves much more readily than gas at lower pressure. This is why bubbles in a soda can only form once the can is opened, as the release of pressure forces excess gas out of solution. In a lake, pressure increases steadily with depth, reaching a maximum at the lake bed. Gases such as carbon dioxide also dissolve more readily in cooler water, which is typically found at the lake bottom. Hence, a large deep lake can dissolved huge quantities of gas.

Once the lake is saturated with gas, it becomes unstable, only requiring a suitable trigger event to set off an eruption. In the case of Lake Nyos in 1986, landslides are suspected but a volcanic eruption, an earthquake or even wind and rain could trigger similar events in susceptible bodies of water. The trigger event displaces some of the gas-saturated water upwards, lowering its pressure and forcing it to release some of its dissolved gas as bubbles. These bubbles rise, pushing more water ahead of them, which in turn is forced to surrender some of its gas and so on. In this way, a column of rising gas quickly forms that pulls water and sediment from the bottom of the lake by suction, causing a runaway process. The released gas and sediment-rich water erupts onto the lake’s surface, giving it a boiling, dirty appearance. If the released gas is heavier than air (as is the case with carbon dioxide) then it cannot rise further and instead begins to spread out over the lake’s surface and ultimately onto surrounding land.

Fortunately, this type of eruption is rare. Firstly, there must be a source of gas, predisposing regions with volcanic activity. Secondly, lakes in the world’s temperate regions undergo regular “turn over” in response to seasonal surface temperature changes. These changes encourage water from different depths to mix, causing gases to be released much more gradually and preventing saturation. Finally, the lake must be deep in order to offer the high pressure, low temperature conditions that are favourable to limnic activity. Together, these factors imply that limnic eruptions are only possible in deep, stable, tropical volcanic lakes.

What are the Consequences of a Limnic Eruption?

As the released gas flows across the lake’s surface and onto neighbouring land, it pushes breathable air upwards. Carbon dioxide acidified body fluids and is toxic even at relatively low concentrations. Unlike other tasteless, colourless gases such as nitrogen, high levels in the blood causes the respiratory system to gasp, in an attempt to secure the required oxygen, thus speeding up its toxic effects.

At Lake Nyos, the gas cloud descended from the lake into a nearby village where it settled, killing nearly everyone. Fatalities were recorded as far as 16 miles from the lake. Some of the bodies exhibited a change in skin color, leading scientists to believe that the gas cloud may also have contained a dissolved acid, but this is uncertain. Many victims were found with blistered skin. This is believed to have been caused by low blood oxygen. At the lake’s edge, vegetation was damaged or destroyed by a five metre tsunami. Vegetation further away was largely unaffected, as would be expected from a temporary glut of carbon dioxide.

In one final twist, many victims were also found with what appeared to be frost bite: the gas released from the lake bottom would have been very cold. Victims would have experienced a sudden and prolonged wind of bitter cold “air”. Some survivors reported a smell of rotten eggs and feeling warm before passing out. This can be explained by the fact that, at high concentrations, carbon dioxide acts as a sensory hallucinogenic.

What Can Be Done?

In 1990, a team of French scientists began to experiment with a controlled degassing of Lakes Monoun and Nyos. Under this scheme, a long tube is inserted vertically into the lake, with its upper end standing clear of the lake’s surface. A small amount of gas-saturated water is then pumped upwards, causing it to give up its gas. The gas then rises as bubbles, pushing water ahead of it as before. In open water, this effect spreads outwards as well as vertically, to create the runaway reaction described above. Inside the pipe, however, this outward spread is not possible, and so fresh water is drawn into the bottom of the pipe to create a kind of siphon. Gas and water emerge from the top of the pipe and gas concentrations in the lake are slowly lowered, reducing the risk of a further eruption.

Degassing Lake Nyos

Sunday, 18 November 2012

5. The Blue Spruce Routes

The plot of “The Blue Angels” demands that two reluctant characters be smuggled into the US from the UK using small business jets. I had an idea that these tiny craft might lack the range for a direct crossing and wondered how it might be done. After all, as David Lloyd George once remarked, “there is nothing more dangerous than to leap a chasm in two jumps.” It was time for more research. First, I had to decide which type of plane Joshua Hayle, the novel’s “villain”, might own, or be able to dragoon into service at short notice. Hayle is a man of means and connections, and is not someone to whom compromise comes easily. It seemed to me that the iconic Lear Jet, beloved accessory of rock and movie stars, would be the obvious choice. After some research into this area, I decided on the Lear Jet 85, a new member of the Lear Jet line. I did not intend to name the plane in the novel, but it was vital that I had sufficient reference material to enable realistic descriptions of it and its interior, and to calculate likely flight times. I downloaded brochures and technical specs from the Bombardier Aerospace web site and discovered that the plane’s maximum range was 3,455 NM, give or take. This sounded sufficient but, given the number of provisos attached to this figure, I had doubts. I consulted a number of on-line forums to see if it was possible and, in doing so, “discovered” the eponymous “Blue Spruce” routes. These transatlantic routes, which pass over vast stretches of boreal forest and which land in a number of unfamiliar destinations en-route, felt perfect for a clandestine operation. I picked one and researched it so that I could describe what a passenger travelling one of these routes might see from his window.

The route I chose begins in Prestwick in southern Scotland. This airport’s main claim to fame is as the only patch of the United Kingdom upon which Elvis Presley set foot. Rumours persist of a day in London in 1958, guided by Tommy Steele, but Prestwick can boast photographic evidence from 1960 when Elvis’ army transport plane touched down to refuel on its way home. From Prestwick, my chosen route lands in several exotic locations.

Reykjavik, Iceland

 Iceland is firmly on the tourist map these days and its colourful houses are readily recognisable.
Iceland's Colourful Houses
Reykjavik Aiport from the Air
The airport is still an impressive sight from the air however.

From Iceland, and its relative familiarity, the route continues to Greenland, a vast, apparently empty landmass that has captured my imagination since I was a child. 

Kangerlussuaq, Greenland

One of the most surprising things about Greenland is the fact that is owned by Denmark. I don’t know the history; that’s something for another day. Another surprise is that Greenland is home to a permanent civilian population, numbered in the tens of thousands. If you look at a map of it in any reasonable world atlas, you will see several settlements indicated around its south coast, many of which bear names that are redolent of Inuit culture. I was vaguely aware of these facts already, but I had no idea that Greenland also hosts a number of international airports, one of which is at Kangerlussuaq. I found a travelogue that was posted by a group of friends who had made the journey eastward. In one picture, one member of the group is seen sitting in a tee-shirt, in a comfortable and modern-looking departure lounge, about to tuck into a huge burger, just like any traveller in any airport in the developed world. The difference here was that the burger was of musk-ox meat.

Kangerlussuaq Airport, Greenland
That traveller’s tee-shirt got me thinking about temperatures. He may have been travelling in the height of summer, but “The Blue Angels” is set in October. He was also prepared for his journey; my characters are not. A further search revealed that average daily temperatures at this airport for that month range between -2C and -10C. That’s cold - especially for someone who is dressed only in thin clothing. I imagined how such a passenger might abandon a spur of the moment escape bid to a distant terminal in favour of the warmth of a second plane should a changeover be required in such temperatures.

Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada

The final exotic location on my chosen route is Iqaluit, with its bright canary yellow airport terminal.
Iqualuit Airport, Nunavut, Canada
Nunavut is Canada’s newest province and is known as “the homeland of the Inuit people”. The daily average temperature here in October is a cool -5C.

The Onward Journey

From Iqaluit, westbound planes may take individual routes, as the Atlantic is now behind them, and landing and refuelling sites are much easier to find.


I had never given any real thought to the problem of crossing the Atlantic in anything other than an Ocean liner or a huge passenger plane. I had also assumed that Greenland and the northern reaches of eastern Canada were untamed wilderness. Now, thanks to the research that I have undertaken for “The Blue Angels” I know different. I also have an idea for a very different holiday.

One day.


Wednesday, 7 November 2012

4. Keeping Track of Progress

So, let’s suppose that you followed some or all the tips in my earlier “Getting Started” post, or that you worked things out for yourself, and that you’re now writing. How do you keep track of progress? How do you keep track of all the questions that crop up while you’re writing? No matter how thorough your research, there will always - I suspect - be questions that crop up that will require an answer but do you really want to break your stride to answer them now? If not, you’ll need somewhere to keep them all so that you can go back to them later.
When I first started to write "The Marguerite Effect" I had no real plan and, as it was going to be a short story, it was all in one document, so I could easily get a word count. If I found that I needed to answer a question, then I could simply include the question in the text: (e.g. “It was <<the date of the night before the battle of Quatre-Bras>>”) and carry on, to revisit the question later. This was fine until I had reached 25,000 words and realised that I had a lot more to say. “Marguerite” was becoming a novel. At first, I didn’t really know what I needed to know, but I had a few ideas. I’d need to know: how many words were in each chapter and how many scene-breaks, for example. I’d also like somewhere to go for a simple, broad-brush prĂ©cis of the chapter, to help me find it again quickly should I need to go back to fill in the answer to a question. A word count for the whole novel is a valuable thing to know, as is the average length of a chapter. With these questions in mind, I began to develop the Excel workbook that I continue to use for “The Blue Angels”. For simplicity, I keep the workbook in the same folder as the novel itself, or close by (in a parent folder, for example).

My Writing Workbook

I’ll attach a copy of the workbook at the end of this post for anyone who’s interested. If you do download it and use it, I’d be interested to hear of any enhancements you make.
In my workbook, there are a minimum of two worksheets, one showing each chapter in a separate row, and the other, the “To Do” sheet, that shows my questions and thoughts. I should mention at this point that the “thoughts” in the second worksheet are quick things that have a bearing perhaps on this and/or later chapters. They aren’t detailed research results: I keep these in OneNote.

The Columns of the Word Count Worksheet

A.    Part: The Blue Angels is arranged in parts (all within the one book/ebook). This indicates which part contains the chapter.
B.     Chapter: This contains a hyperlink to the document that contains the chapter in question. Hyperlinks are easy to create in Excel.
C.     This hidden column is used to calculate column D. The formula in this column searches the “To Do” worksheet for unresolved items:
(for row 27) =MATCH(G27,'To Do'!A:A,0)
D.    See the "To Do" Worksheet: This column interprets the result of the calculation in column C and, if it indicates the presence of unresolved “To Do” items for the chapter, displays a hyperlink to the first of them. This gives a ready visual check of those chapters that require a little more research and makes it easy to locate pertinent questions.
E.     Draft: You will visit and revisit your work. This is the revision number of your chapter. It’s up to you how big a change constitutes a new draft: you may decide that any edit requires a new draft number, or you may decide that a substantial re-work is required. I tend toward the latter: any change that feels big enough to require a fresh proof-read gets a new draft number.
F.     Read By: I use this to tell me who has proof read this chapter. I use X to indicate that no-one has read it and <WIP> to indicate that I am currently working on this chapter. Otherwise, I simply add an initial. You may wonder why I use the <WIP> convention - after all, we’re always working on the last chapter aren’t we? This might be true during the first draft but when you’re re-drafting, it almost invariably won’t be. Placing <WIP> in this column is a useful habit as it clears it of proof-reads before a rework and reminds you where you were when you last finished work.           
Hint: I write on the train and so am often forced to stop writing at inopportune moments. If this is the case, I quickly write <HERE!!> into the document at the current location. This makes it easy to find out where I was even if I have to shut down the computer until the next day. This is a little risky, as I might leave one behind, but I find it very useful and worth the risk.
G.    Ch. #: (The chapter number). This is required to work out the average chapter length and to search the “To Do” list.
H.    Start Date & Time (Local): This column is used in the fight again continuity errors that I alluded to in an earlier post. This marks the date and time when the action described in the chapter begins. For me, the year is immaterial, so I just pick one and stick to it. I also opt not to display the year here. You must do what suits you.
I.       End Date & Time (Local): This column marks the date and time when the action described in the chapter ends.
J.       GMT Offset (Hours): “The Blue Angels” is set in England, Texas and (unless plans change) Italy. I am physically located in England, so GMT is my natural time zone. This column helps me track of the novel’s timeline in absolute GMT terms.
K.    Location: This describes where action described in the chapter actually takes place.
L.     Scenes: How many scenes are there in this chapter? I tend to use a centre-aligned *** to mark a scene break, but there are other conventions.
M.    Words: How many words are in this chapter? Microsoft word gives you this free and it’s a valuable piece of information: not only can you track the length of your novel; you can check if the chapters all conform to the novel’s “rhythm”.
Hint: It’s broadly accepted that a novel’s chapters should be of similar length. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but it is something of which you should be aware.
N.     Pages: This is the number of pages that this chapter occupies and will always be an “approximation” as there is no single correct value: it depends on the format and font size of your printed book, or the settings of the ebook reader. Kindle appears to use a figure of around 300 words per page in its ebook listings. I simply use what Word gives me. It’s up to you.
O.    Running Word Count: How many words have you written up to and including the end of this chapter?
P.     Running Page Count: How may pages have you written up to an including the end of this chapter?
Q.    Novel Progress: How far into the novel are you? This the percentage of the novel, in terms of word count, that you have written so far, including this chapter. To give this figure meaning early on, I assume that the novel will be at least 85,000 words on completion, hence the formula (for row 2, e.g.): =I2/(MAX(F$1,85000))
R.    Avg. Chapter Length: How many words are there in an average chapter up to the end of this chapter? This helps you gauge how well you’re keeping to your novel’s “rhythm”.
S.      Chapter Summary: This column gives a very brief description of what happens in the chapter, to help you to find a particular one more quickly when reworking.

The Columns of the “To Do” worksheet.

A.    Chapter: This is the number of the chapter to which the “To Do” item is linked.
B.     To Do / Question: This is the question or “To Do” item itself. It describes the query/issue.
C.     Resolved? This is a simple “Y”/”N” field: “Y” implies that the item is resolved and need not appear as a hyperlink in the main worksheet. “N” implies that the item is still open.           
Hint: I have chosen to show the number of unresolved items in the header of this column, as a ready reckoner. The value of header cell is given by the formula:
=CONCATENATE("Resolved? (", COUNTIF(D2:D2001,"N"), ")")
D.    Resolution / Answer: This is the resolution to the issue raised, or the answer to the question, as appropriate.

How To Use the Workbook

It’s easy to use the workbook described above. Simply open it in Excel. When you start a new chapter, copy a row of the main worksheet into the clipboard, paste it in (usually at the bottom) and edit the values to suit. Copying and pasting is used to preserve the formulae. Similarly, to raise a new “To Do” item, copy and paste an existing row and tailor it. If I want to raise an issue that is more general (i.e. that applies to the whole novel and not just a single chapter) then I simply specify chapter number zero in the appropriate column. When you have an answer to the “To Do” item, write appropriate text into the resolution column and set the resolved column to “Y”. It’s as simple as that.
I find that it’s best to open the workbook first and then to use the hyperlinks to open the actual Word documents. This makes it more natural to update the word counts etc. once I finish work on a chapter.

I hope this little glimpse into my working methods is helpful to you. Please download the Excel Workbook (from which all spoilers have been removed!) and see what you think. I'm new to Google Docs etc. so please bear with me if the link doesn't work.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

3. How to Load a Beretta M9

This is an example of the need for research. Whatever you think you know, if you’re not sure of your facts, you’ll need to perform research as your readers might (and probably will) know more than you.

Guns feature in the plot of “The Blue Angels”. While those guns remained in the hands of the story’s bad guys, Frank Quinn and Patrick McGuigan, there wasn’t any real need to say much about them (from the point of view of the plot’s hero, “Milton Styles”, they were simply guns). Mention is made of a silencer but, apart from that, extra details were not required. My problems began when Milton gets hold of one in a later chapter (he’s an ordinary, white-collar Englishman who has never seen a real gun, let alone handled one).

In particular, I wanted to write a scene that takes places Lynda’s car (Lynda is Milton’s friend and lover). In this scene, Lynda would be at the wheel of her stationery car, with Milton sitting beside her. She has just used the gun but now she needs to get rid of it quickly as Frank Quinn is in pursuit on foot. She achieves this by thrusting the gun into Milton’s hand. As soon as it’s in his possession, Milton goes to pieces. He’s afraid to point it anywhere for fear of shooting himself, or Lynda, or some vital part of the car. He knows that guns generally have safety catches but has no idea how they work. We all know that a gun may be fired by squeezing the trigger, but can it also be fired accidentally by dropping it (for example)? To answer these questions, the gun had to move from the abstract into the concrete: it had to become a particular type of gun.

Research pointed me toward a Beretta M9. From what I could ascertain, it is - or was - a commonly used weapon within the US military (Frank Quinn is American) and can be made to work through a silencer, even if a true connoisseur might not choose to do so. I’m sure that there will be readers who will take issue with my choice, but it is reasonable for a man who is employed by a wealthy individual who cares about results but not details. Having established the make and model of gun in question, I was able to compile copious notes (in a series of OneNote pages) that detailed the gun’s history, usage, appearance etc. I also found that I had to research the history of safety catches in general, in order to appreciate the different types available and, in particular, the type offered with the Beretta. With this information, I could allow Lynda to have a limited knowledge of firearms in general, which she could use to guide and reassure Milton as he sought the gun’s safety switch. For his part, Milton could describe the gun, either to himself or to Lynda, in order to reassure himself before flicking the switch and stowing the gun into the glovebox with the reasonable expectation that it wouldn’t go off. Crucially, the research material provided the knowledge required to write about the gun confidently, realistically and in a consistent way. Also, if I refer to it later, I can go back to my research material and make sure I get things right.

And now, as promised, instructions on how to load a Beretta M9 (Even these were enlightening, as they told me how many rounds the gun can take, and what calibre they are). I did wonder if publishing this detail might be irresponsible, but decided, in the end, that anyone who actually has a Beretta M9 is likely to know how to load it!

1.      Load the magazine. Place one 9 mm bullet at a time onto the top opening of the magazine. Push and simultaneously slide the bullet back against the magazine wall. Repeat until all 15 rounds are loaded into the magazine.
2.      Engage the safety switch located on the top-left of the M9, just near the rear sight. Flip the switch down to cover the red dot. The covered red dot indicates that the safety is on.
3.      Slide the magazine into the magazine well (pistol grip bottom). When you hear a click, the magazine is locked into the weapon.
4.      Grasp the serrated area of the slide, then pull it to the rear and release. This action chambers a round.
5.      Disengage the safety switch by flipping it back up, revealing the red dot. You're now ready to fire the weapon.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

2. Getting Started


The writing of “The Marguerite Effect” was, in many ways, a chaotic experience. It doesn’t show now because the finished product is actually the ninth major version. The chaos made the writing process both fun and deeply frustrating and I vowed to do it differently the next time. Without a plan I had no plot line to follow and no idea what was going to happen - even on the next page. In many ways, it was more like reading a book than writing one. My creative writing course notes and teaching literature suggested different methods of working, and several established authors were kind enough to contribute insights on their own practices, but I think it was too soon for me: I had to make the mistakes to realise the wisdom in their words. It’s important to remember at this point that there is no “right way” to write a book. I’m simply letting you know what happened during the writing of my first novel and how I responded to these challenges to facilitate the second. Nothing is set in stone, but I haven’t made any real changes to how I work for six months or more now, so it looks as though I may have arrived at my own “optimal” solution.
Below is a summary of how I work. If you’re struggling to get started, or to stay focussed, try these methods and adapt them to you. They’re all pretty loose and don’t require any special software but, for the record, I use Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel and Microsoft OneNote and will refer to them. Each can be replaced with other software and some can be replaced with paper-based solutions as you wish. “Other software packages are available” as they say on the BBC.

Write the Synopsis First

By the time I began writing “The Blue Angels”, I had learned my lesson about writing without a plan, so I wrote the synopsis first. In this case, the synopsis was a bunch of bullet points, in (broadly) chronological order that together expressed the turning points of the story. Each bullet point can be a sentence or a paragraph and need not be written in well-formed language. The important thing is that each moves the story on in some way by expression an action. Here is a typical example from my OneNote notebook:
Hayle forces Milton to appear with him as "Plato" in a televised press conference, threatening Lynda's life if he doesn't go along with it.
Keep on adding bullet points until you have the outline of your plot. This will guide you when you feel lost or temporarily overwhelmed.

Revisit Your Synopsis for Character Development

Once the plot outline is complete, you will have what is effectively a child’s version of your story. I say a child’s version, as each part of the plot may well lack any nod to character motivation. “A does this. A does that. B does something to A” Now is the time to ask yourself why these things happen. Revisit your synopsis and ask yourself questions: Why would A do this? Could it happen? What would be necessary for it to happen? What would the effects of it be and do they chime with the plot points further down? How would A have to be feeling in order to do this and how would it make B feel? By asking these questions and expanding your bullet points with thoughts as to the answers, you will address several fundamental issues. For one, you will start to consider your character’s personalities. You will also start to think more about the setting and the backdrop to the story. You will probably want to make a note of your characters’ personality traits, handedness, appearance etc. (again, I use OneNote) so that motivations and descriptions are consistent throughout the plot. You might be surprised how much the plot outline changes at this stage but that’s fine: it’s all a part of the process. It’s far better to have to make big changes now when you have perhaps 3,000 words rather than later, when you have 83,000.

Revisit Your Synopsis for Continuity

Now that you know what happens and why, you’ll also want to think about where it happens, when it happens, and how long it all takes. If you don’t consider these dimensions, you might find your characters live in a world of permanent daylight, or take a day to walk across the room. These are extreme mistakes, but are surprisingly easy to commit. At this stage, I find it useful to annotate the bullet points with location, start date/time and end date/time. Again, the plot may change at this stage, but I find that, by now, things will be much more stable.

[Day 6, 14:00CDT to 15:00CDT, Church compound, Texas] Hayle forces Milton to appear with him as "Plato" in a televised press conference, threatening Lynda's life if he doesn't go along with it.

Model Your Characters, Locations and Equipment

By now your characters will be well defined, at least in terms of their motivations, but what do they look like? How do they move? Are they left-handed, musical etc. What brought them to where they are?
These questions may appear daunting, but it’s worth taking a little effort here for the sake of continuity and to help you get inside your character’s heads, which is vital for convincing dialogue and flow. By a “little effort” I mean, “as much as is necessary at this stage”. Don’t feel that you have to write full CVs for everyone, and remember that not everything you decide upon here needs to end up in your story: it’s there to inform you, the author. How much of it is given to the reader, and how quickly, is up to you. I use OneNote to create a page for each character and location used, and hyperlink them together to establish relationships. Here is an example that I created for “Milton Styles” who is the main character of the “The Blue Angels”.

·         Hero
·         Aged 38
·         Widower of Cathy
·         Father of Stacey (deceased)
·         Disafter member
·         Friend and lover of Lynda
·         Lives in Croverbridge
·         6'2"

That was all I needed to get started. Each of the links leads to a separate page which describes the character, location or item of equipment as appropriate. As I write, I may throw in an eye colour, or handedness. If so, I should add it here, so that I can remember what I wrote and keep it consistent later. I also created a page for a “Beretta M9”, which is a pistol that appears in the story. I know a lot about people, but very little about guns, so for that “character” I did a lot of research and created a couple of pages with pictures and technical details so that I could write about it accurately and realistically.


If your story concerns themes, locations or items etc. with which you are unfamiliar, then research them. The internet is obviously a great resource for this but it’s only one, and some of the “facts” reported on it may not be totally unreliable. It’s up to you how thorough to be, but the more you learn, the more confident you will be and the more detailed and realistic your prose will be. It’s unlikely that you will perform all of your research before you write a word (I’m always too impatient to start) but that’s OK: you can do it parallel, or as a break from writing every now and then.

Write Your First Draft

Now all of your plot points have cause and effect, place, time and duration. You understand your characters and why they act the way they do. You feel confident that you can refer in a realistic way to the locations and equipment used, even if you might have to top-up as you go. All that remains now is for you to flesh out the bones and to write your first draft. Don’t be afraid to revisit your synopsis during the writing process as you may still have fresh ideas but beware: if you don’t knuckle down you might find that you never finish! If you find that the rate of change exceeds the rate of progress, then you probably need more work on your synopsis. Stop what you’re doing and revisit it. The most important thing here is to finish your first draft. Once you have that, you will have done most of the hard creative work. You will need to redraft and perform some rework but, if you follow the hints above, your redrafts will probably more akin to wallpapering or installing a nice new rug than to building an extension. As a result, you will be a happier, less stressed author. Well, that’s my experience anyway.

Coming soon: "How to Load a Beretta M9" and "Keeping Track of Progress" #mixedbag J

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

1. What's It All About?

What's it all about?

First, some introductions. I'm Mark and I'm a writer. In 2007 I finally gained sufficient confidence to sign up for a Creative Writing course with the Open University and I haven't looked back since. During 2008, I enrolled on a second course and then, in 2009, I started to write seriously. I started with short stories, some of which are available on Kindle ("True Colours - A Collection of Short Fiction") and then, in 2010, a new short story began to morph into a novel. This became "The Marguerite Effect". Being a first novel, "Marguerite" as I call it, underwent a difficult birth. Don't get me wrong - I'm proud of it - it just didn't come easily.In fact, by the time I had written and re-written it, two years of my life had slipped under the bridge and I was on version 9. Believe me, my wife earned her acknowledgment!

When the dust had settled, and I finally had time to develop my new idea ("The Blue Angels") I decided that things would be different. Over the two year gestation of "Marguerite" I had formulated methods and developed some simple tools that would help me to write my next novel more quickly. In this blog I hope to help (and be helped by) others like me by sharing ideas on the writing process and how to grab it by the throat. I also plan to share some of the interesting and plain odd things that I have discovered during my research for "The Blue Angels". It would be great if some of you could join me for the ride!

More soon,