Beginning a new novel is a slow, messy time for me. I often start with the tiniest bit of an idea, something you wouldn’t ever think of as a story. For “Holly Green Murder,” it was the title, which came out of wanting to write a Christmas book and picking a new color. Since I’d already used red, green was the obvious choice. Christmas also fell into the right time of year for the next book, since “Ghost White Murder” took place around Halloween. (Leaving Thanksgiving open for a future book.)
But what would happen in this book? Who was killed? Who killed them? How did they do it? Why did they do it?
These are the basic questions for any murder mystery, and the bits and pieces come to me in random ways, often when I’m not even working on the novel. Chris Fox calls this “plot gardening,” and I was very happy to learn there’s another author who works in a similar way.
My mind tends to jump around as I attempt to answer the questions. Both the victim and the killer have to be well-developed characters in order for the reader to care about them, so I often begin by looking at minor characters I’ve already introduced in the series. Sometimes one of them pops out at me, more often they don’t. So the next step is to think of a new character to play these roles. But since Rainbow Ranch is a small town, I have to think about why someone new would be there.
I jump to another strand of thought, which is what is happening in the town at this point in time. In “Ghost White Murder,” it was the proposed development of an old ghost town into a tourist attraction. This event made a tangential appearance in “Double Pink Murder” when I needed something interesting to happen while Lilliana was working on the mystery in that book. Yes, sometimes I’ll think of the next book while writing the current one and plant tiny clues for that as I go. Or sometimes I’ll just remember I had this thing happen before, and that could lead to the central plot of the next one when I start to think about it.
As I’m doing this, the messy part begins. I write in Scrivener, so the first thing I’ll do is add the new title to my “series bible,” a Scrivener project where I keep details on my characters, locations, story premises, etc. so they’re all in one place when I need to figure out things like where a character first appeared. I also start a new Scrivener project for the new novel to gather my answers to those original questions.
But I often brainstorm by what’s called free writing, meaning using pen and paper to write questions, answers, ideas, etc. by hand. You use a different part of your brain when you hand write something than when you type it. It’s a more creative activity than pushing keys to make marks on a screen. You’re also more likely to leave a bunch of mistakes in, whereas it’s too easy to back up and fix things on a computer. That stops the creative flow.
I have a spiral notebook where I do this brainstorming while sitting at my dining room table, and it’s very messy. I scribble questions like “Who is the killer?” then write down different characters and why or why not they could be the killer. A lot of these begin with the word “Maybe” because I’m never really sure of an idea until I develop it further. Often after scribbling all of the stuff about one character, the next line will be “No” because I don’t like the way that idea is coming out. Then I’ll begin with another character.
I have another spiral notebook next to my computer to make notes about books I want to read, software I want to try, a daily update of how my ads are performing, things from webinars I attend, or posts from writers or writers’ groups. Unfortunately, as I’m reading and making notes, something I’ve run across will spark a new idea about the novel, and being too lazy to get up and go get the brainstorming notebook from the dining room, I’ll scribble it down in the notebook I have right there. So something that may be a brilliant idea gets buried in between a science fiction novel I want to read and a museum I want to visit.
At some point, I have enough information that I need to organize it. That means going through all those scattered handwritten notes, finding the gems (which sometimes turn out to be not so brilliant), and transcribing them into either the series bible or the novel project. I’ll start character sheets for new characters or flesh out an old one who’s going to play a bigger role in the current novel than they have in the past. I’ll create scenes (just the documents with a short description) in the novel project, which may or may not be in the order they’ll be in the book. That part comes once I’ve figured out the dependencies (you can’t get the autopsy results before the police investigate the crime scene) and used a calendar to plan out the timeline of this novel.
Yes, another piece of paper. There are often also maps and floor plans of new locations. The second floor of the retirement home main building was a blank until I needed to put the craft room there.
I’m at that organizing phase of Holly Green Murder. I have those initial questions answered. I’ve even drafted the first and the last scenes in the novel. That’s new for me. I usually write a book in order, even though visualizing the end makes it a lot easier to write the rest of the book. I’ve started to think about the subplot(s) for this book, and how they can reinforce the theme of the novel or at least tie into the main plot. There’s still a whole lot to go. I have to flesh out the victim, killer, and suspects and make those characters richer. Most of all that backstory won’t be in the book at all, but I have to have it to do the writing.
I’m eager to start the actual writing of the book. That’s a good sign. Now all I have to do is find the balance between that enthusiasm and knowing I have what I need ready to do the work.