Begin Your First Chapter of a Novel or Story by Writing the Dialogue
The dialogue gives you the first clue of how your characters will be driving the plot and the rest of the story forward by their behavior, emotions, and words spoken. Even if you're only writing the outline or plan of your novel, the way you want to organize your chapters, start the dialogue going which will move the action forward. A proverb that can be fleshed out into a story can give your dialog purpose, momentum, and passion or at list enthusiasm, liveliness, and charisma or reflection and introspection. Your characters are going to be focused inward or outward, depending upon the personalities their dialogue and actions reveal.
Your first chapter—chapter one—is an odd-numbered chapter. Here´s the chapter where you put your setting, props, and descriptions. You´re staring at a blank page. What do you write as your first sentence? Ask yourself what is your main character´s payoff or reward in the book? You may wish to see the book, Who's Buying Which Popular Short Fiction Now, & What Are They Paying?: How to Write, Customize, & Sell Tales Online.
Is his or her reward to understand and control nature in order to become rich and powerful, run away from unbearable duty, get recognition, be remembered, and make an impact, or be loved and also be the center of attention? You may wish to see the book, Social Smarts Strategies That Earn Free Book Publicity: Don't Pay to Market Your Writing.
You can break down your protagonist´s goal or life purpose into four categories: control, duty, attention, and impact. To avoid writer´s block on that blank first page, you write 90 seconds of dialog. Read it in 90 seconds aloud to a digital recorder. Play it back. How smooth does it sound to your ears?
Do real people talk that way? Is your setting and dialog believable? After the first line of dialog, put in some of your background settings, dates, geography, action, and other props belonging in the odd-numbered chapters. Start a conversation between two characters. Then have them answer the questions or pose a new question by the end of the first page. Don´t put everything on the first page. You may wish to check out the book, Ethno-Playography: How to Create Salable Ethnographic Plays, Monologues, & Skits from Life Stories, Social Issues.
Introduce your novel a little at a time to readers. Don´t give the whole story away in the first chapter. In your outline, put in chapter summaries and headlines, not the whole story. Put your plan down after the first chapter.
Never start a historical novel with people in transit. Begin when they arrive at their new destination or write a historical novel that takes place entirely on the ship and end it when they step off the plank at their destination.
After you have your first page of dialogue written, insert in between the dialog the descriptions of geography, location, dates, foods, costumes, room descriptions, and anything else you will be putting into your odd chapters, usually falling on the right side of the book pages. That´s where the right eye travels first in a right-handed person.
Then you write the first chapter as if it were act one of a 24-minute play, but don´t put in any stage directions or sound effects. In fact, each of your chapters can total 24 pages. You´re aiming for balance. Beware of short and long chapters in an historical novel or any story or drama.
Keep in mind attention span. The average attention span of a reader is seven minutes, same as the attention span for viewing video. That´s why commercials are inserted at every 10 minute break. The human brain needs a pause every 90 seconds to recharge. Knowing those elements of time, keep your scene segments changing every seven minutes and pausing for a change every 90 seconds of average reading time. Usually it takes a minute to read one page.
Your entire book would be 24 chapters. So keep the number 24 in mind as your yardstick. The pages don´t have to be exact, of course, but you need to balance your chapters so that one chapter is not much longer than any other.
Instead, you describe in animated language, the geographic setting and the century or date. Animated language is written by using action verbs—designed, wrote, built, cured, vaccinated, or fired or ....as in "The charivari and consonance of healing frequencies fired from the klaxon´s usual noise."
Animate historical writing by avoiding tautology which means: don´t repeat the same ideas using different words. How many words a publisher wants varies with each publisher. It costs less to publish a 50,000 word book than a book twice that size. Historical young adult novels run about 40,000 words. Historical novels can be family sagas that read as if they were talking maps and family atlases.
Begin your planning stage of your outline by first compiling your plot and the names of your character, dates, customs, ethnography, social history, biography, and folklore in a computer file folder. Keep at least two backup copies on CDs and also printed out on paper in case your computer crashes or your files are lost.
Buy a 3-ring loose leaf notebook for your paper copies. In the binder place all materials related to your book in progress. When the book is published, you´ll need a second loose leaf notebook binder to keep track of publicity, press releases, reviews, contracts, and correspondence from your publisher and from the media. Place those little one-inch binder insert covers or tabs to label each chapter of your book.
Don´t leave your book on the screen. Print out each chapter to edit and revise in the loose leaf note book. Put the book´s title on the spine. Put into your note book plastic inserts.
Attach a tab to label your notes on research for historical accuracy. Put another tab for your synopsis, plan, outline, summarized chapters with chapter headings, and other notes. In another loose leaf notebook after the book is published, do the same type of labeling with plastic inserts and tabs for your editing, contracts, reviews, promotions, publicity press interviews, spin-off articles, history fact-checking, and royalty notices.
Keep your two notebooks in a metal filing cabinet, and keep copies of the same in your computer. One format will back up the other format. If your computer fails, you have everything printed out on paper and two or three CD copies of everything in a fire-proof metal filing cabinet or box. When your editor calls, you can find anything in moments if you label your chapters and other materials and keep them close by.
After your book is published your second notebook will track royalties, reviews, the book cover design information or ideas, editing/revisions, query letters, and research of your potential market of readers or age groups and ethnic associations interested in the historical novel.
Historical novels are about looking for answers to solve problems and get results in exotic places, but finding simple answers were right under your fingers. You want to emphasize universal values such as commitment to family and friends, caring for one another, repairing social ills and sickness, earning a living and becoming independent, supporting your children and keeping the family together against all odds, or finding freedom, faith and values, in the virtues of finding and being accepted a new home land.
Another genre in historical fiction is the family saga. The saga may be fictionalized but it reads like biography. Fictional sagas use action verbs in the dialogue. They read almost like a drama. And the action verbs animate the writing. The opposite of animated writing is flat writing, where passive verbs weaken the story. Historical novels become weaker when the plot drives the characters.
The characters should drive the plot faster and faster to a conclusion where problems are solved or conflicts resolved. You have closure at the end for the characters. Or they transcend past mistakes and rise above them. The last chapter gives the characters a type of choice and balance they did not have at the beginning of the book. The characters grow.
Characters change with the times and inspire the reader. Or they are heroes because of sticking to their purpose and commitment
The protagonists don´t abandon their family or friends. But if they make mistakes, they find closure in rising above the mistakes by seeing more possibilities in the simple answers instead of the complex ones. Simplicity of answers close by is the formula for the historical novel that emphasizes growth and change for the better.
Before you write your plan, make a map or family atlas of your characters and summarize their problems and personalities in two paragraphs.
Draw them on a map and point to how they relate to or interact with other characters and how they influence the other characters and the results. Read the book title, Silk Stockings Glimpses of 1904 Broadway, or A 19th Century Immigrant´s Love Story. It shows how a love story intertwines with a historical novel that can be both a social history, romance novel, and historical novel or family saga rolled into one published book.
Write Two Scenes for Each Chapter
Your first chapter will consist of two scenes. Write those two scenes before sending them out to a publisher in an outline which usually asks for three sample chapters and an outline summary of one chapter (summarized by two paragraphs) for each of the 24 chapters of your book. Almost all mainstream novels consist of two scenes per chapter. Take apart any mainstream novel, and you´ll see those two distinctive scenes in each chapter.
Within each chapter you´ll have one scene of interaction between two characters or a character and his or her family and one action scene. So keep this formula in mind: one relationship scene and one action scene. It has been said by published authors in the past decade and repeated at talks and seminars where published authors speak to other authors repeating this formula.
When you first plan your historical novel, separate the relationship side from the action side. First summarize the relationship side and then do the same for the action side. Then bring both together in one chapter. In every relationship scene and in every action scene, you will have your characters interacting together.
You need to make a laundry list in your plan of what happens specifically on the relationship side. Then in your odd-numbered chapters, you will fill in the plot side, the mystery side, the action side, the geography, costume, food, ethnography, travel and ballroom or battlefield side.
What you don´t want to do is have all even-numbered chapters where characters do nothing but talk or all odd-numbered chapters where characters don´t speak to each other and just travel the roads or sail the seas or fight the wars. No, that´s just the way you outline your plan, your skeleton. Now you bring the relationship scenes together and the action scenes together and put them inter-playing in each chapter. At this point, you´ll start writing your book. In the actual book, the reader will not see a difference between the odd and even chapters.
It´s in your planning stage that you separate each set of 12 chapters totaling 24 chapters. So when you finally bring the chapters together to weave them slowly, what you have left is an historical mainstream novel with "two scenes per chapter, one relationship scene and one action scene," as it has been said by numerous published authors speaking at writer´s seminars or meetings.
The quote I heard most often from popular published novelists emphasized that "Your protagonists interact together in the relationship and action scenes." What you do plan for in your historical mainstream novel is writing 24 chapters.
Your first step is to write up a plan that shows chapter by chapter exactly what is happening, changing, and moving the plot forward on the relationship side and on the plot or action side. Then you have to balance relationship and dialogue against plot or action. When the two sides are in balance as if on a seesaw, you have a salable historical mainstream novel.
In your plan, you´d have two columns, one for scenes with relationships showing communication, connection, and interaction using dialog. And in your other column, you´d describe your plot using scenes depicting action and adventure.
This is the best way to organize your novel before you sit down to write. It´s set up so you can get a handle on what you´re doing and find any scene or chapter quickly to do fact checking with actual historical events.
When you´ve picked apart your book´s main points, results, and are able to show how the characters solved problems leading to growth and change, commitment, closure, or transcending past choices and taking alternative paths, you have arrived at a point in organization where every turning point or significant event and relationship or social history highlight is labeled and filed. Now that you have organized the details, it´s time to flesh out your story.
Novels Spring from Proverbs
Where do you get your storyline? You begin with a proverb related to the history your depicting. Look at a book of proverbs. Choose one. Flesh out the proverb into a story. Take a course in storytelling or read a book on how to be a storyteller. Check out the book, How to Turn Poems, Lyrics, and Folklore into Salable Children's Books: Using Humor or Proverbs.
Most fairy tales, ethnic historical time-travel plots, and historical novels--either romance or suspense and intrigue are built around proverbs with ageless, universal values and truths or are related to a culture´s folklore and history. You can also use a proverb from the Bible or from any other similar book of any religion. Use an indigenous culture´s proverbs or those from ancient cultures or hidden histories. You can write a historical novel about military dog, cat, or horse heroes.
Your story line can come out of a proverb or familiar quotation based on still older proverbs of any culture. If you need a plot, a proverb is the first place to look for inspiration or a start. Many novelists use proverbs as inspiration to write one-sentence pitch lines for their novels.
Before you write anything, summarize the pitch line of your book in one sentence. Pretend you were selling your novel to a movie producer. Pitch the book in ten seconds or less using one sentence. Here´s one example used many times in lectures by scriptwriting course professors, "Star Trek is Wagon Train in outer space." Perhaps your historical novel resembles various popular cultures placed in a new context that can be summed up in one sentence under ten words in length.
Note that different publishers may require different page lengths or different numbers of chapters. So check with your publisher´s requirements if the publisher wants more or less than a book with 24 chapters, as publisher´s requirements may vary.