The number one question put to any novelist: Where do you get your ideas? Dipping the nib in the old brainbox, is the honest, if uninspiring, answer. There’s a myth that novelists possess some kind of inky alchemy. The truth is, novels start developing either one of two ways. They’re either driven by plot, or characterization.
My first inklings tend to come from ‘overhearing’ a strand of imaginary dialogue, and wondering who’s doing the talking. (Actually…maybe that is inky alchemy? Blimey!) That fragmented sentence, or sometimes an entire sequence, gets me curious about the bigger picture.
I meet the characters behind those voices, become fixated on finding out more, and inclined to write it down. So, I basically start out playing Biographer. Next, I play Detective. Piecing the information together with the help of a few hunches and a little guess-work.
I always have an idea of how the story ends. A final scene in mind. What I don’t necessarily have, is any idea how we’re going to get to where we’re going. The plot develops scene-by-scene, with certain ideas arising simply from spending time with the characters.
Plot can arise from personal experience. An overheard conversation. Even a confession, of which you’ll hear many, once people discover you like to immortalize stories onto pages. Whatever the circumstance, a compelling plot originates from a situation, and the pace with which you intend to lead us to the big reveal, becomes a manuscript.
Plot-driven narrative can come from the details of a news report. It can develop by asking yourself that big, exciting question of, what if? Then working from the inside-out to develop a satisfying outcome. How you move from that initial idea to around 100,000 words is the fun part. Did I see you pull a face, just then? Ha, that’s the hook!
Once you light that spark which ignites just the right amount of fun and possibility, you’ll be as eager as your readers to answer the eternal question which keeps people turning pages, and writers churning out chapters. The question of, what happens next?
Once you have an idea you feel excited enough to commit to, working on the narrative becomes dependent on certain plot devices. Characters require suitable motivation, possibly influenced by the genre. Locations need to fulfill narrative requirements. Research sometimes becomes a factor. Ironing-out plausible solutions to the initial question at the heart of your story.
Or, maybe tear up the rule-book? Season that plot with anything but expectation. The endless potential is all yours to do with as you wish. See? I told you this was fun.
My latest book, Girlfriend, Interrupted, developed around the topic of Stepfamilies. The inspiration came from personal experience. As my leading lady, Ella, explains:
‘You try looking up ‘Step-mother’ online. See how long it takes before you find something without the word ‘wicked’ in front of it.’
My hook was to write something Stepparents would appreciate, without resorting to the kind of hero and villain roles traditionally allotted within blended families. It’s helpful to remember, every character within your work, believes the story is about them. Take a look around. Everyone is the star of their own life, moving their personal plotline forward. They have hopes, responsibilities, and choices to make on a daily basis, which will quite plausibly, change their stories so far.
I wanted to represent the immediate family, the children, and the couple, at the heart of this incredibly common, but poorly represented, part of our diverse domestic landscapes. And the story had to be gift-wrapped with enough fun and sensitively, to make it equally enjoyable to readers with or without children in their lives.
I sank my mind into the hopes and concerns of all the major players. I knew I could bring a certain insight into the ‘Step’ part. The over-thinking. The guilt. The overwhelming joy found in the small, emotional victories of co-parenting, and co-loving a child. All this in the midst of what can become a muddle of people-pleasing that defies time, logic and, quite feasibly, gravity.
Fundamentally, all writing is a search to understand ourselves by understanding those around us. We dive into books, whether writing or reading, to share other perspectives, unlock some understanding of why their lives, and our own, unfold into such unique shapes. We’re given the chance to visit places we’ve never been, explore choices we’d never dare make.
Work on character ideas, and I promise, they’ll start pouring their hearts out with plotlines. Develop that unshakeable plot, and your protagonists will jump into line, eager to travel your terrain.
Whichever way you get drawn in, there’s no right or wrong way to write. There are days when you’ll wish you never started the damn thing. And days when you wish you could rewind the clock, just to spend more time in your new world.
Read articles. Find hints and tips to your heart’s content, but you’ll only find what works for you, by working on it. Not as interesting as the alchemy alternative, but if I had that, I promise, there’d be a BUY NOW link at the end of this article.