Friday, October 30, 2020

9 Tips for Writing an Epic Novel by Guest Kathleen D. Bailey

  By Guest Kathleen D. Bailey

 

            Two distinct sets of villains. Two orphaned children. A man without a country and a woman with too much past. And a rambunctious young country where anything went, especially in the West. What could possibly go wrong?


            When I began drafting “Redemption’s Hope,” the third book in my “Western Dreams” series, I knew it had to be different from the first two. “Westward Hope” and “Settler’s Hope” were traditional romances, with a “him” and a “her” battling forces that would keep them apart. While the first book takes place on the Oregon Trail, the external conflict comes from how the hero and heroine respond to the challenges of the trail and how their relationship plays out against it. It’s still the Oregon Trail, but it’s all about them. The second book, “Settler’s Hope,” takes place in one small Oregon Country settlement, a raw hamlet the Irish-immigrant heroine isn’t all sure she wants to make her home. Still the Oregon Country, but all about her.



 

            But I knew a one-horse town or even a wagon train tour wouldn’t offer enough scope for my third book, the story of Jenny Thatcher. Gun-toting, swaggering, pants-wearing, horse-stealing but now God-serving Jenny. A girl who was larger than life even in someone else’s book. And her love interest White Bear, a Native man who didn’t feel at home in either world, his or hers, and was larger than life in his own way.


            They had been apart for three years, so the story had to involve a search for each other.  And cruel forces to keep them apart. 


Jenny and White Bear needed a bigger stage for their story to play out from. I found it in the epic format. 


Jenny and White Bear would roam what was then the known world, from Taos to San Antonio to New Orleans to St. Joseph, and through places that didn’t yet have names. They would come together briefly for three glorious days in New Orleans, then be separated by the powers of evil. (See above, two sets of villains!) They would spend the remainder of the book trying to get back together, until a final showdown on the snow-covered plain where it all started three years before. And they would do it with a slew of secondary and minor characters, some real historical figures, some that should have been. 


            Here’s how I made it work.


1.     While I often write my books piecemeal, doing scenes as they occur to me and patching the whole thing together like a quilt, I knew that wouldn’t work for “Redemption’s Hope.” Too many moving pieces, too much risk of losing one or several threads. So I wrote this one in linear fashion. I made notes for things I might want to include in subsequent chapters, but the general progression was chapter by chapter.

 

2.    Details do matter, and in the big book it’s more than just mistaking hazel eyes for blue. With two separate sets of villains, I had to distinguish them not only from each other, but from the other set of bad guys.  I stressed their physical appearance, and also gave one of Jenny’s pursuers an extra interest in abusing her sexually. It never happens, I wouldn’t do that to Jenny, but it gave her pursuers another level of complexity, and gave her one more thing to fear.


3.    I also had to pay attention to timelines, both real and fictional. I printed out a couple of lists of events in my period, 1849 and 1850, and sprinkled them liberally through the novel.

 

4.    I really wanted a couple of real historical characters, and I settled on Christopher “Kit” Carson and Mrs. Susannah Dickinson, the wife of Alamo hero Almaron Dickinson. I researched both heavily until I knew what they might have said to Jenny. But every word and interaction has to move the story forward, even in an epic. I had to not only have them do cameos, but to interact with Jenny in a meaningful way. Carson helps her escape from two killers who’ve tracked her to Taos. Mrs. Dickinson’s influence isn’t so dramatic, but in chatting with Jenny, she influences Jenny to wonder if she would be as brave as Mrs. Dickinson, and stay with White Bear through something like the Alamo. Modern writers don’t have the luxury of a Charles Dickens, or even the 20th-century’s James Michener. Everything has to count in some way.


5.    I also wanted to show the entire scope of the West at the time, so I threw in some fictional characters such as Jenny’s friend Noonday Smith, the would-be gold miner. The same rule went for these as it did for the real characters: they needed to interact with Jenny and her situation, and not just be window dressing. I’ve been fascinated for years – and appalled – by the Creole custom of powerful men taking on “quadroons,” pretty mixed-race women, as mistresses. The process was institutionalized, sanitized and sanctioned in 19th-century New Orleans. I wanted to have Jenny meet a quadroon, and found it in Dominique. But Dominique had to be more than an interesting sidetrack. I found her purpose in having Jenny reflect on her own past as a saloon girl, and fear exposing that part of her life again. She wants Dominique to find God, so she tells her own story as she explains the plan of salvation. It gives insight into Dominique—and Jenny.


6.    At some point I also had to decide what to leave out, and that’s hard with something as vast as the West. The American West was not only physically big, but had a range of characters and potential experiences. As my word count crept up and my characters careened toward their final battle, I knew I couldn’t fit in a cattle drive or a barroom brawl. But that’s all right. There are other Western books to be written, and I can put my stamp on those two classics in another story.


7.    With two sets of villains and Jenny and White Bear spending so much time apart, it was also crucial that I establish Where Everyone Was At A Certain Time. I printed a special copy of my chapter outline and color-coordinated Jenny’s enemies, White Bear’s enemies, Jenny and White Bear as to where they were in a given chapter.  A map of the United States also helped, with color-coordinated push pins guiding me through. Color-coordination is my fallback position for most organizing.


8.    For my epic, I also had to break with the conventions of the romance novel. White Bear and Jenny don’t meet or reunite in the first chapter, because the body of the story is about their search for each other. So I had to establish early on who White Bear was to Jenny, who Jenny was to White Bear, and that they had never forgotten each other. And I had to ramp up the anticipation of their reunion. Flashbacks are a powerful tool. Don’t overuse.


9.    Most of all, I needed to make their quest matter, especially for Jenny. Jenny, my former saloon girl, so tough on the outside, but hurting on the inside, so deeply even she doesn’t realize it. Jenny has accepted the Lord as her Savior, gone her way and sinned no more. But she still bears the load of guilt from all the years she didn’t serve Him. She buries her past in hard work at her horse farm and good times with her friends. But when she finally breaks away to look for White Bear, she also breaks away from the conventions that were holding her guilt at bay. As she roams the West she comes face to face with what she was, who she is now, and the full scope of the Father’s redeeming love. I had to make the journey matter for White Bear too, as he learns that Jenny is strong enough, and then some, to be married to a Native man. They needed to find not only each other, but themselves. 




This is what needs to happen in an epic. I could have just concentrated on the plot, the twists and turns, mixing suspense with a travelogue and tying it up with a big bow of narrow escapes for its paper-doll characters. Some writers have done that. Some readers don’t mind. But Jenny and White Bear deserved more: an internal journey to match their external one. I hope I gave it to them.


Now it’s your turn. What do you like/dislike about the epic form? Writers, how do you make it work, or why don’t you write them? Readers, do you enjoy reading epics?


 

Kathy is generously offering giveaways today to three commenters! Let us know in the comments if you’d like to be entered for either a paper copy of "Westward Hope," an e-copy of "Settler's Hope," or a New England gift pack.

 



Kathleen Bailey is a journalist and novelist with 40 years’ experience in the nonfiction, newspaper and inspirational fields. Born in 1951, she was a child in the 50s, a teen in the 60s, a young adult in the 70s and a young mom in the 80s. It’s been a turbulent, colorful time to grow up, and she’s enjoyed every minute of it and written about most of it.

            Bailey’s work includes both historical and contemporary fiction, with an underlying thread of men and women finding their way home, to Christ and each other. Her first Pelican book, ‘‘Westward Hope,” was published in September 2019. This was followed by a novella, “The Logger’s Christmas Bride,” in December 2019. Her second full-length novel, “Settler’s Hope,” was released July 17, 2020. She has a Christmas novella, “The Widow’s Christmas Miracle,” scheduled for this December as part of Pelican’s “Christmas Extravaganza,” and is completing “Redemption’s Hope,” the third and final book in the Western Dreams series.

She lives in New Hampshire with her husband David. They have two grown daughters.

            For more information, contact her at ampie86@comcast.net; @piechick1 on Twitter; Kathleen D. Bailey on Facebook and LinkedIn; or at www.kathleendbailey.weebly.com.

            

 


39 comments:

  1. This was amazing! The organization ideas are so helpful. I am a “planner” and this spoke to my heart and mind mechanics. I especially loved the “sprinkling” of historial events throughout and creating difference in the villains by details how their motives effect them main characters in different ways. The map concept was gold as well! I love any reason to make a map-pushpins. Thank you for this!!

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    1. So embarrassed by my typos above! 🤦🏻‍♀️Sorry.

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    2. Thanks for stopping by! What kind of things do you write?
      Never seen you on here before. Are you really a doctor?
      Organizational tools! Color-coding! LISTS! Whatever it takes to pull off a book, right?
      KB

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    3. Dr. Brockington, we're so glad you found the post helpful!

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    4. I love writing regency era Christian historical romance. I really am a doctor, specifically a family medicine doctor in rural Malawi. I try to stop in when I have time. I have submitted on two of the open critique days. So helpful!

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  2. O-kay, I'm here now, was distracted by the First Snow of the Year for New Hampshire. Fortunately it's not going to last.
    I'm thrilled to be back in Seekerville as a guest blogger. Thanks to Missy for hosting me. This blog was instrumental in helping me refine my work enough to get my first contract from my publisher, Pelican/White Rose, and it's been a wild ride since then.
    I feel blessed and fulfilled to be writing for the Lord.
    My work kept me sane during the first months of COVID. How about you?
    Leave a comment to be entered in the drawing -- my first book in paper, my second in e-book, OR a New England gift pack.
    Kathy Bailey
    Known locally as Kaybee

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    1. Kathy, we've been very excited about your book sales! We're so glad you've been part of our blog community.

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    2. Thank you, Missy. I've learned a great deal from visiting here, and it has influenced me as a writer. Always glad to guest-blog.
      Right now I'm sitting here watching the first snow of the season (Snowtober!) drifting down outside and glad I don't have to go anywhere. It is beautiful but deadly.
      KB

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    3. Wow! It was 75 degrees here yesterday. However, today is cooler--59 degrees.

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    4. LOL Our second snow here in South Dakota has come and almost gone! But it's 60 today--heat wave :)

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  3. Welcome, Kathy! I'm about to run out the door but will be back to chat more later!

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  4. Kathy! This is an amazing look into the planning it takes to pull off something like an epic story. I will definitely be taking notes from this. Congratulations on another book. I haven't read any of them, so if you put me in the drawing for Westward Hope, I'd love to read it. Thanks for sharing :)

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    1. Thank you, Glynis. It took a lot of coordination and still takes coordination, as i haven't yet submitted it to my publisher. I'm still in the rewrite stage and waiting to hear back from one of my beta readers. But it's been fun.
      Good luck in the drawing.
      Kathy Bailey

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    2. Glynis, I'm glad you stopped by!

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  5. Wonderful tips, Kathy. Thanks for giving us insight on your story. All the best to you.

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    1. B, always nice to see you in another venue and thanks for supporting me. It's been quite a year for you too, hasn't it, with your first historical? Isn't it fun (and scary) to stretch?
      To Whom It May Concern, Barbara Britton is one of my fellow Pelican authors and she has taken on the hefty job of coordinating our prayer requests, tweets and blog appearances. It requires a tremendous amount of organization. Kind of like writing an epic novel.
      To Barbara and my fellow Pelican authors: My alternate name here is Kaybee. Don't ask.

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    2. How nice to be supporting each other! Sounds like a wonderful publishing family. We're glad you stopped by, Barbara!

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  6. Kathy, you've been working hard! Oh my goodness. I'm so impressed with your attention to detail and how you've created your epic! Congrats! I know the story will touch readers' hearts! I'm enthralled and eager to read WESTWARD HOPE!

    Snow? Our temps dropped from the high 70s yesterday to the fifties. We may reach 60 something, which seems cool after so many warm days. I'm not ready to hunker down inside, especially after our weeks and weeks of self-isolation, but God is in control and seasons change. Enjoy the snowfall. Post pics on FB!

    Congrats, again, on your well-deserved success!

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    1. Thank you, Debby. Always nice to hear from you. It is great to be here. Writing the final book in "Western Dreams" was a real education for me. With a "big" book as with a smaller, it's important that you don't leave any threads for others to pull. And it goes way beyond eye color.
      I don't want to be closed in again either, but in New England that's what tends to happen in the winter so we're used to it. As long as my husband lets me control the remote...
      Seriously, I look at it as an opportunity to write and that's okay.
      KB

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  7. Great post, Kathy! I'm a big fan of your books!

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    1. Thank you Kel. I appreciate your support. BTW, this is the one you're Beta-reading so sorry if any spoiler alerts.
      I look forward to blogging with YOU in December.
      KB

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    2. So nice to have a beta reader! Kelly, we're glad you stopped by!

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  8. Kathy! It's so exciting to have you on this side of the Seekerville world!

    That attention to detail pays off in any historical, but it's even more crucial in a story that covers the scope that yours does. I'm all into maps, timelines, calendars, etc. And yes, I also use color coding. Somewhere along the way, I actually write!

    Your series is on my TBR list - so exciting that you're almost done with the third book!

    Inquiring minds want to know - is this a three book series, or are you planning more books in your story world?

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    1. Jan, it is nice to be here as always.
      Yeah, I'm still not through tweaking this one. I've given myself till January to turn it in, so that's plenty of time to line things up. I think.
      Funny thing about organizing, I'm all into the color coordination and Post-it notes, lists, charts, schedules, kind of not a pantser, and it carries over into our home. My husband is the opposite, he's intuitive, so we have MANY intense conversations. You should have seen us trying to organize his retirement. I have a plastic box with folders on every possible contingency and he just sort of winged it.
      I am honored to be on your TBR list.
      It's actually a five-book series, with three novels and two loosely-related novellas, the second of which comes out this December. Jenny Thatcher had supporting roles in "Westeard Hope" and "Settler's Hope," so it wasn't a stretch to give her her own book. The stretch was the book I gave her.
      While this is the finale to "Western Dreams," I have mulled the idea of other Western stories. I mean come on, the Gold Rush? The Land Rush? My take on an epic cattle drive? Plus I haven't done a barroom brawl yet...A possible spin-off series would be what happens to Caroline's friends Ben and Martha when they get to California. They have five children, so the possibilities are five-fold. I'd also like to do something with Michael and Oona's brother Tom, the one stuck in Ireland, and how he got out and came to the New World and traveled West to join his family. The West is SO vast, which is why people went there in the first place.
      I'm researching the Revolutionary War for a change of pace and I've also got two unsold series from two different time periods, so we'll see.
      Thanks for your interest! The one thing I won't try is Amish -- too many other good writers working THAT genre.
      Kaybee

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    2. Kathy, I am hoping you do write a series telling about Ben and Martha and their children. That gives you another multi-book series right there!

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    3. Sandy, I know, I know. I never have a problem coming up with ideas. Just with executing them.

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    4. Some of my ideas SHOULD be executed. Like a firing squad at dawn-executed.

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  9. Kathy, I am really looking forward to reading Jenny and White Bear's story. I do enjoy epics, especially ones set in the west. I also enjoy seeing historical figures in fictional books. As you know, I have read the first two books so please put me in the drawing for the New England gift pack!

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    1. Sandy, so good to see you here. Thank you for your support! It's so good to know that my stories reach and touch people.
      Good luck in the drawing!
      KB

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  10. This post is epic. I love how you break everything down and am in awe of your color-coded charts and maps. I do good to get ideas scribbled down in a notebook for future scenes. I almost always write in the linear method. Thanks for sharing this with us today.

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    1. Amy, I'm very linear as well. However, I usually do know the midpoint and ending. But I have to write in order. :)

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    2. Amy, it just means I'm a little OCD. But it comes in handy, especially when organizing a big project. I just need to not get bogged down in the organizing tools, which is easy to do.

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  11. Yes! White Bear's story is finally here! Woot, woot! Kathy, I've heard you talk about him for so long I can't wait to read about him. I love the way you took such great care to make sure you were true to the characters. Congratulations, my friend, on bringing this epic story to life!

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    1. Hold the phone! I still have to wait for it to release, don't I Kathy? Sigh. Okay, fine. But I still can't wait to read about ol' White Bear. ;)

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  12. Um, Mindy, you and I still have to wait for it to get ACCEPTED. I haven't submitted it yet. Still editing, fact-checking and tweaking. I think you'll like it when it finally comes to light. Hope you do.

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  13. It has been great being here as always. Thanks for having me.

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  14. wow Kathy! That's a lot of detail to keep track of. Thanks for sharing your tips on writing epic stories.

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