Developing a plot for a novel can be tricky. Today, Sarah Waldock, author of Regency romances and historical mystery stories, presents an amazing creative method: Writing by dice.
Her post offers a unique insight into the creative process and shows how the element of chance can be successfully employed to enhance a plot.
Guest Post by Sarah Waldock:
My name is Sarah Waldock and I write Regency romances, and historical mystery stories set in the Renaissance and Regency.
My regency stories were initially inspired by fan fiction in Jane Austen’s worlds, and my Regency detectives are Jane Fairfax [from ‘Emma’] and her Bow Street Runner husband, Caleb Armitage, whom she married after her first husband, Frank Churchill, was murdered in the first book, ‘Death of a Fop’.
I have written a sequel to ‘Pride and Prejudice’ called ‘Vanities and Vexations’, a book heavily influenced by Georgette Heyer, called ‘Friends and Fortunes’ and have published my first truly independent romance called ‘None so Blind’.
I am in the throes of publishing my second which has lurked under the working title of ‘The Unwilling Viscount’ and will probably end up as ‘Rookwood’ as I’m embarking on an exciting project of a series of interlinked romances which will probably cross over one or more of the characters. I also have stories about the Rookwood family in different eras planned.
I am considering having other future books linked through the reappearance of characters in a cohesive universe.
I came upon the idea of using dice in writing when I was Gamesmaster in a selection of role playing games [the pen and paper kind, not the computerised sort, because I’m really that old] and I made some tables for random events and personality traits because the player characters very rarely stuck to the plot as laid out in either published adventures or those I had written, and wanted to go off and talk to people who were mentioned in passing for local colour. So, rather than be wrong footed, I developed the ability to quickly roll a few personality traits to see how these random people would react to being spoken to by a bunch of [usually] scuzzy looking strangers with big weapons and bigger attitudes.
I confess there may be a bit of an art in adding the traits together and building a whole personality and – if need be – back story to them, but if you talk to yourself in the role of this person, often enough it just builds itself. Especially, oddly enough, if any of the traits seem contradictory. It is fine to discard totally contradictory rolls if they really do seem silly, or to roll again to find a combination of circumstances that work better.
E.g., X is weedy, a sportsman and determined. Plainly he was a younger son, born rather weedy and grew up, probably bullied by a big, sportsman of a father and older brothers and bullies at school. He decided to train secretly so that he could fight back against the worst bully, who relied on body mass and intimidation, and was defeated by the determined wiry strength of our hero. Does X hide his sportsmanship behind dressing like a dandy because, wiry strength or no, he is never going to look good in a Corinthian’s many caped coat? Or does he dress quietly and without attempt to ape any fashion? Is he either ridiculed in the first case, or overlooked in the second? Does the despised dandy have the chance to knock down the villain who is mauling the heroine?
I normally work from a table 10×10 with a pair of 10 sided dice; however, I have things like that at home because of all the RPGs I’ve been involved with over the years, so I’ve reworked this into two tables of 36 characteristics, one for men and one for women because most people have at least one ordinary die knocking around somewhere.
You can roll one twice for x and for y, or two different coloured ones together.
If you have 10 sided dice, then by all means expand this… or swap out traits you don’t like for others.
I’ve constructed this using an informal analysis of the people in Heyer’s novels… it is the sort of people who might be met in the upper classes; servants and tradesmen should really have a table to themselves.
|4||horse mad||misanthrope||stupid||sarcastic||tone deaf||poet|
|4||Horse mad||shrewd||poor figure||miserly||whines||poet|
Use a 6-sided dice to determine something more about a character: you can roll once on each column [age may have been determined beforehand of course].
|1||old||has child[ren]||impoverished||ugly||perceived flaw*|
|2||middle aged||widowed||Ruined by debt||plain||noble family|
|3||past youth||unwed||competence||unremarkable||awful family|
|4||young||betrothed||comfortably off||well enough||family of the manse|
|5||youth||married happily||wealthy||attractive||military family|
|6||child||married unhappily||very wealthy||gorgeous||absorbing hobby|
* e.g. slight deformity, birth mark, unpleasant voice, too tall, too short, too thin, too fat, stutter, wall-eyed, red hair, etc. These things were accounted flaws in the Regency period and might affect marriagability, but overcoming perceived disadvantages can also be a good plot device. My heroine in ‘None so Blind’ is physically blind, but the title refers more to the inability of other characters to ‘see’ as in ‘understand clearly‘.
I also use a dice-driven decision path when writing mysteries. I usually use it for the odd short story to fill in, if I’ve had several stories write themselves and I need one or two to fill in. However, I’ve developed a decision path for odd irritating incidents to carry a Regency story forward. This can create tension inside a story, add a chapter or two and may even change the direction of the plot. The main rule is, if something feels wrong, discard it. Nothing is hard and fast; this is just a starting point for a side plot or two!
I confess I tend to just be inspired by plot bunnies by random facts about the period, but this is handy too for backstories about why a secondary character may be in disgrace or acting as they do.
Incident and mishap table
This set of tables shows an initial incident, then details [if required] about that incident, and then who was responsible, if anyone.
|1 a secret is betrayed|
|2 a rumour is started|
|3 a compromising situation arises|
|4 a mysterious letter arrives|
|5 belongings are lost/stolen/damaged|
|6 a costume disaster occurs!|
|1||family secret regarding a black sheep|
|2||family secret regarding legitimacy or otherwise|
|3||the character has a scandal in their past|
|4||the character or family member has written a book|
|5||something the character has said and now wishes unsaid|
|6||it’s someone else’s secret and that person thinks the character is the only person to know it|
|1||The character is a flirt/rake|
|2||the character is the author of some scurrilous publication OR has spread scurrilous tales|
|3||the character is much richer OR much poorer than he/she really is|
|4||the character has a love child OR is a love child OR has behaved scandalously|
|5||the character is mad or has madness in the family|
|6||the character is not who he/she says he/she is|
|1||the character loses way and goes to the wrong bedroom|
|2||the character is directed [by accident OR maliciously] to the wrong bedroom|
|3||the character is locked in somewhere with member of the opposite sex [by accident OR maliciously]|
|4||the character gets into the wrong carriage|
|5||the character is lured somewhere by letter or other means|
|6||the character is abducted or drugged to arrange a compromising situation|
Mysterious letter arrives
|1||from someone out of the character’s past wishing to rekindle friendship/love|
|2||from someone out of the character’s past begging aid, financial or practical|
|3||from a family member who needs something|
|4||the letter is a blackmailing letter threatening to reveal something|
|5||the letter brings unwelcome news of financial problems/ruin for the family|
|6||the letter brings news of an unexpected legacy which may or may not be an encumbrance|
|1||the all-important finishing touch for meeting the love of the character’s life has gone missing. It may have been removed maliciously, misplaced or tidied away|
|2||clothes have been cut up and ripped. Could be deliberate or it might be some animal…|
|3||small valuable items are going missing and appear to be stolen. They probably are|
|4||small items of no particular value are going missing. Could be anyone for a number of motives from kleptomania to annoyance value|
|5||Something gets ripped on the way out, and it’s too late to mend it|
|6||Letters have gone missing. Have they been stolen, misplaced, or slid into a secret drawer by mistake? If the last, what else is in there?|
|1||something is spilled down a costume; if it’s white, it’s bound to be red wine|
|2||a costume catches on a projection and tears, and it’s somewhere public|
|3||a lady’s décolletage is insufficiently well engineered and her bosom makes a public appearance|
|4||a gentleman’s trouser flap isn’t buttoned properly and threatens to descend|
|5||the character is responsible for catching a part of the apparel of a member of the opposite sex in a pin or fob, or through tripping, and rips it|
|6||the character manages to spill something down another person|
Who, if anyone, is responsible for the Incident?
For this, use 3 dice, and add them, giving a range from 3-18. Most frequent occurrence will be 10-11, and as many incidents are going to be caused by enemies, I have assigned them to the most likely spots.
If you prefer a more random chance, place those responsible where more than one choice is given into 2 more categories to make 18 not 16, and list the people in 3 groups of 6: rolling 1-2 for the first group, 3-4 for the second group, and 5-6 for the third group, and then one die for the group determined.
|3||stranger or mischief maker|
|4||animal agency or child|
|7||distant family member|
|8||sibling or close family member|
|10||jealous lover/ex lover/wannabe lover|
|12||servant, for personal reasons or paid by another|
|16||underling in position of trust|
|17||someone from the past|
|18||someone trusted like a parent/guardian/governess|
NOTE: If someone who should be ‘on the character’s side’ does something that seems mean, potentially either the character has offended this person and a rebuke got out of hand, or a situation may have been engineered with good intentions, and may, or may not, go according to plan.
E.g., Lady Peacock locks Miss Scarlet in the conservatory with Colonel Mustard because they have quarrelled and she knows they are made for each other. This may lead to worse quarrels or let them make up their differences. If Lady Peacock locked her daughter Miss Scarlet in the conservatory with Colonel Mustard because she wants to engineer a good match with the wealthy and titled colonel, an entirely different scenario ensues…
However, just in case inspiration fails, here is a table of motives: use 2 dice and add them, giving a range of 2-12. 7 is the most frequent. Once again this may be broken into two tables of 6 with an additional motive if need be.
|6||for gain [material or social or to attract someone]|
|9||fear of something the character might do or know|
|10||fear of what someone else might do|
|11||bribed or threatened|
|12||good motives to help character|
Random incidents that may be witnessed by characters
Random things can happen to kickstart a struggling plot. Here I’ve put together 36 incidents which can happen, by rolling one die to get the number of the table, and a second to get the incident on that table. Really there should be one table for the country and one for the town; where an event is specific to the town I have tried to put a country alternative.
Discerning readers may notice some incidents borrowed with my tongue in my cheek from Heyer or from my own stories. This is simplified from my much more extensive tables where I roll first what sort of person is encountered based on the area… These can be used to add a bit of local colour, or to start a subplot.
|1||climbing boy descends into character’s chamber|
|2||street urchin knocked down by coach/labourer’s child knocked down by cart|
|3||a beggar asks for money. On 4-5 he is crippled and may be an ex soldier/sailor. On 6 he is a false cripple|
|4||there’s a very young prostitute crying, who has been beaten up|
|5||a thief tries to pick the character’s pocket; 1-4 it’s a child|
|6||a street entertainer is trying to get people to bet on thimble rigging or similar|
|1||there’s a parade of performing beasts and acrobats from Astley’s Amphitheatre|
|2||two rival theatre companies/performances have people out crying the attractions of their entertainments; a punch-up ensues|
|3||a tradesman is beating a dog/donkey/pony pulling a cart which has become lodged in a rut or on a stone|
|4||a man accuses another of cheating at cards or dice|
|5||A troop of soldiers march by. 1-4 they look very smart in their scarlet coats 5 they look scruffy but proud, because they are fresh from the wars; 6 the appearance is spoiled by one who marches like a ploughboy/is dirty/is drunk|
|6||sailors in a press gang are looking for ‘recruits’|
|1||two carriages or carts have collided and a dispute ensues|
|2||somebody barges rudely past the characters and may knock them over|
|3||A Whig and a Tory have taken a dispute in a pub onto the street and a crowd has gathered to see the fun|
|4||a street preacher is telling anyone who will listen about eternal damnation|
|5||a rabble rouser is urging the masses to throw off the yoke of the damned aristocrats; he’s about to be arrested, if the masses don’t protect him. This could mean a riot|
|6||there’s a new consignment of some special muslin in an emporium and women are ready to tear out eyes and hair to get to it first|
|1||a gentleman takes out a snuff box which should NEVER be seen in mixed company and several ladies faint at its improper shape|
|2||a wealthy woman wants it all and she wants it NOW and is telling everyone so loudly|
|3||a wealthy man has hurt someone with his curricle 1 he is taking care of the unfortunate injured person personally, 2-3 he has offered money to them, 4-5 he’s trying to buy off witnesses, 6 he’s blustering that it was none of his fault|
|4||there is to be a talk by a member of the Royal Society trying to raise money for something like an expedition to Egypt to dig tombs, to fly a hot air balloon across the channel studying weather patterns, or to study the volcanoes in Italy and Sicily|
|5||Some wealthy ladies are giving the cut direct to another lady. [roll on the mishap table for why, perhaps…]|
|6||He seems like a bona fides nabob but is he really an imposter?|
|1||is that really Daniel Mendoza in person?|
|2||the female is an opera singer; you may meet her anywhere [indeed you just have] but there are plenty of rumours attached to her, and her liaisons…|
|4||He’s plainly a gentleman, but he’s drunker than a lord. 1-2 he’s amiably fatuous, 3-4 he’s aggressive, 5-6 he’s about to pass out|
|5||The girl is plainly a lady but she has no maid or footman with her and is attracting unwanted attention|
|6||passing clandestine letters and the character picked the book before the recipient could manage to get it? Is there a plan of an elopement?|
|1||a gentleman is thrown from his horse and is injured|
|2||a horse bolts, frightened by a military band/ sounds of shots from shooting game|
|3||There’s a big society wedding at St George’s Hanover Square. 1 bride and groom look deliriously happy; 2-4 bride and groom look as satisfied as might be expected with an arranged marriage; 5-6 bride and groom are mismatched, probably young girl sold to old rich man [but might be personable young charmer marrying a rich old widow]|
|4||There’s almost a riot outside a cartoon shop as some leading figure is lampooned|
|5||there’s a balloon ascent at Vauxhall!|
|6||The new debutante is a mystery woman. Is she all she claims to be?|
Just to see whether this could make a whole plot bunny, I rolled a series of rolls through the table.
Hero is horse-mad, military, commanding. He is middle aged, ruined by debt, unremarkable to look at, and has an awful family.
Heroine is pleasant, poor figure, truthful, past youth, very wealthy, plain and has a perceived flaw.
I decided to roll to check if either was widowed or had children but as neither did, I ignored two happy marrieds. The point of a romance is to get unwed people together.
Reconciling these rolls we have:
Colonel Henry Mustard, late of the Hussars, who has sold out to try to settle his father’s gaming debts now the old man has shot himself. He is the only member of the family not affected by gambling madness, and the rest of his cousins will always try to borrow money from any acquaintance. Henry is 40 [yes, I massaged middle age…].
Hester Scarlett may be pleasant, but she’s no fool and she has turned down fortune hunters as she has enough wealth to be able to enjoy spinsterhood if she cannot find a man to at least like and respect. As well as a dumpy figure, I decided she has a slightly raised shoulder; it doesn’t notice much but it does add a bit to the appearance of being dumpy. She’s 28.
I rolled both an irritating incident and a random occurrence.
Clothing ripped by a servant for gain.
Wealthy man hurts someone with his curricle and offers money.
I decided to use the second to precipitate a meeting:
Hester is knocked over by some git who isn’t taking care, and he offers her money, which outrages Hester. Bruised as she is, she gives him a piece of her mind. Henry, seeing the whole, is impressed by her bravery, and lays the git out. He escorts Hester home. They chat on the way and he asks her out driving, apologising that his equipage is rather old and shabby.
Hester accepts, and several meetings ensue. Henry manages to obtain tickets for the opera in exchange, perhaps, for advising a friend in what horses to purchase; and invites Hester.
Hester’s old nursemaid, now her dresser, is horrified at the idea of Hester possibly finding romance and disturbing their comfortable status quo, and deliberately burns her opera gown [I thought burning came within the spirit of the act]. Hester is furious, but of course forgives her and promises her that she would never leave old Sally to starve and would always want her as her dresser [proving Hester to be too nice for her own good if Sally is likely to interfere in a marriage, but of course the shock of doing something so drastic might make Sally come to her senses].
Cue some of Henry’s awful relatives finding out that Hester is wealthy [Henry hasn’t a clue, which endears him to Hester: she lives quietly and makes very little outward show beyond having the best of everything] who wants to touch Henry’s rich lady for a loan. Henry remonstrates.
There’s room here for one of Henry’s relatives to try a bit of blackmail, or even kidnapping if anyone wanted; depends how they turn out. However, it IS a viable plot bunny, even though it’s out of the usual way of young heroine/older slightly rakish hero.