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Planning vs Spontaneity

I recently joined an online chat with author Polly Courtney, who rather infamously ditched her publishers, Harper Collins over ‘naff covers’ (and a few other issues like how her books were positioned in the market) to pursue the self-publishing path. Here’s what she had to say about Planning vs. Spontaneity.

Louise: Hi Polly. I’d like to know if you plan your novels to an inch of their lives, like the worksheets here, or if you shoot from the hip on a few things. I’m a planner, but I do find I can kill my enjoyment of the story if I plan each scene too much before I sit down and write. Although it is easier to keep the flow going with everything planned out carefully. Just wondered how you handle the split between planning and spontaneity.

Polly: Hi Louise, I’m with you there – I’m a planner. However, I also agree that there should be a degree of spontaneity and freedom for characters to do what they like. My process is to think (for quite a while) about the theme, what I’m trying to achieve with the book (e.g. ‘open up people’s minds to how it feels to be a youth today’ or whatever), then I think about main characters and map out key events that need to happen, then I go to the next level of detail and write 1-2 lines about what happens in each chapter. It’s only when I’ve got this (relatively tight) plan that I sit down to write the chapters. But as I said to Charlotte, often the characters go off and do their own thing as the book develops, so I am continually updating the storyline to suit them. The characters are the most important thing!
That’s just me, though – there are no rights or wrongs. I know a lot of writers (including PD James apparently) who just sit down with a blank page on their screen and see what comes…

I’d like to dissect a few pieces of this comment to explore further.

Think about the theme – As we know, a theme in a romance novel is an important part of the story. The theme sets the tone of the story and dictates the plot. Common romantic themes (often called ‘tropes’) are accidental pregnancy, baby on the doorstep, reformed playboy, blackmail, boss and employee – you get the picture. A good, tried and tested trope goes a long way to catching a publishers attention. Read more about tropes here.

Map out key events: Now this is plotting and in a romance is based on the characters goals and motivations. This is what drives the plot. So by mapping out key events what she really means is doing a detailed character analysis so you know what drives your characters, what they long for and what they fear. Then using this as your divining rod, develop the plot or key events.

Write 1-2 lines about what happens in each chapter: Here she’s fleshing out what happens in each chapter. This means concentrating on how your characters react to each other and to the situation they find themselves in. Every action must have a purpose and every reaction must be in line with your characters motivation.

Doesn’t sound so simple now, does it?

But within this framework the characters develop as the story progresses. Updating the structure to accommodate them keeps you to your format and keeps your story on track to the inevitable HEA!

Read the full chat archive here.

Setting in a Romance Novel

My latest guest post on the Romaniac’s site:

Louise’s books are always set in interesting or exotic locations. Here she talks about how she uses setting to add depth and substance to her stories. Over to you, Louise.

I love to travel. Growing up in South Africa meant that we had to travel long distances to get to Europe and America, so as a family, we contented ourselves with shorter trips to more unusual destinations. The rugged and wild west-coast of Namibia, Kwazulu Natal, Mauritius, Mozambique and Lesotho all featured in my childhood. I learnt early on how the culture and atmosphere of a location can influence your stay there.

After university I jetted off to Europe and spent a few gloriously care-free years working in London and taking frequent trips to Italy, Spain, Greece, Austria, Germany, Switzerland and everywhere else in between. Not being a 5 star hotel kind of gal, I stayed mostly in family-run B&Bs and met a variety of interesting and colourful characters many of whom have influenced my characters over the years.

My latest release, The Italian Inheritance, is set on the glamorous island of Capri, off Italy’s Amalfi Coast. I visited Capri with a friend in 2003 and the dry, lazy heat and classy glitz and glamour of the place left an indelible imprint in my mind. It struck me as the perfect place to stage a romance, because of its laid-back charm and eloquent lifestyle. Not only is the island incredibly dramatic in its beauty, but it’s also historically relevant, once being the summer playground of much creative and literary talent.

Being only a short ferry ride to Naples and Sorrento gave my island setting the lifeline to the ‘real world’ which I needed. This added substance to my hero – the darkly cynical, Rafael Vialli.

Character development is important in a romance novel and I wanted my hero in
The Italian Inheritance
to have flaws and trust issues resulting from a difficult past.

Naples is not a pretty city. It has elements that are beautiful about it, but it is rough and dirty in parts and provided the perfect background for my hero to have grown up in. Its gritty character also contrasts nicely to the idle and luxurious personality of Capri, only a stone’s throw away.

Setting can play an important role in a romance if it contributes to the depth or conflict of the story. Here are my top tips for creating a setting that adds impact to your story.

  • Pick a setting that either compliments or contradicts your characters personalities. In my first novel, Antarctic Affair, my hero was a fiery adventure photographer so I set the story in Antarctica. The heroine by contrast was a city bound journalist, with an inherent dislike of the outdoors. So pitting her against the elements (and the hero’s fiery personality) made for interesting reading.
  • Let the setting add insight into your character’s personality. In The Italian Inheritance, the rough neighbourhood in Naples where Rafael grew up made my heroine, a London-based nurse distinctly uncomfortable. It unleashed empathy and provided a glimpse into his past that she might otherwise not have had. By contrast, his elegant villa in Capri was a symbol of how far he’d come in life and how his ambition had paid off. It signified his pride and sense of achievement.
  • The setting should provide obstacles to your heroes’ journey. This can either be in the plot or the personal development of the love story. In The Italian Inheritance my heroine, Anna, is a hardworking nurse from London. She can’t afford to stay in Capri for long. The island is notoriously expensive. When the legal process around her identity drags out, she is forced to accept Rafael’s offer of a place to stay. This forces them together and enables the love story to progress.
  • The characteristics of the location can contribute to the ‘heat’ in the story. Capri is hot and dry, most people wear little in the way of clothing, the water is warm and inviting so there is a lot of wondering around in bikinis and sarongs… You get the picture? It can work the opposite way round too. In Antarctic Affair the biting cold forced the characters to huddle together, drink mulled wine, generate body heat and stay in bed for longer…. Use your imagination.

The Italian Inheritance is out now on

The Italian Inheritance

A mysterious letter… A father she never knew… A vast family fortune…

Life couldn’t get any stranger for quiet, conscientious, London-based nurse, Anna Crawford. On a trip to the glamorous Italian island of Capri Anna discovers a family legacy too great to ignore and a man, whose trust she must win, in order to change her life forever.

Writing The First Draft

I’ve finally completed the first draft of The Italian Inheritance, a contemporary romance about an orphan and a trust attorney, set on the Italian island of Capri.

Writing the first draft of any novel is a fairly momentous achievement and I learnt a few important things along the way.

  1. Finishing a first draft, even a rough draft, takes an immense amount of dedication. For three months I got up and stared bleary eyed at my computer, before putting my hands on the keypad. As the manuscript progressed, the more motivated I became. In the middle bits I sagged a bit, but forced myself to go on, if only to prove that I could finish it.
  2. Having a set writing schedule helps. I dedicated my mornings to writing, which gave me four or five hours a day in which to write. Afternoons were out of the question due to the school run, extra murals etc. I even logged out of my email client so that I wasn’t disturbed by interesting little pop-ups vying for my attention. The volume went to mute on my PC too.
  3. It helps to have a concrete plot / conflict outlined before you start. About half way through the manuscript I had to sit down with my Conflict Spreadsheet and revisit the developing conflict, tension and character reactions in each scene. I made notes such as “Conflict escalates after first love scene” and “Heroine first realises she has feelings for hero,” against each scene so I could track the development of the relationship.
  4. Outlining the new scene before I wrote it helped me to add in the appropriate tone, action and conflict.
  5. I made it my mission to end each scene with the reader wanting more. This became a goal of mine and made finishing the scene fun and motivating.
  6. To prevent sagging middles, plan your novel carefully. Know how the relationship develops and what happens before you start writing. Otherwise get to the middle and the conflict will be weak, story can’t sustain itself.

As Louis D. Brandeis says, “There’s no such thing as good writing, just good rewriting.”

It’s more important to get the story down with all the conflict, developing relationship issues and resolution before worrying about consistency, spelling, grammar and stylistic errors. That’s what the rewrites are for.

Heidi Rice Workshop

Romantic Novelist, Heidi RiceYesterday evening I attended a New Voices workshop hosted by the lovely Heidi Rice at the Mayfair Library in London. We grabbed a glass of wine and some cheese straws and huddled around a large wooden table to get down to the business of writing romance. The setting was intimate and informal – perfect for a chat about Heidi’s books, alpha male heroes and sassy heroines.

Heidi began by outlining what Mills and Boon look for in a romance novel and went through the various lines, including the newly founded RIVA line, aimed at bringing younger readers into the M&B fold.


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An Evening with Philippa Gregory

I had the privilege of attending Philippa Gregory’s book launch for her new novel, The Red Queen, in Cape Town on Friday evening. A large crowd assembled in the upmarket Exclusive Books store at Cavendish Square shopping centre to meet Philippa and buy signed copies of her new novel. A sparkling, petite, yet feisty woman engaged elegantly with the audience and held everyone in rapt attention as she explained ‘Why the Tudors?’, ‘Why Mary Boleyn?” and more particularly in relation to her latest novel, ‘Why Margaret Beaufort?” Continue reading