Thursday, July 30, 2009

Anatomy of an Outline, Part I

I have been using the time since Macmillan declined The Last Free City considering where the muse is going to take me next, given that my Mondia series of novels is now on indefinite hold. Will, my editor at Macmillan, remains keen to see what I might do next, and expressed particular interest in writing some historical fiction.

I've decided, therefore, to work up an outline for a historical piece, a first for me in two ways: I've never worked to an outline before, and I've never tried anything historical. An outline doesn't commit me to anything, of course, but it's a chance for me to see if I can put together a story that excites me away from my normal fantasy milieu. (In the meantime, I am making efforts to place The Last Free City, which might change my emphasis once again).

Before I commit anything to paper, I have choices to make. This series of blog posts will examine those choices as I go through the process, to the point where--if all goes well--I have an outline.

The first choice to make is "when?". Which historical period do I know enough about to feel confident to inhabit for up to two years, and which will sustain my interest for that long? Readers of ::Acquired Taste will know that I've been absorbed by various different periods and locales, so let's consider some of the options.

Imperial Rome
Advantages: hugely dramatic environment, with lots of the political intrigue and violence I enjoy writing about
Disadvantages: the shadow of I, Claudius. The period is pretty much done to death and would need a new angle.

Byzantium, 800-1453
Advantages: see Imperial Rome, with the addition of a milieu less likely to be familiar to the reader
Disadvantages: my knowledge is too sketchy for me to feel confident even to produce an outline without extensive research.

14th Century England
Advantages: dramatic backdrop (desposition of Edward II, Hundred Years War, Black Death, Peasants' Revolt, deposition of Richard II). Plenty of available research material.
Disadvantages: none

15th century Dubrovnik
Advantages: extensively, if covertly, explored in The Last Free City
Disadvantages: extensively, if covertly, explored in The Last Free City

The Wars of the Roses
Advantages: epic scope, treachery, mingling of personal and political dramas
Disadvantages: none

Tudor England
Advantages: extensive familiarity with turbulent period
Disadvantages: popularity of the period in fiction means an original angle would be essential

'The Affair of the Poisons', Court of Louis XIV
Advantages: ready-made story which maps many of my fictional preoccupations. Almost untreated in English-language fiction
Disadvantages: my knowledge of the period is cursory at best

19th Century England
Advantages: extensive knowledge of the period through both history and fiction
Disadvantages: none

My outline will almost certainly come from one of these areas. Note that I have not yet given any thought to a story (with the partial exception of 'The Affair of the Poisons'). What I am looking to do at this stage is to find a fictional home, an environment where I will back myself to convince the reader and be confident that I can set a compelling story.

The next stage will be to choose which period to investigate further. Then it's a question of selecting a "situation" (i.e. the broad storyline, without necessarily identifying characters at this stage). Only at that stage will I start to work out who my characters are, and the viewpoint choices which will make this work best.

Watch this space to see the outline develop!


Unknown said...

Hi, Tim.

For what it's worth--I'm not that widely read in the sub-genre, but a possibly original angle to the Imperial Rome setting, which could couple quite nicely with your home environment, would be to set this in Britain, working with the the suggestion that the 'successful Roman invasion of Britain' wasn't an invasion at all, but the Romans were welcomed with support by the pro-Roman British tribes in return for help against their enemies further up the country. Lots of politicking for you to explore, and room for nuanced characterisation with key historical figures. And lots of battles.

Some of the theory is explored in the book and TV series, Britain BC (see also The Year Zero, can't remember who wrote that), by Francis Pryor:

See also:

Hope this is of some use to you.

Tim Stretton said...

Interesting, Neil. The Roman period is so well-documented, and so geographically diverse, that there should be no excuse for not coming up with a fresh take.

Rome also lends itself to the bastard cousin of both fantasy and historical fiction - the alternate history. I'd worked up a decent scenario on this in the past - may return to it one day.

Thanks for the pointer to Snowbooks, by the way - I like the cut of their gib and they're now high on the list for submission.

Faye L. Booth said...

Just flying by to tell you I saw the paperback of Dog on a fantasy table in Preston Waterstones yesterday!

Regarding Snowbooks, they publish a friend of mine, Fiona Robyn ( or, so you might want to have a look at her sites if you want the perspective of one of their (happy!) authors.

David Isaak said...

Heya, Tim--

The disadvantage of Byzantium that you cite is a large one, but the options there are equally huge. It seems like an setting ripe with possibilites, and I think you'd be drawn to the, well, Byzantine aspects of it all. It seems like a locale that is crying out for a good series of novels, doesn't it?

But I'm sure you could tell a good story in any of the settings you list. I'm fascinated to see which one you pick.

Tim Stretton said...

Faye, I always imagined the folk of Preston to have good taste!

I'll have a look at Fiona Robyn's site - I saw a couple of her books displayed on the Snowbooks site.

David, Byzantium is certainly a temptation: the politics, the bizarre religious controversies, the grand sweep. Perhaps too challenging for a first go, but definitely one to tackle someday!

Unknown said...

Hi Tim,

Sorry to hear about the Mondia book, I picked up Dog of the North in a Waterstones 3 for 2 (and no it wasn't that 'not sure' third book) and I'm really enjoying it. Love the Vanceian dialogue! Anyway good luck with other publishers, I'll keep my eye out for anything else you publish.

Tim Stretton said...

Simon, glad you're enjoying it so far!

One way or another The Last Free City will make its way into print, even if it's via self-publication. Web Admin said...

Hi Tim

Good to see you're going ahead with getting Last Free City into print.

On the setting thang, I do like the idea of the War of the Roses setting. Being a northerner (coming from both sides of the Pennines) I think you'd get some great publicity on this, not to mention stoking up that barely concealed rivalry between east and west (forget the north and south divide if you want bloodshed!!!)

And word verification seems to advocate this setting to - well kinda ("priest")...

Tim Stretton said...

Matt, the Wars of the Roses is probably the milieu I could translate into with the least disruption: the 15th century political and military environment is close to the model I was using for fantasy (and also the inspiration behind GRR Martin's Song of Ice and Fire). The battles, the shifting alliances, the bloody reversals...

It will certainly be one of the options I talk to Will about when I see him next week.