How I Plan My Novels by Jacquie Rogers
It is my great pleasure to welcome best selling historical novelist, Jacquie Rogers to the blog today. She explains how she plans writing her books and offers useful hints and tips along the way. Thank you for your time today, Jacquie. Over to you!
Having a plan for writing a novel suggests being methodical, with a beginning-middle-end of story in mind. Nothing could have been further from the truth for my first published novel, The Governor’s Man. That novel was inspired by chance findings in museums, and grew haphazardly out of a short story written for an OU Creative Writing course. My course tutor, the novelist Jane Elmor, pointed out that my submitted story was really the beginning of a novel. This surprised me mightily, as all my previous published work had been short stories, so I thought I knew what I was doing. By the time this “short story” had gone through the hands of a professional editor and been rewritten many times, I had changed protagonists and genre, as well as length and form.
Not the best way to plan a novel, I now understand. However, I did win a three-book contract so all was well. The Governor’s Man was published in May 2021, with the sequel, The Carnelian Phoenix following in August 2022. I’m now writing the third in the Quintus Valerius Roman Britain mysteries, The Loyal Centurion. And I have the scars to prove it! Here are just a few of the main points I’ve learnt about planning a novel: • Meeting reader expectations (and publisher expectations, too)
If you are writing purely for your own pleasure, or to press copies into the hands of your twenty best friends, you can ignore this. But if you want to self-publish, or gain a publishing contract, you must know the genre you are writing. This is not always straightforward. My first book switched from Young Adult historical adventure, to adult historical adventure, to historical mystery. With thriller and romance elements. All of which are fine, as long as readers know what they’re getting (from Amazon categories, blurb, early reviews, first chapter.) Crime readers think my books are crime, (mystery with thriller elements); history lovers think my books are historical.
But why does this matter?
Every book makes a promise to readers when they first pick it up: the hunt for a criminal; the chase to prevent disaster; immersion in a particular historical/fantasy/science fiction world. If you want sales and good reviews, you need to plan to deliver to genre expectations or risk irritating your readers and reviewers. The same goes for agents and publishers, who need to know how to position your book in the market. • Researching your story
Planning a historical novel takes oodles of research, which must then not show except through the eyes of your characters in action. It’s the ultimate ice-berg, but there are no short-cuts if you want readers to lose themselves in your world. I spend at least 50% of my time on a new novel researching: site visits; reading; contacting experts; checking, checking, checking.
With a crime novel, the planning is also meticulous, but more integrated into the plot. So story twists, devices, red herrings, clues, all need careful planning. Quite often I add things retrospectively far down the road, which might mean considerable re-drafting. Keeping scrupulous records and files is vital for this. (I use and recommend Scrivener, a software purpose-designed for writers, in which it is virtually impossible to lose anything.) Nothing is more frustrating than finding out too late that the river you propose to send your heroes along has changed course in the past 1800 years, so they will miss their port by fifty miles.
• Beginning — middle — end
The start of the story is where you set up your characters and the world they inhabit. Right up to where you drop your protagonist over a cliff-edge when they think things are going swimmingly. The mid-point is where things switch up even more, the stakes get higher, and all hell breaks loose. The end is not only the grand finale, but also the resolution after, where you show your reader a return to (the new) normal life. Planning is needed to get the rhythm of the book right.
All types of story have specific pace requirements. Historical novels can be relatively leisurely, especially sagas with plenty of scope for character backstory and development, and scene setting. Not so much with crime, where readers expect fast pace and regular cliff-hangers. You’ll need to think about where to intersperse breathless action with slower recovery scenes, (or risk exhausting your readers).
Then there are considerations like point of view — whose mind you are in at any given point. For a mystery writer especially this is critical. Decisions as to how much your protagonist/detective knows at any point, and whether to feature an antagonist (baddie) point of view, or let readers in on any secrets, will change the flavour of your book.
All these need planning from the start. I am now on book 3 of a series, and though each book is self-contained, the action is closely-linked between them. I know up front how many POV characters I will have — three in my case; and that I will never sit inside the mind of my antagonists, and so their mindsets must be shown through action, reportage and dialogue involving one or more POV characters. That’s the briefest of overviews of how I plan my books. For me, it works to do a lot of detailed planning up front, but others prefer to jump into the action and be prepared to re-write a lot. Either way is fine; I wish you good luck, whichever path you choose!
The Blurb for The Carnellion Phoenix
Former Praetorian Guard, Quintus Valerius, travels from Britannia to visit his family in Rome. A skilled swordsman, Valerius has an unerring nose for danger and death.
Valerius is travelling with his optio, Tiro – a lover of brawling and drinking from Londinium – and the woman he loves, Julia.
In Gaul, Valerius receives a mysterious legacy from his long-dead father – a carnelian intaglio ring. On the road they stumble over a platoon of dead soldiers, also travelling to Rome. One of their high-level prisoners is dead; the other, Cassius Labienus, has escaped.
But the mystery has only just begun.
Soon after, Julia disappears and Valerius is torn between conflicting loyalties. Family secrets are revealed too, involving a conspiracy and plot to unseat Alexander Severus, the boy Emperor.
When Valerius reaches Rome, the soldier discovers that friends have become enemies. But perhaps an enemy could become a friend?
The fate of Valerius – and the Empire – become linked, as he strives to prevent an assassination.
But there will be blood.
Jacquie Rogers had several careers, including advertising and university lecturing, before finding writing suited her best.
The Governor’s Man is the first of her series of Quintus Valerius mystery novels, set in 3rd century Roman Britain. It was published in May 2021 by Sharpe Books, and followed in August 2022 by The Carnelian Phoenix. Linked short stories have appeared in 2021 anthology Imperium, and 2023 anthology Triumphs and Tragedies.
Jacquie’s short stories have been published in several countries. In 2020 and 2021 she was Runner Up in the Lincoln Book Festival story competition.
Jacquie lives in Malvern, England, where she walks the hills daily with her husband Peter and their Staffie-cross dog. When pandemics permit, Jacquie loves to travel by motorbike, and enjoys discussing politics, travel, history and books with friends and family. She spends probably too much time in cafés and pubs.
Jacquie blogs at jacquierogers.substack.com
Find her social media/buy links at linktr.ee/jacquierogers