Writing Journal – Part 3 of 3

Part 3: Structure and Editing with a review of The Periodic Table by Primo Levi, published Sept 2000, Penguin.


We have looked at the basics for a novel and the character. Now we have an idea and we have got to know our main character, and hopefully a few other characters that will appear in the story. Next we need to think about how we will structure our novel and, beyond that, redrafting and editing.

A story is the linear order of events; the plot is the order of how those events are related. A scene helps move the plot forward, builds characterisation and can help the narrative arc development. A chapter helps create the structure. In creating the structure of the novel some writers will plot the chapters and/or scenes on post-it notes.

I chart my structure and chapters on a sheet of paper. This helps me get going with the individual scenes that go into each chapter. I find it hard to just start writing and let the story appear. I need to do some plotting first. For me to write without a structure in place would be like creating leaves on a tree without having branches or a trunk. I need to think about the even-ness of tension in my story too. Where are the moments of drama and excitement? Are they evenly spaced?

There are many books discussing 3 or 5 act structures in novels-the famous hero’s journey being a formulaic structure. www.thewritersjourney.com However, I’m thinking first about why am I writing this story and what is the question it asks, or theme it discusses?

My answers: because I feel it is a story that needs telling. Its themes are love, loss and survival, and it asks how does the human spirit survive and continue to find joy in life while living through harrowing events.

primo levi

This brings me to The Periodic Table, Primo Levi’s compelling book about his time as a chemist both before and after the second world war. He has written more extensively about his time in Auschwitz in ‘If This is a Man’ and only briefly touches on it in this book. The structure is an interesting one. Levi uses the chemist’s periodic table – a different element for each chapter. There is some discussion of the element e.g. iron and the strength of a friend, but the book is mostly an autobiographical account of a period in his life when he was a chemist. His prose is beautiful and I liked the structure in the main. However, I felt at times there were some random stories put in that didn’t make sense to me, and I found myself skipping over parts. He brings out clearly the sense of hopelessness and inevitability he feels as a Jew living in the run up to the outbreak of war. There is a sadness in the book but it is a moving read.

I am left with a sense of urgency to get writing now. My first few scenes are critiqued in class and sections re-written by others. This is challenging and rewarding. I hear how others would write my story and some sound better to me. But then I get to thinking about my voice and how I want this book to sound and I revisit their comments with a more observational eye.

I’m tasked with putting more emotion into my words. I need to convey more than information with my writing – I need to think about the feeling. I set out again to re-draft knowing that writing is re-writing. I converse daily now with Tatiana, I’m getting to know her and her world and how she wants her story to be told.

Editing an English language document

I look forward to telling it and will continue to update on this blog…..thanks for reading!






Writing Journal – Part 2 of 3

Part 2: Character – with a review of Searching for the Secret River by Kate Grenville, published July 2007, Canongate Books; and Conspiracy by SJ Parris, published Jan 2017, Harper.


Our seminar on character throws up some interesting points. The protagonist in a book is the main character. However, will my protagonist also be the narrator of the story? By telling the story in 1st person voice –‘I did this or that’, my protagonist is also my narrator. By telling it in 3rd person –‘she did this or that’, my narrator becomes another character. Is the narrator the author or a separate person?

How do I decide which person voice to use for my great grandma Tatiana? Will I narrate her story or will she tell it herself? And in the telling, is she looking back on it, so narrating in the past, or narrating from the time and, therefore, using present tense?

The advice is to play with it. I need to write my character from all aspects –voices and tenses –to see what works. Meredith, my esteemed novel tutor, suggests writing several thousand words for each main character in the book, from their perspective, to build a sense of who they really are.

We play a game of interviewing each other’s characters in class. What phrases do they use? What do they like to eat when they’re ill? Are they claustrophobic? The more obscure the question, the more we can delve into how well we know our characters.

secret river

I read Kate Grenville’s excellent book on how she wrote The Secret River, her prize-winning novel about William Thornhill, a convict sent to Australia in 1805. Her take on writing is inspiring. Her advice of ‘don’t wait for the mood to write’ and ‘create slivers of time to create slivers of writing’ is very helpful to me. As a mum of four school age kids finding the time to write seems an almost impossible task. She gives suggestions such as writing while waiting in the car to pick kids up from an activity.

What I like most is the way she achieves a felt sense of character. She started with her great-great grandfather Solomon Wiseman as her protagonist. She came to London, walked the streets he lived on, and went to the docks where he worked. She made a slush lamp to read by, ate the food of the time, and even learnt to make fire as he would have. She tried out many different voices for his story and ultimately she killed him off! She recognised that by wanting to keep to the facts of who he really was she was being hampered in telling the story that wanted to be told. So, she got rid of Solomon and turned him into the fictional William.

I wonder nervously if this will happen to me. By constraining myself to write about a real person, and someone from my family, will my hands be tied and the story stilted?


SJ Parris seems not to have suffered from this fate in the gripping novel about Giordano Bruno. This is her fifth novel about the Tudor heretic who was a real person. I picked this book up as the first sentence, set in a confessional, got me asking questions and wanting to know more. We follow Bruno as he has to hunt a killer in Paris in 1585. Henry III is his friend but allegiances are shifting as the Catholic League plots to threaten the royal houses of both France and England.

The book is narrated in 1st person –we are with Bruno and I felt like I was following closely behind him as he tried to work out the twists and turns of the plot. The author, Stephanie, creates a strong sense of character and cleverly introduces new characters at different points. This stops the book becoming confusing and enables each new character to be richly drawn. I got a strong sense of historical atmosphere with her writing. “Frost crunched under my boots in the ruts left by carts.” She refers to historical events in a way as if the reader is of the time and already knows about them. I’d like to emulate this style for my novel.

When asked whether she see’s anything of herself in the Bruno character she’s created, Stephanie replied “the answer is yes, of course – that’s what attracted me to him, on some unconscious level. It becomes clearer as you flesh out a historical character – I think it’s unavoidable that you imbue with parts of yourself.”

To conclude on character: I need to really get to know mine, to free myself from sticking purely to facts, to fill in the gaps that are missing and to write, write and write some more!

Tatyana_Gran 1917_18


My great grandma Tatiana Jurczenko, aged approximately 16-17yrs. Taken in 1917-18, Kharkiv, Ukraine.

Part 3 will look at structure…



What makes a successful historical novel?



I’m writing my first historical novel, a fictionalised account of my Ukrainian-born great-grandmother, and I’m struggling.  How much research should I do? Can I make up facts? What is more important, the character’s voice or the plot? Is there even a market for this type of story?

So, I’ve decided to reach out to those in the know and ask them ‘what makes a successful historical novel?’ The results of my enquiries to a variety of authors, agents, bloggers and publishers are set out below.

Firstly, a quick definition of the genre. Richard Lee, chairman of the Historical Novel Society, states that “historical fiction is the most primal, the most NATURAL of literary forms …. in all cultures, historical fiction is the most natural form of story-telling.” Generally, a historical novel is a novel set fifty or more years in the past, and one in which the author is writing from research rather than personal experience. www.historicalnovelsociety.org

hist fict

The founder of the genre is thought to be Sir Walter Scott who wrote in the early 1800’s stories about the Scottish nation’s past. The annual Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction www.walterscottprize.co.uk is one of the most prestigious literary prizes in the world. With a total value of £30,000, it is unique for rewarding writing of exceptional quality which is set in the past.

Historical fiction is a huge market that ebbs and flows along with the rest of the publishing world.  According to Chip MacGregor of MacGregor Literary Agency, “in a lousy economy, people want a book that’s an escape to a simpler time, so historicals do well when the economy is down.” www.macgregorliterary.com . With Brexit underway and the changes in the global political scene, it seems that times of uncertainty also make us look to the past.  Hilary Mantel’s winning of the Booker Prize in both 2009 and 2012 for her historical fiction about Thomas Cromwell shows just how important this genre is.

Enquiries with Waterstones staff about current trends in historical fiction give a clearer picture as to what’s in and what’s not.  In line with fiction overall, crime and thrillers are in; romance is not. This was confirmed by debut novelist Victoria Cornwall who, as a writer of historical romance, is aware her sub-genre isn’t strictly in vogue. However, she says ‘write what you want to write and love doing it …things do come back in fashion.’ The hotly awaited season three of the televised Winston Graham’s ‘Poldark’ will no doubt help fuel the market for more bodice-ripping, swashbuckling historical fiction.


So, establishing there is a strong market for a historical fiction novel, and being aware mine has a mix of romance and drama, I set about asking how to write it well.

My top ten tips for a successful historical fiction novel: Continue reading

Writing Journal – Part 1 of 3

I’m studying for my Masters in Professional Writing and taking a module in novel writing. This three part blog series will capture some of the module’s themes alongside reviews of the novels I am currently reading. This way it will hopefully serve as an analysis of the novel writing process.

Part 1: Ideas – with a review of ‘The Secret Wife’ by Gill Paul, published August 2016, Avon Books.

What do you need to make a novel? Apart from the obvious – setting, characters and a plot – there are the less obvious – point of view, texture and language landscape. I need to think about the atmosphere I wish to create right from the start. Who will narrate my story and how will it sound? Will it be a chatty, first person, dialogue-heavy novel, or perhaps third person narration with beautifully descriptive passages? Another thought – is my book to be a writerly or readerly book? Will I expect my reader to fill in the blanks or will they be taken along for the ride?

These are all interesting propositions, but the first thing I need to have is an idea for either a character or plot. Various ones have been floating around my head, yet my thoughts always come back to the same spot –that of my great grandmother’s story.

I’d read a few novels prior to our first seminar and the one below struck a chord.


‘The Secret Wife’ by Gill Paul is set partly in the Russian Revolution. My great grandma was born in 1901 in Kharkov, Ukraine and lived through the Revolution. I wanted to know more.

Gill claims the seed of her idea was sown by her friend Richard Hughes after he’d watched a BBC2 documentary about the Russian Grand-Duchesses. She worked her plot and characters out first and used the historical backdrop as a setting – the stage for her players.

I enjoyed the book. It was a good read and kept me interested until the end. It has dual storylines with Kitty, a young woman living in modern day London, dealing with her husband’s infidelity by escaping to her great grandfather’s lakeside chalet in the US. She never met her great grandfather and knows very little of his life. He, Dmitri, was born in Russia at the end of the nineteenth century and was an imperial guard who falls in love and secretly marries Tatiana, one of the grand duchesses. The story progresses as the revolution occurs and the Imperial family are arrested and moved to Ekaterinburg. The premise is what if they didn’t all die in July 1918.

The book is well researched. I’m unsure about the modern-day part as it sometimes detracts from the Russian story. I found myself wanting to get back to the past and skip Kitty’s bits. However, it does work as a framework to reveal more. The pace with which she tells the plight of the Romanov’s as they are stripped of their freedom, dignity and ultimately their lives, is tense and gripping. Dmitri and Tatiana are well drawn as characters, they felt substantial enough for me to invest in them; Kitty less so. Perhaps this is why I prefer the Russian part of the story.


Photo of Kharkiv, Ukraine 1901

I think of my main character –my great Grandma Tatiana. I know the brief outline of her story, a few facts, but there are huge gaps. I need to get to know her first before I start my novel. Who was she? I met her a few times when I was little but the real person and the character for my story don’t need to be the same. In fact, I think my tutor wishes they weren’t.

Part 2 will explore character in more depth….