This month's Ask A Wench focuses on another craft question . . . and as you'll quickly see from our responses, the creative mind is rarely tidy! Z<G>
How do you begin writing a new book? Do you rely on outlines or charts, or do you wing it from notes?
Pat: See me flying into the mist, crashing into mountains.??.??. At the start of a series, where I am now, I???ll have the kernel of the series idea and a couple of main characters. Ideas float around. I scribble notes like:
Gothic mansion hidden in cotswolds? Cornwall?
Picturesque Elizabethan village
Hero thinks he’s dying? Looking for relatives?
Hero lives alone except for wickedly interfering, annoying mother/housekeeper/nanny
Historian who has studied egalitarian societies and believes England should move that direction
They’re both not normal, not fit for others; O/C
He’s in search of something important; she was orphaned during a storm/shipwreck
He has enormous family tree of names pinned to fabric. Bottom of tree folds up and can be lifted to hang over top of tree. Hereditary short finger or toe proves lineage
House has no entail so it can be passed to female descendant or sold. People who want it sold at war with ones who want to keep it?
The first book is drafted, but very few of those things got used in the way the notes indicate. It’s only after I’m seriously into the story that I start drawing up character outlines and plot directions. Sometimes, I’m at the end of the book before I begin to understand a character’s goals and motivations. And please don’t ask me about plotting conflict. I just don’t.
I mean, if I knew how the story ends, why would I need to write it?
Christina: I’m a pantser, which means I usually just sit down with a vague idea of what my book is going to be about and wing it, at least to begin with. I will have thought about it for a while first, letting ideas percolate through my brain, and I’ll know who the hero and heroine are. I know where they are coming from and where I’d like them to end up, but everything in between is a bit hazy. Often, my stories start with a scene that pops into my head, usually an interaction between the hero and heroine. It can be an argument or conflict between them, their meet-cute, or a particular scene where they realise how they feel about one another. It doesn’t need to be the first chapter, it can be anywhere in the story and I’ll have to fit other scenes/plotlines around it. But that works for me.
With my Viking stories, I’ve had to be a little more organised as I had to fit the various plot lines around actual historical events. And because I’ve been telling the stories of different people from the same family, I haven’t had as much freedom in choosing who the main characters are. It’s worked out well, though, and I’ve enjoyed discovering what adventures each one will have.
I will sometimes write down a vague outline to follow (more so if I get stuck!), but I don’t always stick to it. While doing extra research, it’s easy to come across something that will make a brilliant addition, and that can change things halfway through. It’s an adventure for both myself and the characters, which is absolutely fine – much more exciting if there are surprises along the way!
(As you can see, my desk is as messy as my working methods <g>)
Mary Jo: Outlines? Charts? How very…left brained. What next, spreadsheets?
I begin writing a book when an interesting thought tweaks the Muse. Sometimes it's a plot idea, and if so, I start thinking about the characters to best use that plot. (This often comes down to "what is the worst thing I can do to this character in this context?")
Or if it’s a character that stirs the Muse, I start thinking about what plot will show (torture <G> ) that person best.
For example, my Lost Lords series started when I began wondering what situation I could create to create powerful bonds of friendship, That led to Adam, the hero of the first book, Loving a Lost Lord. I made him half-Hindu because it seemed plausible given the deep ties between India and Britain, and I made him a duke because having a mixed blood lord of such a high rank was bound to stir up bigotry in some quarters.
That led to Lady Agnes Westerfield, whose first meeting with a miserable ten year old boy in a tree in Hyde Park led to her creating a school for boys of "good birth and bad behavior." Her mission was to help boys like Adam who didn't quite fit in learn to navigate society without losing their souls. The elements grow organically. No outlines or charts were involved!
Once I create a group of characters for a series, they go off in their own directions to discover stories suited to them. My Rogues Redeemed series was once again triggered by a desire to created bonds of male friends, and that became five men trapped in a Portuguese cellar and sentenced to be shot at dawn. Facing death and working together for one long night created some seriously powerful bonds!
Still no outlines or charts. This photograph shows what really powers stories: Books! Research! This is a small sample of the rather large library I have for the Napoleonic wars. Several of these books are about the 100 Days after Napoleon escaped from Elba, a period that ended with his defeat at Waterloo, and they were part of the research for Once a Spy. I had already written a straightforward on-the-battlefield Waterloo story in Shattered Rainbows. Since the timeline of the Rogues Redeemed had come to Waterloo, I had to deal with the great battle, but in a different way. So spying, as the hero of the book is recalled to the critical work of scouting and figuring out what Napoleon is up to.
Once again, the stories evolve from the characters and research. And there are no charts or spread sheets in sight.
Susan: I'm just beginning a new book, and the first thing I do is sit down with a yellow legal pad and my favorite pens, and start jotting down ideas and notes. I keep a notebook for each book so I can keep track of ideas and sources, and I've started the new notebook, which is filling up fast. The notes and ideas go into a document on the computer, and the story really begins to grow. At the same time, I'm jumping into the research, where more ideas come in as I gather general and then specific information on the various pieces that will feed into the story. Often I'll work out scenes on either the yellow pad or the notebook, and as I write more of the book, I'll stick to the computer, working out new scenes and chapters, and any bugaboos that need sorting out, on pen and paper first.
I'll create rough outlines on paper to get an overview of the story and know where it's heading, and I'll sketch out character ideas, backstory, traits, and so on. I've tried charting out stories, I've really tried, but I've learned that I don't stick with them. For me, too much of that sort of thing drains the creative energy. What I need is a good basic framework, good solid research, and a flexible process, and I can find my way through the story. The first third of the book takes more time than the rest of it as I work out details and track back and forth between notes, research, and computer draft. I write rough and messy, and go back to clean it up when the book is about three-quarters done. When it's pretty clean, I'll dive in and blitz my way through to the en
d. That's a general look at my process — it changes book to book. Some stories want a more structured process, some need less!
Nicola: A new book starts with an idea that swims around in my head for a few weeks, even months sometimes. If it sticks around and attracts other ideas to it then gradually, I get to the point where I’m ready to sit down and let it take shape. It could be a place – usually and old castle or mansion with spooky stories attached, or a historical figure or even a historical event. My last book had as a starting point the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.
I used to start my books when I had a central character and knew a little bit about where she were heading, both physically and emotionally. I found, though, that with a dual time book where I am knitting together a present-day story with a historical mystery, I need to do more planning. This does not come naturally to me! However, these days I’ve trained myself to be part-planner. I will sit down with a notepad and pencil and write down the different story threads, the main historical character, the challenges she is facing and the mystery that will be solved in the contemporary narrative. Then I will do the same with the contemporary heroine and focus on the shared themes that bind the two stories together.
That’s about it as far as planning goes – I’m ready to set off and learn more about my characters as I go along. Although I’m a planner in real life, I prefer the books to evolve and develop during the writing process. For me that’s where the excitement lies.
Anne: When I'm starting a book, it depends whether it's part of a series, and if so what number in the series. If the protagonists were in the previous book, I need to whip through the previous book(s) and make a note of things they've said and done, so I don't contradict myself. If it's the first book in a series, I try to rough out a possible overarching series notion — not a plan, so much, but how I think it might work out — brainstorming possibilities, really, as a way of exploring where the series might go. It's more a way of getting my brain into gear, as once I start a story the characters generally drive things.
One thing that often happens is that I'll have a sort of waking dream of a scene — it's usually either when I'm just drifting off to sleep or just waking up in the morning. I've had this happen to me numerous times — a scene just comes out of nowhere, rolling a bit like a movie in my brain, vivid and quite compelling, and I scribble it down before it fades from my memory. Then I have to work out who these people are, and what the story might be about. It has happened so many times, I feel like it's a gift from the Muse. It happened for my first book, Gallant Waif, and if you've read that book, it was the dark moment ballroom scene that comes almost at the end of the book — the dark moment. In Bride By Mistake, it's the scene where Luke comes across Bella fighting off an attacker in the mountains. It was the scene in The Autumn Bride where Abby climbs through the window and finds Lady Beatrice. I'm incredibly grateful for these moments of inspiration, and just hope they keep coming.
I work on my laptop, and since I'm currently in Sydney for a workshop and convention, this is the view from my "office" — ie my hotel room.
Andrea: I begin every book with what I call “the Magpie Process.” I see this bright and shiny idea glittering within the creative shadows,. “Aha!” I chortle, and quickly pluck it up and carry it back to the writing room. I fire up my computer and suddenly on the screen is the sight that all authors dread—the blank Page One.
And now I’m flying on a wing and a prayer.
My brain simply can’t fathom how to plot out a story in advance. I have the core idea, but I depend on fleshing it out as I go along. I throw the “problem” out to my characters and challenge them to react to is. I know this sounds crazy, but honestly, there are days that I push back in my chair from a day of writing and think, “Hmm, I didn’t know they were going to t do that!”
I also depend on diving down research rabbit holes to come up with serendipitous discoveries that I would never imagine on my own. That sort of creative excitement is, for me, key to the magic of storytelling. Here’s an example from my latest Wrexford & Sloane mystery, MURDER AT THE SERPENTINE BRIDGE. The basic plot revolved around the murder of an inventor who had just created a revolutionary multi-shot pistol. Wrexford and Charlotte are drawn into trying to recover the technical plans and prototype before they are sold to a rival country.
Now, I knew that a real-life London gunsmith had experimented with an innovative double-barreled pistol, so I dove into researching him, hoping to find a few interesting details to put in my story. Well, lo and behold, I discovered he had also been involved in designing an experimental multi-shot musket for the British Army during the American Revolution, and that it had actually been used in battle. I had never heard of that . . . and suddenly I saw a whole new plot thread to weave into the story, and it led to twists which added far more texture and color to the story.
There are days when I sit staring at the screen, feeling a little panicked that I seem to be stuck. But I wouldn’t trade the angst for meticulous plotting because for me, it’s those wonderful little discoveries and aha moments as I go along that add the essential spark to my storytelling.
We've heard from many of you that you enjoy getting an inside look at the craft of writing. We hope you enjoy these these posts on the subject!