As any author will tell you, the process of writing a book can be complicated. Whether it’s a long process depends upon the author’s writing habits and external influences, such as the demands of a day job, childcare etc. Previously, discussions with my fellow authors have led to comparisons of our writing processes. Some have also expressed an interest in knowing my process in more detail. Therefore, I’ve decided to explain what my typical process is when writing a book in the hope others might find it useful. I’m particularly keen to help those who’ve thought about writing a book but haven’t attempted it yet. With this in mind, I’m going to try and give a practical guide based upon the various techniques and tools I’ve learnt on my writing journey to date.
If you have a question that isn’t covered in any of these segments, feel free to send me a direct message on either Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. I’m also happy for you to email me directly at email@example.com. I’ll be announcing new segments in this series in the Gaslight Gazette as well, so be sure to subscribe to that if you don’t already.
Forming an idea before having an idea
The old adage that inspiration can come from literally anywhere is as true now as it ever was. When I first started writing, though, this simple phrase both intimidated and confused me. Questions like ‘what does a good idea look like?’, ‘where should I be looking?’, and ‘how do I know when to stop looking and begin writing?’ all went through my mind.
In time, I realised that I needed to know the answers to some questions before trying to find my inspiration. In other words, I had to form an idea in my mind of the sort of thing I was looking for before I’d even started looking. These questions might not apply to everyone, and might seem quite restrictive to some, but I’ve found them to be a good starting point:
1) Which genre am I going to write in?
Even if you intend to break all the rules, it’s a good idea to know what those rules are first. Certain ideas might not work within the framework of certain genres. Therefore, it’s good to know what the limitations and opportunities are within a genre before trying to think of an idea to fit within it.
2) When will my story be set?
Whether you decide to set your story in the past, present, future, or in a space where time doesn’t exist, having the answer to this question will help you narrow down your search for that elusive inspiration.
3) How long will my story be?
Will it be a short story, novella, epic three-book trilogy, or something in between? The size of the space you have to fit your story into will help you decide whether your idea will work. This is because you’ll have a better idea of how simple, or complex, to make your story. Again, it will also help you narrow down your search for inspiration.
Developing your idea into a basic premise
Armed with my answers to the above questions, I was able to read, watch, listen, and explore as many sources as possible whilst staying within the confines of what I’d decided. This led me to making the observation that most crime fiction stories have one detective as its main protagonist. This in turn made me wonder how I could go against the grain whilst sticking to the “rules” of crime fiction. In order to determine this, I typed a stream of consciousness.
A term that is likely familiar to students of English literature, a stream of consciousness is where you literally write down every thought that pops into your head without paying attention to grammar, spelling etc. Whenever I’m working on the Bow Street Society’s next mystery, I use this method to help me hammer out the details of my initial idea to come up with a basic premise. Whether the premise will be the same by the time the book is finished is irrelevant. This is simply a means by which I’m familiarising myself with the ins-and-outs of the idea through my own thought process.
The following example is the actual stream of consciousness I wrote back in November 2014 for the basic plot of what eventually became The Case of the Curious Client:
Bethlam Royal Hospital (aka ‘Bedlam’) call in the Society to investigate the escape of one of its patients. The Hospital needs a discrete investigation they wouldn’t get from the police. The trail leads the Society, somehow, to the house in Bow Street (that would later become the HQ but not at the start of this story). A blind man lives there under the watchful eye of a male attendant. The blind man lives on the ground floor of the house (his bedroom is also on the ground floor) but there are other rooms/floors. He believes these to be filled with furniture that is covered in dust sheets as this is what he’s been told by his brother. His brother, and the attendant, tell him that it is too dangerous for him to wander into these rooms alone. A twist is that, when a member of the Society eventually goes into one of these rooms, they are completely empty. The brother has sold the furniture in order to make money. He was given control of his brother’s estate (as per the madness laws of the time) as both he and his blind brother believe the blindness is a mental illness and that it will go away once the blind brother becomes ‘sane’. The blindness came on suddenly. The seeing brother took over the family business when it was on the cusp of bankruptcy. In order to keep a roof over his brother’s house, he sold the business and all its assets. Eventually the money from that run out and the seeing brother started selling the furniture. The man who escapes from Bedlam can somehow know the blind man and, so, he goes straight to his house and stays with him. When the blind man starts to speak of him and says that no one but him can see him, the attendant and the seeing brother assume that he is an imaginary friend of some kind that the blind brother has created in order to ease his loneliness (he isn’t allowed to go out as it is considered too dangerous and the seeing brother fears others might harm his brother. The escaped ‘lunatic’ from Bedlam goes to his friend to escape the fate of others at Bedlam; death at the hands of a ‘demonic’ Doctor/nurse/governor/attendant, whomever.
At the end of the case, once it is solved, the house is donated to the Bow Street Society as a good-will gesture/thank you (depending on how the story ends, the blind man might want to be rid of it because he perceives it as his prison. Perhaps an arrangement is put in place whereby Rebecca visits the blind man twice a month and takes him a percentage of the Society’s earnings to go towards his living costs. Rebecca may also sit with him and tell him stories of their latest cases. Perhaps the first case in book-form (and not the actual first case) is told from the perspective of her narrating it to the blind man but the reader wouldn’t know why is she is telling it all/partly to him, The whole back-story could be another strand that runs through the stories, a mystery for the readers to solve while the identity of the Society’s leader is a mystery for the characters alone to solve.
You may have noticed that none of the characters are named apart from Miss Trent. I’ll always come up with the basic premise before embarking upon character creation and development. I find it easier to do this using vague descriptions or generic labels for the characters rather than trying to remember which name belongs to whom. Those who’ve read The Case of the Curious Client will be able to see the changes which were made between this premise and the final story. On the whole, though, much of the story was decided upon during this stream of consciousness.
NEXT MONTH: Creating and developing your characters
~ T.G. Campbell, August 2022
From Idea to Book (Part 1)