To Tell A Tale

Continuing from my last blog, I found myself, pen poised, as it were, ready to write. To create. But in front of me lay an uncompromising mixture of the Industrial Revolution’s heavy steam engines and the desire to write escapist romance. 

Could it be done, I asked myself. The serious issue was that you should write what you know, otherwise you’ll be lost before you’ve started. What I knew was technology. My unique insight into my period would be what drove the engineers, and how their ambitions would have played out. 

First of all, though, I had to learn about story telling. I was a beginner, of that I was painfully aware, and still am. I read all about the structures of stories, the three act approaches, the seven beats of romance. As an engineer, ex or otherwise, I liked the approach of dividing everything up to fit within a system, but it didn’t feel much like art or creativity.

‘You should be able to just write, to let the story unfold, that’s proper story telling,’ I was told. Not sure whether to believe this but feeling the need for a structural prop, I continued with the detailed planning, working on a big and colourful spreadsheet. The colour made it feel much more creative. Blue for the action plot, red for the romance beats. Purple for a turn point, yellow for something else. The spreadsheet divided into the three acts, the seven romance beats superimposed. I had markers for the keypoints, I had target word counts. I still wasn’t sure.

I engaged a writing coach, for I was serious in this mission. Before I knew it, I was knee-deep in worksheets. Every aspect of creating a story was reduced to a worksheet. Character building I, II and III. Moral Message I, II and III. Plot Summary. World building.

Was this any better than my spreadsheet, which my coach hated? I’d paid, so I worked through everything, and slowly, but surely, amassed knowledge. Whether using a system is right or wrong, it was at least a way of examining all the different aspects of writing, and from that I could learn. Opening a scene, using the scene, closing a scene. Every scene a story in itself, the fractal nature of a novel.

Eventually, I broke loose from my various constraints, and launched into the manuscript. It was a messy process. I ran into all sorts of problems. The backstory was way, way too complicated. There was far too much technical detail. And I needed much, much more historical research. However, despite the set-backs, I felt progress was being made and investing time in historical research was now justified.

Although I did know a fair bit about the Industrial Revolution from a curious engineer’s perspective, I was not in any way a historian, nor even an avid pupil. But to write a period series, I needed to steep myself in the era. I needed much more than the Wikipedia entries. 

What can I say? The research took me a year. I read the most boring books, I became thoroughly confused by contradictory accounts and I miserably failed to create any useful sort of record system to keep track of what I gleaned from my shelffull of impenetrable history books. Later, when I knew I’d read some salient fact, I’d have a major job finding the reference. The forest of post-it notes sticking out from the well-thumbed pages of the tracts didn’t help, there were just so many of them. Ironically, I did learn an awful lot about how not to tell a story. The history books had undoubtably been written with enthusiasm and passion, but with little thought at all for putting together a relatable tale. I needed to take care with my own enthusiasm for the Industrial Revolution’s sweeping technology not to do the same.

I wrote, I rewrote, I thought, I rethought. The backstory had to be reduced, but the import kept. The romance had to come forward, a long way forward. The technical detail had to be managed, kept in its box. Enough to satisfy the curious, not enough to bore those with no interest.

The rewrites became a nightmare because I got lost in it all. I knew which character had done or said what, but no longer when: before this new bit I was writing, or after? With a manuscript of 70k words, management became difficult and I wished I’d stuck to the detailed spreadsheet. I used temporary scene titles of the major events in each scene, which helped a lot, but finer detail still took a lot of finding.

Eventually, it came together, a cohesive story, with the unfolding events all in the right order, and one which I’m happy with. It was creative, I did build a world and put characters from my mind into it and let them run through a slice of living. But I’m not sure, as I begin work on the second book of the series, just how much I have learnt and what trials and tribulations wait in the wings to keep me on my toes over the next couple of months. It all feels very new to me, even now. Just how long does it take to become not just a writer, but a story-teller?

Rachel Whitby


  1. Interesting distinction between writer and storyteller. This has given me food for thought. Thanks!

    • Congratulations, Rachel, on reaching the finished line on book 1. I’m certain you have learned tons about storytelling that you’ll be able to apply in your second installment. Onward and upward!

  2. This sounds so very familiar, Rachel! Congratulations on writing your first volume despite the struggle – I feel I’ve gone through all your stages, but without completing a manuscript. My historical novel (not a romance, more a journey of discovery; not industrial revolution but set in the mid-16th century) also generated a mass of planning documents and historical research. In the end I put it away on a high shelf in a box marked “Sometime”. Maybe I’ll get back to it once I feel I know how to construct a novel. For the time being I’m writing science fiction just to disengage from all the historical research.

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