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Thickening the Plot by Layering

Layering is a great technique for adding depth and interest to spring fashion ensembles, fancy desserts and sandwiches, paintings, sculptures, collages, belly dance combinations... and fiction!

Nux Gallica and another child learn the joys of layering shimmies and traveling steps at a belly dance hafla.

I just finished writing Chapter 13 of Briars and Black Hellebore. The sleeping beauty has awakened, and the beast has transformed. In Chapter 14, the newly arising residents of the sleeping beauty's castle will find themselves in a culture clash when they venture out into a new century. This is a great opportunity to have the characters, and the reader, explore the new setting through a variety of cultural and material details that have either changed or persisted over the past hundred years.

In my existing chapters that take place in the pre-sleep century, the characters, setting, and daily life within the castle are only generally sketched out. There are a queen and a princess and a handful of named servants or staff, mostly without specific titles. The people sleep, wake, talk, and eat meals in a lightly hinted backdrop based on 10th century Germanic culture. I didn't want to get too bogged down in historical research before getting the story laid out, so I have focused mostly on the main events and actions rather than the details of the time, place, and society--doing just enough research to make sure that my basic story is a plausible one to play out in my chosen setting.

Now comes the fun of going back and adding another layer to what I have written. During the years I've spent slow-writing my story, I've done some interesting reading here and there on things like literacy, marriage and family arrangements, social norms, linguistics, diet and food preparation, sleeping habits, health and life expectancy, religious practices, battle, politics and governance, clothing, and more. I've found weird facts like: High medieval European men considered pillows to be unmanly, so they laid their heads on logs to sleep. Average marriages among Germanic peoples only lasted a dozen years or so "'til death do us part" because they married late (to prevent overpopulation in times of constant famine) and died young. Most children were raised, at least some of the time, by people who were not their biological parents, because parents were a fleeting and tenuous luxury enjoyed by few. Only about half of children born survived to grow up, but even sickly and hopeless babies were usually treasured.

Some of the factoids I've discovered are irrelevant to my story, and others will serve to flesh out my characters' lives and the subplots I've scrabbled together as I've gone along. It's much more interesting to read about people waking, sleeping, eating, talking, and dressing if we know what their households looked like, how they slept, what they ate, what they talked about, and what they wore. I can infuse the action with sensory experiences of specific color, form, scent, taste, sound, and texture. And because I have the basic storyline down first, it will be easy for me to determine just how much of this detail and which details will add just the right flavor.

This kind of layering is not the same thing as revising or rewriting, exactly. This step is good for a draft that has already been revised and rewritten enough that the storyline is at a nearly finished level of polish--serving as a solid foundation for the finishing touches I'm laying on.

Of course, sometimes I discover a detail that I feel is relevant to my novel which also requires an adjustment to my underlying sketch. Maybe I find out that a certain conversation is not plausible for the characters of my book's time or that a piece of action revolves around an object or architectural feature that is anachronistic. In that case, I have to make an adequate adjustment to the underlying story before I can continue to embellish with sensory and cultural details.

Briars and Black Hellebore is a fantasy, so I am able to take some liberty with historical accuracy, but I want to ensure that the liberties I take are intentional and appropriate to preserve the feeling of a real moment in history. For example, my story has unicorns and dragons in it, and I am pretty sure unicorns and dragons were not part of the actual ecosystem of medieval Europe. But if there were unicorns and dragons in that setting, how would the real people of that time respond to them? What would they believe about them?

Oftentimes, as I've been discovering, truth is stranger--and more fantastical and fascinating--than the cliched fictions that have become common assumptions about a certain time and place in history.

Exciting times lie ahead (and behind) for my characters! Like a dance performance that has been practiced and embellished over many, many rehearsals, my novel is growing in interest and texture through revision and layering.

Writer friends, do you ever practice this technique to build up your prose? At what point in the writing process do you feel you are ready to bust out the literary (not literal) hot glue gun and sequins?


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