Lisa's Process of Writing Medieval Novels

When I first began creating medieval storylines, I was not thinking about creating novels for other people to read. I was creating stories for my own enjoyment, to imagine a world where men were honorable and women were strong. I explain in my background article on Lisa Shea and Medieval Romance how integral this "way of life" was for me while I was growing up.

Somewhere in the early 1990s I began writing down my two main storylines to have them documented. In a way this was hard to do because I greatly enjoyed being able to change or tweak them in my mind depending on my mood. Once I committed them to paper, they were frozen in that form. They could no longer bend or sway with my feelings. Still, it was nice to have them on paper. These were Badge of Honor and Believing your Eyes.

Now that I had two completed, I began thinking in more of a novel framework. I had an image of a woman riding desperately through the night, her hair streaming behind her, escaping the home life which stifled her. I did not lay out a complete plot, or map out my character arc, or use any other organizing system. I simply began writing from that image. What were her fears? What would she do next? What might happen to her? The story flowed out of me organically.

I did want the story to have authenticity. I researched a medieval calendar and gave her a starting date. I then tracked her days on the calendar. I made sure I knew where Sunday fell, because Sunday was important in medieval times. I also overlaid the lunar calendar, to know when the moon was waxing and waning. That was also important in medieval society. In addition, I gave the story a specific location. The landscapes, the types of water around, the nearness to the ocean, all would effect how a character thought and behaved. I wanted to make sure my characters were authentic in their environment.

When I finished my first pass, I then went back and read through it again. And again. Each time I would polish words, add in clarifying information, and immerse myself in the environment. Would the character really say that? What would they be feeling if that event just happened? I adored the polishing runs even more than the initial writing. Each time I could delve further into the story, make tender refinements to gently guide the story.

Then another story sprung into my head - Trusting in Faith. And as I was finishing that one off, another one. In each case, it was not a matter of me thinking "I need to write a story" and trying to figure it out. Instead, the stories whispered to me at night, called to me while I was driving, and insisted they wanted to be told. It was more that I pushed aside other tasks to give myself the time to let them out. Sometimes they would jostle for attention. I would be working on Looking Back and all of a sudden the new storyline for Knowing Yourself would start pushing its way into my attention. I had to hurry and finish writing out the first one - at least the basic progression of the plot - to get it all documented before the new one tangled into it too much. Often I would have two stories going at the same time, one nearly finished, the other one getting started.

It's a little hard to explain what it feels like to me. It is not like when I sit down to write a research paper for my low carb site, documenting the history of Splenda and its use in various countries. It is not that I map out a plan and then check off the portions of it that I complete. Instead, it is like a hot springs deep within my brain that bubbles up enthusiastically, bringing with it clear visions of specific events. I see a woman galloping on a horse, her hair streaming out behind her, her emotions a tumultuous mix of excitement and liberation and worry for the future. I see a woman straining forward against a sturdy arm which is wrapped around her midsection. She is screaming in agony, sure her soulmate is about to be slain, and the arm holds her back, preventing her from going to his side. I see a woman sitting at a worn table in a nearly empty tavern, tears streaming down her face, staring at the open door that her beloved partner has walked out of, knowing he is gone forever from her life, and that it is all her own fault. I feel these images viscerally. I immerse myself in them, and then it makes perfect sense to me what she would do next, and then what the world might do, and the story just evolves.

If anything my challenge is to carve out the time to get it all documented before the strength of the images fade, before I forget key parts of the story which seemed so compelling to me only the night before. I carry notebooks with me, I try to scribble down ideas, and get them safely documented before they fade away.

I find the more that I practice, the more that I give my "brain machinery" chance after chance to release its ideas, the more smoothly they flow. Also I find that giving myself ample sleep, healthy food, and hydration help the visions resolve crystal clear for me to see and grab a hold of.

Here's a few examples from my later novels.

Novel #13 - I had a dream about being on a plane that was being hijacked. I was in the coach cabin, near the first class section, and I realized the hijack was going on. I looked back, and a man's eyes met mine. He realized there was something wrong and came up to help. When I woke, I played the scenario in my head over and over again in the coming days. I then thought of how I could translate it into a novel. I moved it from a plane onto a ship, and the story was born.

Novel #17 - I was thinking about going to a Society for Creative Anachronisms (SCA) event, and being in the combat ring to research a story. I imagined what might happen next. An experienced knight would come along, and talk with me. I wouldn't let on that I knew how to fight already. I played the story out in my mind over time. What would happen next? If I then entered the tournament, and hid my face, how might he react when he realized it was me? Then I began to imagine it in medieval times. Over the days the story expanded and unfolded.

In general I rarely have a sense of where the story will "end" - beyond a happy ending with the couple ending up together. I start with an image. I know what types of characters are involved. Then I imagine what they would do next. I imagine what obstacles they might face. I imagine what might cause them to balk. It all flows out based on those characters and the situation they are in.

I'm happy to talk more about my writing process, if an aspiring author is curious to learn more!

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