There is no right or wrong way of starting to write a novel. Some successful authors of fiction make detailed plans in advance: researching the background, writing summaries of the plot, biographies of the characters, descriptions of the setting, the contents of each chapter, perhaps a chronology of events if it is a complex narrative shifting back and forth in time. Others just start working with a vague idea and see what happens, often finding that inspiration flows more freely as they write, perhaps feeling the material is being ‘channelled’ from a source outside themselves. Even some writers of crime fiction do not plan ahead, keeping themselves in suspense as much as their readers, not knowing ‘who done it’ till the end of the book.
I use a mixture of these logical ‘left-brain’ and intuitive ‘right-brain’ approaches. My novel Carmen’s Roses took me about ten years to write and I don’t remember when or how the first seed was planted. The story was not systematically planned at all, but developed in fits and starts, informed by diverse sources: a case history in the British Medical Journal, the beauty of the land and sea around my New Zealand home, finding an Italian vase in the street, plus fragments of autobiography. It took many rewrites to weave these different elements into a reasonably coherent whole. With my non-fiction books I have been a little more organised, but these too have tended to develop in piecemeal fashion.
Whatever method is used, the project has to begin somewhere. The writer may start on an abstract level, wanting to explore a certain theme or conflict, convey a message to the reader, or develop a plot with an original twist. Or the story may be inspired by a particular place, a memorable incident, or one or more characters whether real or imaginary. (See also my previous blog posts Novels with a message and Where ideas come from.)
My friends say they have enjoyed my first novel and are encouraging me to write more fiction, which I certainly hope to do. At present various memories and ideas are floating around in my mind: a flooded river in England, a healing retreat in a country house, fragments of wartime aviation history. Perhaps a story which connects all these already exists in some unconscious realm, but I can’t see the missing pieces of the jigsaw at present. I hope I will be able to find them, and that it won’t take as long as ten years next time.