No, this isn’t going to be a post about how I began as a short story writer and became a novelist. It’s a post about a specific short story I wrote some years ago, which formed the basis for my latest novel, The Pearl Locket. Whenever I’ve mentioned to people that I turned a 2,000-word short story into a 70,000-word novel, their eyes have tended to widen and their jaws drop open.
Here’s a little insight into how I managed it.
If you’ve read everything I’ve ever published (then you are probably my mum) you will have come across a ghost story called We’ll Meet Again which I included in my book, Ghost Stories and How to Write Them. When I was putting that book together, and re-reading the stories I included in it, it struck me that here was a story which could perhaps become a dual-timeline novel. I’d just about finished my novel The Emerald Comb at that time, and knew I wanted to write more books using the same structure – ie alternating chapters telling a historical story and a contemporary story which were linked.
The short story We’ll Meet Again was all in one time period – the contemporary story – but I instantly saw that I could also tell the historical story: that of Joan and Jack and their love affair.
I set about planning the novel – using a spreadsheet and writing a couple of sentences about what would happen in each chapter; aiming for around 25 chapters. Obviously I needed to add lots of new scenes in both timelines but I made sure they were all there to further the main plot lines.
As with The Emerald Comb I found it easier to write the historical story than the contemporary. This was mainly because the historical has just a single linear plot. In dual-timeline novels, the contemporary story needs to include a plot and perhaps sub-plots for the contemporary characters, as well as showing how they uncover the mystery buried in the past, and it all has to weave together in a satisfying way. I can’t tell you how many times I rewrote the contemporary sections, juggling chapters and reworking events.
I had to add several characters of course – Joan’s parents, Jack’s aunt and friend, Kelly’s brother, the next-door neighbours in both timelines, and Kelly’s boyfriend Matt (who I fell a teensy bit in love with. What a thoroughly nice boy he is!) I decided to keep the same names for all the main characters as I’d used in the short story. They were already alive in my head and I didn’t feel I could rename them. It’d feel like renaming my children.
My first draft followed the plot of We’ll Meet Again quite closely. It was definitely a ghost story and had the same ending. But my excellent editors at Carina suggested I should make it less supernatural, so that it would still appeal to non-ghost-believers. The Emerald Comb has no ghosts (although little Thomas is spooked by the wind in the chimney and thinks there is one!) and so it made sense to ensure my second novel fell into exactly the same genre.
Removing the ghost from a ghost story was by far the hardest rewrite I have ever done. But along the way I wrote a new beginning and a new ending (completely different to the ending of the short story) which I knew were much better than the original. And after removing the ghost entirely I then went through it again and put it back in, but more subtly, so that only one character actually thinks there’s a ghost. The reader can now choose what to believe. (For those who’ve read Ghost Stories and How to Write Them, you might recognise that I’ve now provided an “Alternative Rational Explanation”. Perhaps I should have followed my own advice in the first place!)
Not every short story could become a novel, but every now and again you might write one which can. If your tale has a lot of back-story which is only hinted at, summarised or glossed over, then perhaps it is expandable into a novella or novel. It’s a big, tough but rewarding writing exercise!