Planning a new novel

When I was half-way through A Patient Man, the third in the Inspector James Given series, I decided I’d kill him off. I’d had enough of him and wanted to move on to pastures new. I’d a long-term project I wanted to finish and an outline for the first in a possible new series I thought I’d get on with.

Spoiler Alert: I didn’t kill James!

James Given didn’t want to die despite my best efforts. Instead, he niggled away at me whilst I tried to work on the other projects and when a situation arose which gave me an idea for a plot he pushed his way to the front of the queue to be involved. So Where Every Man was born.

This new novel is creating its own challenges and I sometimes wonder why authors do this to themselves, making life as difficult as possible. In addition to being set in the 1930s, so lots of research to be done, this is also set outside England, adding another layer of complexity. This novel, like the others, is in first person so there’s wrestling with how to tell the tale where every event has to be seen by, or reported to, our hero. Without giving anything away, James has an extra barrier to solving the crime this time, which is already causing me headaches.

What I’ve discovered in planning this novel is I’ve learnt a lot about the process since embarking on the first, A Shadowed Livery, which is what might be expected. Instead of a random development of plot and characters, and chapters written in any order I fancied writing them, the second novel, A Pretty Folly, began with me working out the basic plot, then the writing of a synopsis for each scene. This time, I’ve an outline in my head and I’m working on the storyline for each of the main suspects.

The one I’m stuck on, though it’s always the most difficult, is the villain. So far, I know who he/she is and, more or less, why they did what they did. But I’m far from clear about many aspects – and it will be fun finding out how James Given catches him/her. One way I’ll develop the ideas will be to write a journal for the villain, hopefully telling me, the author, everything I need to know.

Here’s fingers crossed and I’ll blog an update when I’m further forward.

Mind mapping a novel

I don’t profess to be an expert with mind maps, but there are plenty of posts out there to help if you need detailed info. However, I do use a mind map in the early stages of planning my novels so hope the following might be of some use.

What is a mind map?

A mind map is a way of visually getting ideas down on paper/screen and showing the links between them. You’d usually start with a central thought or task, then allow random ideas to sprout, with thoughts about those thoughts to sprout from them, etc, etc. Inevitably, many of the thoughts will be stones but some will be diamonds. It doesn’t matter about the stones, they’re just part of the process and will sink away later.

When would you use a mind map?

They seem to be particularly useful when trying to think through complex ideas. For example, if you were considering a house extension you might use a mind map to think through the options, asking yourself some key questions.

This example, which was knocked together in a couple of minutes, could be expanded into more branches and more minute issues, depending on how far you want to think it through.

You can see that the mind map isn’t for producing a detailed plan, though it could probably be refined to do something like that. It’s more for the stage before that.

I write crime fiction so use the mind map when I’m throwing together the initial ideas for a plot. But more of that later.

Do you need special software/app?

Definitely not. Mind mapping was in use long before computers were developed, using paper and pen, and this can, of course, be done now, especially if you think it’s a one-off and can’t be bothered downloading and learning new software.

There are, however, plenty of software programs out there and, as always, there are good ones and less good ones. I use a free one on my Windows laptop, Freemind (download it here), and have found it more than adequate for my purposes and relatively easy to use.

How would you use it as an author?

If you’re a plotter, like me, then you want a good idea of what’s going on in your novel before beginning to write. Even if you’re not into detailed planning, preferring to begin at the beginning and see where it takes you, then you might still want to get some basic ideas and themes down in advance of writing those first few words.

I write crime fiction so tend to have a number of key elements I want to have an idea about before moving into the detailed sketching out of the story. There will always be some main character types:

  • Hero
  • Victim(s)
  • Villain(s)
  • Hero’s sidekick.
  • Suspects

There may be others, and the mind map can help these emerge.

So the first step would be to place the project title at the centre and branch these characters from it. In the example below, my novel is fourth in the series so I don’t need to include my ‘hero’ on it as I know most of what I need to know about him. If I was starting a new one then I’d include a branch for the hero.

Once I’d started on this map I realised, because of a change of circumstances from the last novel, I’d need a new person to recruit the hero, so have popped that in – it’s a serious issue which may not have emerged until a couple of chapters into to the novel if I hadn’t begun with the mind map.

From here, I can begin to ask questions and the next level helps with that.

It’s easy to see that these questions take us to more branches and that some of the thoughts will be discarded as the thinking develops. There’s no need for me to develop the picture from here. I can’t imagine there’s much more needed – and, anyway, it might give my plot away!

The mind map can be as big or small as you need it to be. The important thing is to understand it’s there to help, a tool which might be useful, not a step which must be completed before you can write. Most great novels in history have been written without a mind map (or at least one that’s written down), just as they have without benefit of a word-processor. It’s also important to start from the premise that it’s not a road map to be slavishly followed, it’s just a method of getting ideas down in to some sort of order so you can start on the journey.

Once I’ve worked through the initial ideas I then move on to detailed planning using Scrivener – but that’s whole other story.

I’d love to hear if you’ve found the above useful, or have any thoughts on how it might be used.

It’s all in the imagination

I was just away in south Warwickshire for a couple of days and whilst driving I spotted a sign for the village I’d used as the basis for Priors Allenford in my first novel A Shadowed Livery. It was particularly coincidental because I’d just heard the novel had just been re-released (on pre-order) through my new publisher, Sapere Books.

I’d never been before, simply identified it on a map as being roughly the right area and explored a little through Google StreetView. Mostly, I’d made it up and as the novel was set in 1938 it would, inevitably, be much different today. However, I decided to make a small detour to take a look. What a delight. At the centre of the village was a pub. The pub I’d used as my imagined ‘The Victory’ where James Given stayed. On the outside, it looked much as I thought it would, as it almost certainly looked 80 years ago – more or less.

On the inside, though, it was very different. Now a plush modern eatery with a smart restaurant, shabby chic furnishings and young bar staff in black uniforms, it was a million miles from the one I’d written.

But this is the joy of writing. Pulling an image from somewhere then stretching and expanding it to fit the world we’re trying to create. It doesn’t matter if it’s real in the details – except in our readers’ heads.

Sometimes, of course, it does matter, for example when we’re writing about real events occurring in a real place but even then, unless everyone is aware of how a place looks, liberties can be taken.

I enjoyed my time in ‘The Victory’, partly due to the sunshine in its beer garden and partly due to the excellent meal we returned for later, but mainly because I could still see James Given sipping his Vimto in front of the fire, chatting to Cudlip, and climbing the rickety stairs to his bedroom.

Moving home

A year ago today ‘The Beast from The East’ had blown through and we were able to move home from Ireland to England – and traumatic it was too.

This weekend I’ve been moving my web site from one host to another. It was also traumatic but the nice people at FastComet did everything they could to help. Now all I have to do is learn their systems and layout to work on the site.

Wish me luck.

New web site

If you’ve visited my web site at recently you’ll have seen an apology. I decided the site needed a bit of an upgrade so embarked on an exercise, using WordPress, which resulted in a complete redesign.

It became one of those ‘if I knew then what I know now’ times, that is, mainly because I didn’t use images for my posts in the past, but the new design seems to require them. All I can say is that this will remain a work in progress.

Take a look at the new design and let me know what you think.

Editing – Now the real work begins

Back in June 2018 I received a contract for a third novel in the Inspector James Given series (it didn’t start out as a series but has just grown that way) and, despite my slackness until I agreed a deadline, I completed the first draft by the last week in November. Hurrah!

I even got as far as devising a working title – it’s been James Given #3 for the last 5 months but now is called A Patient Man for the time being.

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The pen is mightier

Almost nine years’ ago my wife bought me a pen for my birthday from Brendan Bannon’s small shop in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh. The body of the pen is bog-oak, estimated by Brendan as being between 2,000 and 6,000 years old, which means it fell to the ground to begin its preservation when the pyramids were being built.

I’ve carried it in my pocket every day since then, initially for work and latterly to help me write four novels and countless short stories. Two weeks ago I lifted some change from my pocket and discovered the cap of my beloved pen had broken. I fiddled with it for a half hour without success then contacted Brendan Bannon, asking if he could fix it or replace all the fittings. He got back to me saying he probably couldn’t replace the fittings because it would damage the wood, but he’d supply a new pen at trade price – a very generous offer. However, did I want a new pen? I wasn’t sure. This was an old friend. We’d been through a lot together, at least three murders and hundreds of thousands of words. So I thanked Brendan and explained my dilemma.

Today he’s sent me a message saying he’s fixed the cap and he’ll post it back. What a star!

The point of this story isn’t to praise a pen-maker in Northern Ireland, or to talk about a bit of old wood, but to show how important it is for writers to have routine in order to be effective. This routine isn’t just about setting word targets or the hours when we write, it is also about the mechanics (pens, paper, tablet, laptop, etc) and place (coffee shop, desk, garden shed, etc) where we feel comfortable. I wouldn’t have stopped writing if I’d been deprived of my birthday pen but it wouldn’t have been the same and it may not have felt right with a new one. At least not for the first 50,000 or 60,000 words.

What routines do you use to increase your production?

Why did she say that?

How often in creative writing workshops have you heard that it is important to make your characters come alive? Like most authors I’ve struggled with that over the years but let me tell you, when it happens it’s both exhilarating and problematic.

I’ve plotted every scene of my current novel in sufficient detail for me to work on the first draft, which I’ve been doing now for a couple of months. There are quite a few characters in addition to the protagonist and antagonist, some I’m happy with, some I’m not. The latter need more work but the former feel well-rounded and I can see them. The problem starts when they’re so well drawn that they say things that aren’t in the plot but seem entirely appropriate for them to say at the time and in the place they find themselves. The other characters then need to react to the new situation and the story takes a twist I wasn’t expecting.

I could, of course, just go back and make the character say what I wanted them to say, bully them into submission if you like, but that would then be me talking, not the character. It would be false and, after all, I’ve wanted my characters to jump off the page so shouldn’t complain when they do.

How have I drawn them in this way? I don’t know. I’m a writer not a tutor and there are many good books out there which explain better than I could how to strive for this. All I know is that the two characters in this novel who seem to be speaking out of turn the most are ones where I drafted character sketches in the early planning. They didn’t become the characters I’d sketched, not entirely, but something in the process must have made them more real to me – allowed them (and me) to break free of two dimensions.

It’s exciting when this happens, even if it does mean parts of the plan need to be screwed up and re-written. It’s more than worth it in the end.