Raising the Stakes

In the earlier versions of To Catch a Fox, Julie travelled from Toronto to Vancouver to search for her mother. Now that I had moved from eastern Canada to Calgary, I envisioned her living in my current city. Vancouver, just over the mountains, didn’t feel far enough for her quest.

I was pondering such draft basics after returning from a holiday in Italy. Tuscany would be an appealing setting. Guests at my story retreat would be largely North American transplants, so I could use this exotic location without having to research local culture too much. Except, I couldn’t see Julie hopping on a plane to cross an ocean based on the minimal information she’d have.

My husband Will and I were planning a trip to Los Angeles the next winter. Southern California was the sort of place people went to escape the past and find opportunity. Its meditteranean climate was similar to Italy’s.

Getty Villa

In the 1950s, industrialist J. Paul Getty began work on a villa in Pacific Palisades modelled on a country home in ancient Rome.  I decided my story retreat could be a similar Italianesque fantasy planted a two or three hour drive south of LA.

On the holiday, Will and I toured prospective locations and chose one near mountains in the orange belt. We also visited the Getty Villa when we stayed in nearby Santa Monica. The apartment we rented inspired another setting in the book.

Like the Getty Villa, my retreat has an amphitheatre ...
... and herb garden.

Previously, Julie had travelled alone on her journey. This time, she’d have a side-kick, a stepsister Delilah with whom she has a prickly relationship. In the old versions, Julie’s father and stepmother had only appeared in flashbacks. Now they would be in the main storyline.

During the novel’s eight or so years in the drawer, Julie had aged six years, from 32 two to 38. Her maturity gained her a husband, Eric, a dentist/poet. They had separated about ten months before the story start due to Julie’s psychological problems. In versions one and two, she’d suffered from depression. I now thought this might be too ordinary. Psychotic would add interest.

From my work in genre fiction, I’d learned about the need to raise the stakes and challenge your protagonist to the core.  Mentors advised, make things as bad as you can for her, then make it worse. Since Julie’s main issues related to her mother, I gave her a child she had trouble mothering. Psychosistroubled mother … Women who kill their children.

Their actions so rare and beyond the pale always shocked me and everyone else. It was unfathomable, intriguing. As I mulled this, I could see how Julie attempting to drown her child would work in the novel. I’d find it hard, if not impossible, to create sympathy for her character, but the idea was there and it would be cowardly to scrap it for that reason.

Multiple viewpoints would help. If readers hated Julie, they might stay the course with one of the other viewpoint characters, whose reliablity would balance Julie’s sometimes skewed observations. My villains would be narrators too, so readers would know what they were up to and worry about Julie. I hoped.

Before starting to write, I also contemplated the novel’s structure. Around the 1/4 point,  Julie and Delilah would board a plane for California. Around story mid-point, they’d arrive at the Italianesque retreat. How they got there and what happened along the way would come out in the writing of the story.

Next week, the twelfth and final installment of my writing journey: How to Write a Novel in Your Spare Time.