Ready, Steady, Go!

    From an idea to starting a novel

How does the author move from having that initial idea - perhaps a plot, perhaps a character - to starting to write their novel? There is no correct method. Some authors plan meticulously before writing, devising detailed biographies of the protagonists and a carefully constructed plot. Others might prefer their characters to emerge during the writing process itself, their growth seemingly contributing towards driving the plot forward. It's a case of what's best for each individual. Anything goes as long as it works: one well known author informed me that during the time when she's writing a novel her plots are strongly influenced by her dreams.


I'm delighted to welcome five author colleagues who have selected one of their books to illustrate the first steps they took once they had the idea for the story.  For each, click on the cover or button to find out more.

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The One That I Want - Lynne Shelby cover
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When I get an idea for a story, unless it’s a crime story and I need to research a method of dispatching a victim, I don’t have an idea what I’m going to write. I know the genre and often I have a name or a news item which might inspire a character, but generally I’ve no idea what’s going to happen and how it’s going to end. I’m a pantser. Only One Woman, written with Christina Jones, was different in that I had the whole story in my head, the main characters are loosely based on real people – a conglomerate. I only had to fact-check the era. I’ve lots of diaries and memorabilia from my life spent in the international music business which I used to research the story, set in the 1968/69 UK music scene. I edit as I go and the next day I read what I’ve written and alter things if I need to. I don’t have dozens of drafts. Only One Woman was sent and published from the original draft.

It’s important for me to know as much about the characters as I can before I write the first draft of the story so that I know how they will react in any situation. I search Pinterest for images similar to how I imagine the characters look, print them out and put them in a ring binder. I then make a Pinterest board and pin the character pictures to it. Next, I write character profiles filling in information such as hair and eye colour, their age, their job and family background, their likes and dislikes, how they act.  I add other images relating to the story to my Pinterest board, for example The Year of Starting Over is set in Andalucia, Spain so I added images of Spanish villages, beaches, etc to the board.  I follow this procedure for every novel I write. Then I draft a plot outline and get writing!

The idea behind Rage and Retribution came to me when I was reading a news article on the number of unreported rapes which take place every year. What, I wondered, would someone do if they had incontrovertible proof of a rapist’s actions, but for whatever reason no court case or even police investigation ever took place? From there, it was a short step to developing the idea of a vigilante-type person who would subject rapists to a form of punishment which would fit their crimes. The vigilante kidnaps the men and then uses their exact words against them while subjecting each man to horrific torture. When constructing plots I always start with the crime. I know who has done the dreadful deeds and why. I also work out how he or she will get caught by D.I. Sterling at the end. What happens in between often astounds me as various characters and subplots arrive in my head as I’m writing and, quite often, I have no idea where they came from.

I never know what is going to spark off an idea for a novel, but once I’ve had that initial inspiration, I find the characters rock up in my head demanding that their story be told. I make detailed notes about every aspect of their personality and history on index cards, and then it’s a case of starting to write, throwing them together and seeing what happens. The idea for my novel The One That I Want came to me when I was in a shop in London and spotted a famous Hollywood actor surrounded by star-struck members of the public taking selfies. It struck me how intrusive it must be to have your every move recorded by total strangers, and from this came the idea for a novel about a girl who is thrust into the surreal world of celebrity when she dates an A-List film star. I knew how they met, so I started writing, and from their interactions, found my plot.

All my full-length books are historical novels. The way I approached each was different but the first of the books about James Burke, Burke in the Land of Silver, is reasonably typical. Having “discovered” Burke (a little-known, but real, historical character) I read a simple introduction to the history of the region. It helped that I had already been to Argentina (where most of the book is set) and knew a lot of the background. I sketched out the plot outline, based on the historical facts, and then read in more depth about the specific things I would need to know for the story. Then I started writing, but continued to research details as I needed them. Historical fiction based round real events needs a lot of planning and I move forward carefully, editing as I go. It’s no use rushing in and discovering at the end that your plot doesn't work because of an inconvenient historical event you forgot to check up on.

An finally, my own new release.
Mid-life follies_front cover with bleed.

The idea that sparked the writing of Mid-life follies was how a long-established couple would cope with a significant change in circumstances. I chose the husband’s early retirement, this generating his wife’s thoughts of feeling trapped, needing space, and a fear of ageing. My profiling of the main protagonists went little beyond basics ahead of starting to write. I prefer my characters to develop as the plot progresses; for me this adds vitality. I decided to alternate chapters between the husband and wife’s points of view. Having established the group of second-level characters, I was ready for preliminary planning to ensure the plot would be cohesive. As for my other novels, I drew a grid with a row for each chapter, and four columns for Who’s Voice; Date; Key Scene Events; Names of New Places/Characters. This grid is never completed when I start writing and I don’t pen the chapters in order. As I began this novel, I wasn’t even sure whether the relationship would survive – I’ll leave you to find out the answer to that. 

Paperback available here

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Step One for the reader?

Help the Aged!

Getting rid of stereotypes and caricatures

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The Kiosk

A short story set in Patagonia, Chile

    © 2013 R J Gould