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After the Fact
Category: Writing
Tags: plotting ideas writing

I recently read What Is Forgiven by C.F. Yetmen, an historical novel set in the American sector of post-war Germany, and was completely captivated by the story. Since I write wartime fiction, I often read other books set during the Second World War. I choose them because I enjoy reading other books in the genre and also to see how other writers tackle the era. It occurred to me as I read Yetmen’s novel that I hadn’t read many books set in the immediate aftermath of the war. My focus has always been on the war itself.  

This observation set me thinking about story plots in general. As writers, we’re always trying to generate new ideas for plots that will keep readers engaged. Conflict is a central element required to create a successful plot so dramatic events or situations are obvious catalysts for our plotlines. For instance, we might set a story during a war or a natural disaster such as a fire, an earthquake or a tornado. Or we might create a situation where the main character is a victim of rape, or is in the midst of a divorce or is about to lose someone they love. These examples are all good ideas; any of these scenarios could produce a very strong plot.

But, if you want to create something a bit different, why not think a little further down the road and write about what happens next? What Is Forgiven is a gripping novel about characters who struggle to survive in a war-ravaged country and rebuild their lives. The war is over: there’s no fighting, no bombing, no large scale death and destruction. Yet the author creates a story full of tension and drama about characters dealing with the war’s aftermath.    

So, in order to create a plot that’s a bit different, imagine what happens after the event or situation you first thought of. Can you build a gripping story by examining what happens next? Using the example of a main character who is a rape victim, tell the story of how she rebuilds her life after the attack or how she sets out to get revenge against her attacker. The former scenario might produce a work of women’s fiction and the latter might be a crime novel. Of course the victim doesn’t have to be female either which would add another dimension to the story. Or, if you choose the scenario where a character loses someone they love, examine what direction their life takes after the bereavement. The path they take doesn’t have to be a traditional, obvious one. Think outside the box and create a vastly different new life for your character to the one they lived before. A character that takes a sharp turn in their life’s path will definitely give the writer lots of scope to create an engaging story.

If you start with a dramatic event such as a war or a natural disaster as a catalyst for your story, think about what happens after the event is over and find the drama within this to create your story. How does your character survive and how do they feel if they have lost everything in a war or disaster? Or maybe a particular loss frees them from someone or something they wanted to escape from. How does their life change in the face of this?

I’ve chosen ‘After the Fact’ as the title for this post as it sums up what I’m trying to say. The idiom refers to something that happens after a particular occurrence or event. It will remind you when you are plotting a story to think past the first dramatic scenario that runs through your head and see if something that happens further down the road in the character’s life might be a better place to start a story. 

This Week on Writers Abroad 24th July 2017
Category: Site News
Tags: Writers Abroad writing

Good morning, all. It may be the summer for those of us in the northern hemisphere but I see that Writers Abroad is as busy as ever. So, let’s see what we have happening this week:

Monday Muse: Angela has given us some diverse and thought-provoking prompts that include challenging situations to write about and intriguing images.

Blog: Chris N has discussed an issue that many of us grapple with: how to get in enough writing time and juggle our other responsibilities at the same time. She has struck a realistic balance between encouraging us to keep at it and understanding that we do our best in our own circumstances.

Bragging Stool: This forum is hopping this week.

Firstly, five of our members have had writing included in the current Ad Hoc. Congratulations to everyone!

And Laura has been busy. She has 3 flash fiction pieces accepted for the print publication, Flash and she has also had That Apple included in the online journal, Fictive Dream. Congratulations, Laura!

Reminders: Our formal meeting for July is this coming Sunday, 29th July, 11am CET. Jill is chairing. Also, don’t forget to consider where you want to be in your writing 5 years from now, and share this with our members in the Our Writing Vision thread.

Hope everyone has a productive writing week, within the confines of whatever they are juggling. I don’t think I’ll try to juggle our cows though – I might end up with a back injury…Happy writing, everyone.

Step Off The Beaten Track Tags: setting plot

Readers often approach novels within particular genres with preconceived ideas about what are appropriate plots and settings for these books. This can be limiting for writers who want to try something a bit different but still fit into a certain genre. For example, when readers encounter a story set in a ‘popular’ historical era, they often have expectations about how the story will unfold or where it will take place. I write historical fiction set during the Second World War, and, judging by other novels in my sub-genre I’ve seen on bookshop shelves and Amazon’s listings, I would hazard a guess that the majority of fiction set in this period takes place in the European theatre of the war. Recently the Pacific theatre has risen in popularity but novels set in the European theatre are still a mainstay for the sub-genre. Similarly, many novels set in the ancient world choose Rome as the setting for their stories. 

Continuing with Second World War novels, readers have certain expectations about the settings within the European theatre: occupied France and Belgium or maybe Germany or Russia, as well as the Homefront in England and Scotland are where they expect the stories to occur. How many novels can be found on the shelves of local bookshops about the Norwegian resistance or Romanian soldiers? My stories are set in Northern Ireland, a country within Great Britain that, despite the popularity of Homefront stories, rarely features in wartime novels.

Since previously published books in the historical fiction genre have primed readers’ expectations, it can be difficult to convince them to go down a different road They may even find it unsettling to encounter a new perspective to a theme or topic they think they know well. However, that shouldn’t deter authors from branching out in different directions. A steady diet of novels with well-worn settings, despite variations in their plots, will eventually bore readers. Glimpses into unique aspects of life in unfamiliar places during this complex and multi-faceted war, provide fresh insights and discoveries to invigorate and renew readers’ enthusiasm for the genre. And this applies to novels in other genres too.

And ‘something different’ doesn’t have to be something completely unfamiliar. Novels that are set off the beaten track should still contain the elements that readers are really looking for. But, what are they?

The book promotion company, Bookbub, did a study to determine which aspects of wartime fiction resonate most with readers. They found three key elements – and none of them is linked to the story’s setting. Although these elements may not apply to every genre, they do apply to many.

Let’s look at these elements:

The first is that relationships between the main character and his family and friends must touch the reader. Readers want to have an emotional response to the characters. My characters hail from America, Northern Ireland and Ireland and have all ended up together in stories set in rural Northern Ireland. Many readers find the American characters most familiar but no matter the nationality of the character, each expresses the same needs, fears, desires and aspirations as they interact with others and this is what readers respond to.

The next element is an uplifting ending. Or, for some genres, at least a satisfying conclusion to the plot. Again, this can be achieved no matter where a story is set. Some of the challenges and choices my characters face, such as the threat of attack not only from the Axis forces but also the IRA, a terrorist organisation, or having to make the decision whether to enlist in the armed forces when not compelled by conscription to do so, are unique to where the story is set.  However, no matter what conflict the character faces, when he ultimately triumphs readers feel satisfied with this positive ending.

The third element is familiarity and a sense of nostalgia. This may be most applicable to historical fiction but familiarity is also relevant in other genres too. It may seem more difficult to achieve in a lesser-known setting but familiarity doesn’t have to come from the place. People have common traits, emotions and experiences the world over which the author must draw on to make readers connect with the characters and identify with their struggles. In Northern Ireland, where my stories are set, the characters are not under attack during the Blitz but they experience the same fear and apprehension about the threat of attack as people throughout the United Kingdom experienced during that period. They also fear the threat of invasion by the Axis forces, just as the rest of the British population did.  Readers relate to these parallels. 

Ultimately, wartime fiction lovers want to experience the tension and drama of the era, as well as the camaraderie and passion that was integral to it. Stories like mine, unfolding away from the usual settings, can fulfil this desire just as well as those set in tried and tested locations. And, as a bonus, readers get a unique insight into somewhere off the beaten track during an era that fascinates them.

If an author keeps in mind the elements that matter to readers and fulfil them, then the story may be set wherever the author chooses and is also free to be innovative with the plot.

How do you decide where to set your stories? Do you ever deliberately throw some unexpected curves into your plots?

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