The Writing Process with Jo Nesbø
Interview with Jo Nesbø by the Pacific Northwest Writers Association detailing his beginnings in childhood as a storyteller and his writing process.
My favorite quote is the one above: You don’t really know your characters until they start speaking.
Know your story. Know your characters. Then write.
Zara Altair writes mysteries set in ancient Italy.
The Argolicus Mysteries are set in early Sixth Century Italy. At that time the country was governed by two sets of laws. Native Italians (Romans) inherited a set a laws from the Roman Empire which had collapsed the century before. The Ostrogoths under King Theodoric held to their ancient tribal customs.
The Roman Rule
Neither of these sets of laws held murder as a crime as we understand it. For the Italians, murder was a family matter and was settled usually without any sort of judicial finding by the family. Because murder was not a crime there was no legal recourse. The family could not call on what we would call a police force to investigate. The family was responsible for discovering who had committed the murder,
The extent of the investigation was mainly based on the family’s wealth. If they could afford to hire individuals outside of the family, they had that much more help in solving the murder. Poor families were left to their own devices and often murders went unsolved.
One exception to involving public officials was if the murder had a direct impact on the public good. However, the determination of the direct impact was decided by ruling officials.
The Ostrogoth Rule
The ruling Ostrogoths valued human life according to position and station. If someone was murdered, the family was responsible for accusing the murderer. If the murderer was identified he had to pay a fine (wergild) to the family of the deceased. The tribal leader made the final decision. His throne was often a wooden chair covered by a bearskin. Underneath the bearskin was a human hide to remind him of his power over life and death. Once the wergild was paid, the matter was settled.
Argolicus and the Law
Argolicus has the skills a family would need to find a murderer--patience, an analytical mind, and a willingness to listen. Because of the challenge to Italians with obtaining what they feel are right consequences, he also helps them make decisions about what to do once the murderer is identified.
As a writer, I need to guide the character through the discovery process and finding a solution with what to do once the murderer is identified.
Zara Altair writes mysteries set in ancient Italy. Argolicus thinks he has retired, but he and his tutor, Nikolaos are drawn into puzzles, politics, and murder.
Dialogue and Narrative
aGrammar is essential to good storytelling; it keeps the reader from getting lost. When writing narrative good grammar is essential. But when your characters speak they talk like human beings. People don't speak in semicolons and neither should your characters.
Robert Harris wrote a trilogy about the great legal orator Cicero: Imperium, Lustrum, Dictator. In these stories, whether speaking in private or conducting a public oration, Cicero does not speak with semicolons in the dialogue.
Natural speech is a key element in creating an empathic character. Your editor may get stuck with the fine points of grammar within dialogue, but your readers want a character to speak in flow, just the way real people do.
An editor sparked the idea for this post with a comment about the lack of semicolons in a character's speech. My reply was the title of this post: Characters don't speak in semicolons.
Simple tricks to dialogue
As a writer, you can enliven your dialogue by writing in natural speech flow. The trick is to use punctuation and possibly break some grammar rules.
On the other hand, you'll want to make sure your dialogue is punctuated correctly for interruptions, breaks, and attributions.
Editor Jodie Renner provides useful guidelines in her article for Kill Zone.
A. Ellipsis (…) or Dash (—)?
Dialogue is the Spice of Character Building
Dialogue is one of the strongest ways to get your readers emotionally involved with a character.
When I wrote the introductory scene for Cassiodorus in Ravenna: A Mosaic where he speaks in long, convoluted sentences and does not get to the point, one of my fellow writers said, "Tell me he dies before the book ends." Now that's an emotional response. He was sorry to hear that Cassiodorus lived on into his nineties, well outside the time frame of the story.
Your character may speak in monosyllabic words or long phrases. Either way, make the dialogue reflect your character and how he or she interacts with the other personae in your story.
Editing & Writing
I'll be publishing The Peach Widow soon. One editor was away and is now back working on the second half of the story. In one way, I'm enjoying the time to work on suggested edits before the next round appears. Rephrasing, augmenting, and rewriting is tedious work for me so I am grateful for the time.
Editors are the lifeblood of refining your story to be the best. Editorial comments temper that feeling of relief when the story is done. The reality is that the story is not really finished until critical eyes have read it and found those details that you, as the writer, have overlooked. Then the changes begin.
Trust The Process: A Story Forms in the Middle of the Night
The concept for the Argolicus mysteries is a series of 12, one for each month of the year. Although I have story notes for several, I was stuck on the story for January. While I was waiting for the edits on The Peach Widow, I began another story.
I woke up in the middle of the night with the opening lines of the January story. I jotted them down in my bedside notebook (you have one, yes?) and the next morning started work on The Roman Heir. This is the one story that does not take place in southern Italy. As Argolicus leaves Rome to head home, Boethius ask him to deliver a book to a young scholar in Ostia.
Here's what came to me in the middle of the night.
“You see,” Boethius said, leaning toward Argolicus in a confidential manner, “Rome is a closed community. When someone like you whose family lineage is not from one of the great families of Rome and as a newcomer attempts to take on a centuries-old Roman position, you set yourself up for strife. You are wise to retire, go back to your provincial Bruttia and live as local nobility.”
Of course, I had to do new research about Ostia. How was the town laid out as a failing port city? What were the buildings like?
I like to know where I am with maps and floor plans and the like when the characters move around in the story.
Here's the floor plan that I found for the richest man in Ostia.
The Second Story: The Vellum Scribe
As exciting as it was to finally have the first story of the series in my head, I had already begun another story for the series, The Vellum Scribe.
In early spring wildflowers start to bloom in southern Italy. Argolicus' uncle Wiliarit arrives from Constantinople with a commission to create a manuscript copy of Dioscorides' dictionary of plants. Wiliarit enlists Nikolaos in his search for live plant specimens. As they wander the fields finding plant "models" for illustrations, they discover the brutally beaten body of a local merchant.
I'm still working on the plot details for this story.
Call for Beta Readers
If you would like to receive a free copy of The Peach Widow, I'm looking for beta readers. If you are willing to read the story and post a review when the story is published, get on the Argolicus Street Team and I'll send you the link. I love reader feedback.
Master Mystery Outline Template
I am using Story Shop to create a master outline template for mysteries. The software is still in development stage with a generic outline. The developers have plans for outline templates in the future, but in the interim while the software is in beta testing, I decided to create my own format for mysteries.
Mystery stories have a number of false suspects and false clues. In the planning stages I like knowing what those false leads are so I can add foreshadowing.
An important part of the outline for a mystery is each of the crimes. In addition to the overall mystery outline, I created an outline for the crime(s) with sections for:
Of course, I have the overall story outline from start to finish.
Every story has its cast of characters, and for a mystery the characters have a rôle in the story. The sleuth, the villain, the false suspects, the supporting cast all contribute to the story. I created a set of character qualities for each of these rôles to work in any story.
Then, depending on the character rôle in the story, each type has a set of details.
With these prototypes set up, I can easily begin a new story and add details as I think of them. For instance, as I work on finishing The Peach Widow I can begin notes on the next story. The story is still waiting for a title but I know some of the characters and details of the crimes.
I'll be curious to see how my outline compares to the outline the folks at StoryShop provide in the future.
Beta testing has its challenges. Although the software is much more stable than it was at the beginning, there are still bugs. For instance, when I entered the The Crimes outline everything was saved. But, when I entered the overall outline for the generic story the software was unable to save it. I tried several times, but no save.
The developers warned us that things could be lost and that we should keep a backup of everything until the software was stable. Today I'm waiting for feedback on this problem. Overall, I'm delighted with the planning aspects of StoryShop and am enthusiastic about testing the software.
Zara Altair, Author
The puzzle of politics, the mystery of murder in ancient Italy. After Rome, before the Middoe Ages, Italy belonged to the Ostrogoths.