Have you ever wondered how novelists come up with their ideas? Or maybe getting the idea is easy; it’s developing it into a full story that’s the problem?
It’s a valid concern. And, like everything in authorship, it seems there’s no one magical way to do it. Though I’ve published two novels, have another on the way, and am developing another, I’m still honing my novel-writing process. Here is how I’ve arrived from pre-idea to manuscript so far. Maybe you can find a nugget to borrow…
An Idea Speck
The idea first comes from a tiny speck of thought with no development or detail. My first manuscript’s idea extended from my paralegal job. I thought I’d write a story around a U.S. Supreme Court case, supposing it was decided the opposite way. So I found interesting court cases on the Internet and read books about famous Supreme Court rulings. Eventually, I settled on a story about a teenage attorney, Melody Madson – May It Please the Court?.
The idea for my second novel, Missing Emily: Croatian Life Letters, came to me after meeting my friend from Croatia. In June of 1991 when civil war broke out in her country, I had just finished my junior year of high school; my baby cousin had died about 1 1/2 years before; and my boyfriend, a foreign exchange student, returned home and didn’t write to me like he said he would. And I was so wrapped up in my own problems, I had no idea that there were children, like my friend, living through civil war, awake at night afraid someone would break in to slit their throats in their sleep. I thought about what might have happened if my friend and I had contact during that time. The idea was born.
My current novel, Taming the Twisted, takes place in 1860 in Camanche, Iowa, where I grew up. A tornado ripped through the town on June 3, 1860, which, legend has it, prevented the town from growing larger than the neighboring and currently largest city in the county, Clinton. For this book, I chose the setting and time frame and then worked to build a story around that.
My next book will also take place in Camanche, Iowa, but this time the story will center around clamming in the 1890 to 1910 time period. The main character is going to be married to a descendant of one of the toddler twin boys in Taming the Twisted. Eventually, I’d love to create a whole series of books about this fictional family throughout time, not unlike Jennifer Chiaverini has done in her Elm Creek Quilt series.
I love to research and did so for all three of my books, though less on the first one when I just looked up court cases to find a realistic one to base the story around. For Missing Emily and my current work, I performed extensive historical research. Missing Emily‘s involved several conversations with my friend, books, newspaper articles, and documentaries on Yugoslavia’s breakup. For my current book, I researched newspaper articles about the tornado and then books about the civil war, Iowa and Clinton/Camanche history, and life in the 1800s in general. I also read novels written in or about that time period, the civil war, and other young adult historical novels.
I had an outline for my first book; I developed the characters as I went along. I performed more character sketching for my two most recent books by writing character profiles, descriptions, and thinking about their personalities. I had a difficult time outlining Missing Emily; it was hard to invent a way to tell both of their stories using just correspondence while still showing rather than telling. I went back and forth with it and then finally threw out my outline and just plowed through it.
For Taming the Twisted, I started with a bare-bones outline. After writing about half the book, I decided I wanted to include a more prominent murder mystery element. So I threw out much of what I’d written and started the story a year later. For all of my books, I’ve known generally where I wanted the story to go and how I wanted it to end but had varying difficulty figuring out how to do it. When I figured it out, I went back and drafted more detailed outlines.
I type my novels directly into the computer, saving backups of backups and emailing the partial manuscripts to myself to serve as an additional backup. Though it takes me longer than I would like, I strive to just get the whole story out and then go back to add to it, fill in any holes, and revise. If I think of a question while I’m writing, I make a note to myself and move on. I’m finishing incorporating feedback from my beta readers for Taming the Twisted; they have given me some great ideas of things I need to add or change.
My experience is proof that there is no one way to write a novel. What works for one author might not work for another. And what works for one book may not work for another. The important thing is just to get it written.
How About You
If you’ve written a novel, what has worked to help you get it out of your head and onto the page? If you’re contemplating your novel, what are some techniques or processes you’ve wondered about? Still stuck? Feel free to leave a comment, email me at email@example.com, or use the contact form.