Planting the seeds of a novel

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.

Where do ideas come from?

All new projects – whether in the arts, the sciences, business, domestic or personal life – originate from ideas. Where do these come from?
Some just seem to arise out of the blue – transmitted, it is widely believed, through vibrations of energy from ‘the Universe’ or the collective unconscious. The observation that several people who are not in contact with one other can get the same idea at around the same time would be in keeping with this. This can also happen with animals, as with the ‘Hundredth Monkey’ effect in which several groups of monkeys living on different islands learned how to to wash potatoes. The biologist Rupert Sheldrake made extensive studies of such phenomena while researching the concept of morphic fields.
Fully-fledged ideas sometimes present themselves through dreams. Well-known people said to have found creative inspiration through this channel include Frederich Kekule (chemical structure of the carbon ring), Elias Howe (invention of the sewing machine), Robert Louis Stevenson (plot of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) and Paul McCartney (composition of the song Yesterday).
Experiences during waking life – not just the major events, but everyday incidents such as a chance conversation with a stranger, a visit to a new place, seeing an unusual car numberplate – are a frequent source of ideas. I must have encountered many potential instances during my medical career, and though I never took most of them any further, it was the story of one particular patient which started me off on the research project about ‘Life events and breast cancer prognosis’ which was to occupy me for several years.
As another example, I once read a case report in the British Medical Journal which for some inexplicable reason stuck in my mind, providing the inspiration for the short novel Carmen’s Roses which I have finally published ten years later (I can’t say what the case report was about without giving away the plot). Many other writers of fiction have also found medical case histories to be a valuable source of material. The best-selling novel Everlasting Love was apparently based on a report in a psychiatric journal – though its author, Ian McEwen, later admitted that both the report and the journal were fictional too, which is perhaps just as well given the importance of respecting confidentiality where real patients are concerned.