Sunday, 5 June 2011

Undone by Harlequin Historical Undone

In my naivety, I decided a couple of weeks ago to try my hand at writing a Harlequin Historical Undone. I thought, believe it or not, that this would be easier than writing a full length novel. I thought that less research and preparation would be needed.

Uh Oh.

In fact what I'm finding is that to keep a story within the relatively tight word limit of 10,000 - 15,000 words allowed by Harlequin Historical Undone, I have to have to know my characters really well. I need to be able to jump in, and like a fairy godmother, invest them with likeability, emotional depth and attachment. Like Athena, springing from the head of Zeus, they need to be fully formed and ready for action. And, er, they need to get it on. Quickly. But not pointlessly.


Here's some of the hurdles I have tripped over so far:

1. Taking too long to get to The Point. The point being some actually interaction between the heroine and the hero, and the second point being the consummation of that interaction. I put in a prologue, which established the heroine's credentials. I put in a scene where the hero is taunted by a mysterious French spy (the heroine in disguise). We are on scene three before the heroine is thrown into the room.

2. Giving it All Away Too Soon. Now, I've read Stacia Kane's Be a Sex Writing Strumpet. I know that love scenes are about developing the plot and the characters. I know that they should change and deepen as the story progresses, perhaps become more explicit. I still did it wrong. There's too much, too soon.

3. More Twists than Category 5 Cyclone: It seems I'm constitutionally incapable of Keeping Things Simple. I have a maximum of 15,000 words. I need to pack strongly sensual punch. So there's not a lot of word count spare to offer to action. And what do I do? I make my hero and heroine a military intelligence officer and a French double agent intent on a daring escape. Of COURSE I do. And of course I throw in the fact she first appears in disguise, the fact he has to work out she IS a spy and the complication of a French Spymaster and I have enough complication to last me happily through 90,000 words. Because I love to make my own life difficult.

10,000 words in and I'm having to condense important scenes into a few lines because... well I'm running out of space. And they've only made love once. And, you will recall, it was Too Much. Why? Because I've spent too much time having them bash guards over the head, steal horses and murder French spies for them to so much as steal a kiss behind the stable block.

And where does that leave me?

Writing a depressed email to my clever critique partner, who generally has the ability to stand back and point out the problems and even better, to suggest some solutions.

So here's what I'm going to do:

1. Cut. And start by bringing the hero and heroine together in line one.

2. Have the hero realise what she's up to in scene one (a bit tricky this - not sure how my clever spy lady is going to inadvertently reveal herself without being a dumb ass). This will change the whole emotional tenor of the story and impact on how they relate physically.

3. Hold back some of the love action for later in the story (seeing as I'm going to have more words for loving!).

Details, details, details...
One other thing. Historical is historical and that means Knowing Your Stuff. As it transpires, I've probably had to do exactly the same amount of research for my Harlequin Historical Undone as for a full length novel. Dropping in tiny details here and there is what will ground this in the period and make it real. My background research has included:

  • Espionage and military intelligence in the early 19th century (Elizabeth Sparrow is a good first port of call)

  • The habits and clothes of the Guerilleros

  • Battles of the Napoleonic Wars

  • Regiments in the Napoleonic Wars

  • Geography of Spain and Portugal and what was occupied when

  • Travel to and from Portugal during the Napoleonic Wars

  • The life of Sir Charles Stuart

And I thought it would be easy. Still, it's always good to learn and I am discovering that writing is both a humbling and enlightening process. Luckily, there are so many people who are there to help guide you on your way.

Big Thanks to them (especially Andrea!).

I'd love to hear from anyone else tackling novellas of any type - your thoughts and experiences would be of great interest!


Elaine Golden said...

Hi Charity Girl,

Ah, the sleeping giant that is the novella --you have discovered it! :D

Sounds like you're very much on the right track with the realizations that you've listed. I can tell you that the three things I kept in mind when I wrote my novellas for Undone were:
1) Get right to it. Doesn't have to be the first line, but it's gotta be darn quickly
2) Write tight. As historical authors, we're used to taking our time to describe the setting and depict the cultural differences, but with Undone you simply don't have the space. Sketch the historical details in like an artist making a line-drawing --just a couple of key details, then move on. Also, choose words with deliberation because you can convey *a lot* with a few well chosen words.
3) The plot should be as straightforward as possible, with as few players as possible. You will be able to use a couple of secondary characters if needed, but there is no room to traipse sequel baiting university chums, for instance. Sub-plots (beyond the relationship development) are the same, you can use a bit but a complex story will be very, very difficult to pull off within an Undone.

The best (and most challenging) thing I ever did to develop my writing was to tackle an Undone story length. I learned so much about story structure and writing style.

And, I went on to sell a Regency trilogy of Undones with Harlequin (pubbed this year, the series is called 'Fortney Follies'). Happiest day of my writing career (so far). ;-)

Best wishes with your Undone!

~Elaine Golden

Andrea said...

I think writing this length of story has got to be a major learning curve. I think it's a really good idea because if you can get this licked then you'll know so much about plotting and story lines!

I think it's a pity that the undones have got to be steamy, but it does give me an excuse not to bother trying to do one! haha


Unknown said...

There was an interesting documentary on BBC4 (I think) a couple of years ago, made by Stella Duffy when she tried her hand at writing a Mills & Boon romance. It was an intelligent and thoughtful film.

Glad to see you're a Connie Brockway fan - I have only just discovered her books.

Good luck with your writing.

Meg McNulty said...

Hi Helen,

I love Connie Brockway! I rate her very highly - I wonder if it's possible to track down that documentary. Sounds interesting!