Starting To Write A Novel.

scrivener starting to write a novel Mar 29, 2020


On the 16th of February, I was walking my dog with a friend who is in his late Sixties. He was telling me about his grandmother. His mother was bullied by a girl when she was a child in the 1920's and her mother sent her back to school with a homemade rhyme. It went something like this: Apple pie is very nice, and so is apple pasty, but Betty Jones messed her shirt, and that was very nasty. The rhyme caught on in the playground. He went onto tell me that his grandmother was a leading light of the Band of Hope, a temperance movement quite big during her lifetime with banners on their marches touting 'Bread Not Beer'. As she was a heavy drinker, the Band of Hope was certainly apposite regarding her membership.

When I came home I googled it, and saw that the movement was started in 1847 when a 72-year-old Irish Presbyterian lady joined forces with a young Baptist minister Jabez Tunnicliffe and they decided to warn children of the dangers of strong drink. 

I decided to take a look to see if there were similar movements where I live in Kent, as our neighbouring town was renowned for having over 100 drinking establishments in its heyday.  I stopped at the village noticeboard and read how in 1850 our little single-street village on the outskirts of that town changed its name to dissociate from its former disrepute.

By the 19th February, my interests had moved away from temperance movements and I was thinking about a speculative historical novel which might allow me to pursue my admiration for grander fables such as La Peste by Camus or Blindness by Saramago. My thinking was running along the lines of - what if there had been an outbreak of a disease in my village, only the disease was bogus, and an invention, a conspiracy between a knave of a student doctor and villagers who used it as a cover to speak their minds. I was thinking about a 'moral cholera', a 'garrulitis.' I conceived a title 'Affliction.' 

By the end of the month, I'd been to Barcelona and come back with suspected Coronavirus and self-isolated for a fortnight. 'Affliction' was no longer a novel I was going to write.

But I had a time and a place and the beginnings of a cast. I had a suitcase lying open.

In the coming days, that suitcase rapidly filled itself. From waking in the morning to walking the dog, passages came to me and I simply had to catch them as they fell either into the Notes app on my phone, or my Moleskine notebook. At the same time, I began to put together the research. (Members of The Novelry have access to my list of essentials for writing historical fiction as a download in their courses.) 

Historcial fiction! Huzzah! It's been a while. My second novel was historical and my planning and research was painstaking. I had to do justice to a difficult time and place. I embraced my inner nerd, and drew upon the discipline of the last year of my History degree at Cambridge where I'd used a lot of original source material to boost my grades.

I have a hefty reading list, lots of materials (thanks to my local museum), and I've been graverobbing too, nabbing names from the churchyard. I've got a folder full of folders. I'm loving reading the non-fiction, the politics and social accounts for the time period I've given myself which took me a couple of weeks to narrow down.

I've been careful to get the story down first. For me, that's the suitcase. I've got a checklist to test confidence in the story, which you will find in our novel course at Lesson 21 'Tomorrow We Rise.'

Now the reading in categories outlined in the Historical Research Checklist blows air into the fire of the story and gets the wooden beams of the plot crackling, and I start to see strange shapes in the blaze; opportunities, connections and meanings.

I'm careful not to read too much fiction at this point, as I don't want to cover well-trod ground but make my own way. I'll get myself a Hero Book when I start writing for tone of voice and to keep story uppermost, and to make sure I'm not a slave to the research once I've started.

I'll organise my day to write first. It's a downloading of all the mysteries of the last day and night so I hasten first thing to get it down, but I'll be following the nimble story outline when I start writing in earnest. For now, it's simply hauling in the catch of the day! I'll research later (after the dog walk) to widen the net and ensure I'm on point.

Soon the day will come when I start writing and you'll find above in the video with this how I lay the story down for my writing in Scrivener.

What are my confidence tests to know this is the story, this is the novel, I'm going to commit myself to?

First, can I hand on heart say that none of these characters are wholly me? Yes, all of them have parts of me, but none is 100% me. (I know that will cause me too many problems as a writer and it will be a bad book.)

Second, is the suitcase filling by ghostly hands, packing itself?

Third, is this new territory? Is the theme 'important' to me? Do I feel moved by it? Is there a sacrifice? Is it asking a question to which I don't have the answer? Are things not quite what they seem? Can I find an understanding with the worst person in the book? Is my shame in motion? Is the novel slightly beyond my powers? 

Good enough then.

What do you need to start writing a novel?

The checklist is in Lesson 21 on our novel course, but if you'd like the capsule collection start here:

1. The genre you're writing in. Read this.

2. The premise, pitch or hook. The idea in a nutsell. You can develop this in style with our Classic course. Take a look here too.

3. The title. Yes, it is good to settle this now as it's your single-minded brief to yourself and encapsulates the agent of change that reveals a truth, and your approach or treatment and the genre you're writing in. Find out more here.

Buy Scrivener

Happy writing all.

Share this article

Find your course

We take beginners and experienced authors all the way from an inkling of an idea to a book in a year and on towards literary agency representation with our online creative writing courses.

Start today!

Subscribe to the blog

Sign up to get the Sunday paper for writers to your inbox.


Related blogs

Patrick Gale on Researching Historical Fiction

Jun 26, 2022

Outlining a Novel: Is it Really Necessary? By Tess Gerritsen

Jun 19, 2022

Writing a Murder Mystery? Here are 5 Top Tips

Jun 12, 2022