Robyn Young on her new novel, Court of Wolves, and its difficult path to publication.
Over the thirteen years I’ve been in this business, I’ve spoken to many writers about their methods and while no two authors tackle a novel in quite the same way, there’s clearly a spectrum – at the opposite ends of which live the plotters and the non-plotters.
The plotters, the camp in which I had always lived very comfortably, are those who plan the whole thing out from start to finish, do in-depth character studies and lengthy chapter breakdowns (mine can run to fifty-thousand words before I even start the novel), study every aspect of their world, from food and clothing, to warfare, religion and politics. Those who quiver in stationers’ at the possibilities for colour-coding, listing, dividing, charting.
The non-plotters, that wild, reckless bunch, are those who may do a bit of thinking, reading, musing, even a little pre-planning, but who, essentially, open the laptop and go, with no definite idea where the story, or their characters will take them. I’ve even met authors who start in the middle, or at the end, and weave the thing together, stitching scenes into a novel. Of course, many authors exist somewhere in-between these extremes, doing a little of both. But I was the ultimate plotter – until Court of Wolves.
Why, when starting my eighth novel (tenth if you include the two skeletons in my closet), I decided to leave my place of comfort and security, and attempt to change not only my tried and trusted method of working, but my entire personality, is anyone’s guess.
Maybe I was feeling a little restricted. Maybe I was starting to wonder if all that time pre-planning, which usually only left eight months at most to write the thing to deadline, were months I could just spend writing it. Maybe finish early? Swan off on holiday? Take up a hobby? My non-plotter friends had always baulked at my detailed road map. Don’t you get bored, knowing what will happen? I didn’t think I felt bored, I thought I felt comforted. And, yet – what if?
Court of Wolves, set in the late 15th century, picks up where the first novel in the series, Sons of the Blood, left off – a few months after the Battle of Bosworth – with my protagonist, Jack Wynter, outlawed in England and heading for Paris to uncover the secrets his dead father left as his legacy, with his hated half-brother, Harry Vaughan, in the pay of the new king, Henry VII.
I knew, in this novel, Jack would find his way to Florence, swept into the glittering drama and intrigue of the court of Lorenzo de’ Medici, and that Harry would end up in Spain in the company of the Catholic Monarchs, Isabella and Ferdinand, during their clash with the Moors in Granada. I knew a few of the characters who would appear (Christopher Columbus, Marsilio Ficino, Pope Innocent VIII) and a few of the historical events I would explore (the siege of Malaga, the marriage of Maddalena de’ Medici to the pope’s bastard son).
I did my research, as usual. I went to Florence (yes, this job has perks). I did just enough to have a timeline of real events to which I added my fiction, and, from this, I made dozens of bullet point cards (Jack discovers what Lorenzo has been hiding. Assassins arrive in Florence) that I spent days moving around my kitchen table like a jigsaw, until I felt I had a plot. What would have been a document, tens of thousands of words long, had been reduced to a few bits of paper a breeze could scatter into a David Lynch series.
With my new, streamlined plotting method in place, feeling nervous, yet strangely free, I began. The first two chapters went well. It felt different. I was excited, not knowing what was coming next. My non-plotter friends were right! All those months I’d wasted, painstakingly working it all out!!
Ten thousand words went by. Twenty. Thirty. But – now – something was happening. Or rather, nothing was happening. Jack and his motley band of mercenaries from the Wars of the Roses were still in a tavern in the south of France, nowhere near Florence.
I began to realise that their journey – and all my careful research into land vs sea routes, modes of transport, French regional dialects, food and drink, inns and monasteries they might stay in – was just padding, because although I knew I wanted them to get to Florence, and had a ‘Jack meets Lorenzo de’ Medici’ plot card, I had absolutely no clue as to what, exactly, would happen when they arrived. How would Jack meet Lorenzo? Under what circumstances? And how might that affect their interactions through the novel?
I looked behind me at the nigh on forty thousand words I’d written (nearly a third of a novel for me, half for some), and realised I would have to hit delete. It was perhaps the most frustrating, confidence-shaking thing I’d experienced as an author. The deadline had appeared on the horizon. And I had nothing.
I plotted furiously for a month, put as much meat on the bones of my story as I could and started again. It wasn’t an easy task. The deadline was nipping at me and although the month of plotting had given me a much clearer sense of the novel and Jack and Harry’s arcs within it, this had thrown up a good deal more research that needed to be done, part of which saw me rushing to the wilds of Andalusia on an emergency research trip, for which I had to conscript my dad as my driver.
I’ve never found any novel easy to write and there are always times where you doubt yourself, your story, your ability. But I’ve never had so many of those soul dark nights as I did with Court of Wolves. I never felt comfortable, not once, without my trusted road map – my lovely detailed plot. I was constantly looking back. Have I come the right way? What if I go over a cliff in the next chapter? What if there’s not enough book here? And, always, the deadline, coming up fast (and, yes, I did hear the noise it made as it went whooshing past me – thank goodness for my wonderful, patient editor).
When I finally reached the end and realised I’d completed the trail without a compass there was, in truth, a sense of achievement (and a lot of gin), but I swore I’d never write that way again – and promised the same to my editor, when he said, ‘Well, now that’s out of your system, perhaps we might go back to a way that works?’
And, so, limping down from those jagged, unfamiliar passes I’m now in awe of others following so blithely, I head back to my notes and my colour-coded files, my lists and my character biographies, safe in the knowledge that I’m a plotter, and proud of it.
- Young Man Writing, Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier (1852), Musée du Louvre
- Plot cards for Court of Wolves © Robyn Young