Starting a new novel is like planning a war campaign. Strategy is everything, and in those early days of testing characters and settings and plot lines, it’s best to go in quietly, fully armed, surprising the elements of your story into submission. At least until you take the beaches and can move on to solid ground.
As I press forward on Book Two in my mystery series (Book One, A Borrowing of Bones, pubs in Fall 2018), I find myself turning to the same tried-and-true tools that helped me maneuver the first:
The War Room
Well, house might be more accurate. I have a desk in most every room in our cottage, and every workspace has its function: a graceful French kidney desk in the living room (for real work), a Mission-style roll-top desk in my kitchen (for taking notes and answering emails while the pot boils, literally), a lap desk on the daybed in the yoga room (for dreaming my way into the story), a standing desk in the bedroom (for when I need to escape family and friends and visitors).
The War Board
My sweetheart turned two closet doors into cork boards, where I pin index cards listing scenes for the novel, eventually settling on a chronology. This is a visual aid I find critical to the process of creating a scene list. That scene list will eventually become a scene-by-scene outline.
The Battle Plan
For this new book, in which much of the action takes place in the wilderness during a blizzard, I created a battle plan in the form of a map inspired by my son’s D&D game table. I use 25-inch by 30-inch gridded pages from a Post It easel pad to block out the action of the story. I use action figures and game tokens to represent characters.
It’s like a grown-up version of my childhood Barbie & Ken games—with murder!
Every book I write requires its own soundtrack. This time around I’m listening to Richard Burton’s Hamlet (I’m sure that the neighbors get a kick out of my muttering “to be or not to be” under my breath as I walk the dogs), the soundtracks from the Guardians of the Galaxy and Stranger Things franchises, Mary Gauthier, Queen, the Beatles, Krishna Das, Gregorian chant, and Beethoven. These are choices mostly made on the basis of theme, character, tone, and just plain instinct.
The cavalry arrives in the form of The Box, a sort of a Trojan Horse full of random ideas that somehow fall within the realm of my series, ideas in the form of maps and books and photos and postcards and news clippings and action figures and notes on napkins that relate to my settings, my characters, my brainstorms both brilliant and busted. When I find myself stuck, I take out The Box and let the last-resort warriors fall out.
Fight to the Finish
For me, the first draft when starting a new novel is a fight to the finish. And these tools help me get there—bloody but unbowed. You may use similar tools, even if you favor a kinder, gentler approach to conquering the page. To discuss the tips and techniques that can help us all with first drafts, join us on our Facebook page.