When I first thought about writing fiction several years ago, I imagined that I would do some ‘research’ and then spend all my time writing and revising, busy at the keyboard, tapping merrily away. I started writing the first novel this way, long before I was really ready to do so, and the result was a hopeless tangle with more hours of wasted time than I care to think about. What I hadn’t realised then and I do now is that that the writing phase has to be preceded by many, many hours of thought. Before the research, before I even know what research may be needed, I need to think long and hard about the plot.
First you need a central idea or a question, the old ’25 words or less’ nugget that lies at the heart of it all. After that it’ll be a messy process of finding some progression from a to b to c and so on, with possibly some idea emerging of how the action might start and end. In the new book I’m planning now, which will be my 4th, I want to switch genres from historical fiction to crime fiction, still set in the recent past, but with a mystery of some kind at the centre. I’ve bought myself the Arvon book on writing crime fiction and ‘thrillers’ and have started to study it. Clearly plotting will be critical, and will take even longer than I’ve spent on Books 2 and 3, and far longer than I spent on plotting Book 1.
This is where the advice I got from a workshop with Andrew Pyper six months ago will come in handy. In a few hours in the Winnipeg public library he outlined a process that made perfect sense to me, and that I adopted to some degree in plotting Book 3 ‘Fallout’ which is now at the pre-publication stage. His advice was to control the urge to begin writing too soon and keep on thinking about the shape and twists and turns until you have the outline of every chapter clear in a big visual display, which provides the map and the route and guides the writing from then on. That way you can keep up the momentum of the writing once it starts without getting trapped in ghastly dead-ends, or meadering around in circles until you are as almost as bored as the reader will be. Having this overall view of the landscape provides the confidence to take an unusual route sometimes, or to off piste occasionally without disappearing into a crevasse or being swept away by an avalanche of irrelevance.
‘Simultaneous visual display’: it’s what I advocate in my education work when I want people to step back and see the bigger picture with all its connecting parts. That’s what i need to create for myself in plotting Book 4. I think I’ve made some decisions already. The heroine is someone I already know from the earlier books; the time will be the 1970s; and the location will be somewhere in the west or south areas of my beloved Cumbria. From there on, who knows? It’ll be fun finding out, and I mustn’t rush it.