I was recently asked this question by one of the writers in my critique group, and I found myself struggling to respond. This is probably not surprising, given that I consider myself a solid “pantser,” but it is so so different from one of my fellow critique groupers who is very much a planner (you can read about her process here) that as I “pantsed” the answer to my process I wondered: did I even have a process?
Thus, I am going to attempt to explain my process in a more organized way!
Starting Point: Inspiration
The starting point for a novel is probably the hardest to really define. I have a notebook where I write down story ideas, title ideas, and first lines. Sometimes there’s an idea that doesn’t quite bloom into a novel idea until it meets one or two other elements. Other times, the first line comes to me and then the rest follows. This part of the process might take days or years. I had played with the idea of writing a story based around Victorian murder ballads since college, and that inspiration didn’t come to fruition until about 20 years later (with The Silent Grove). My inspiration for The Victim’s Ball came a month or two before Nanowrimo in 2017.
My inspiration comes from many different places and it’s usually the combination of a few different elements that really fuels writing an entire novel.
Here are the inspirations for a few of my novels:
- The Last Time We Met – I began this story as a response to a Wattpad Anthology call for stories with the theme “The One Who Got Away.” I had an idea that this would involve missed connections in past lives. I wrote a few pages but didn’t really know where it was going, and it wasn’t until after COVID hit that I had the idea of past lives where in each life, the soulmate had died in a pandemic or plague.
- Mitzi & Oz – This one began as a writing prompt to pick a name out of a baby name book and write a character description. I picked two names, and I loved the characters so much I wanted them to meet.
- The Victim’s Ball – I saw a Tumblr post about the bals des victimes and began to research it. I loved the idea of a girl going to a ball full of “victims” to find her revenge.
- The Art Kids – I was really inspired by The Virgin Suicides and a novel narrated by a collective group. Then I thought about how the group dynamics might change under certain circumstances (the most spoiler-free way I can think of to explain this!).
- Hitchhikers – An old story I wrote in high school, about an abused boy who develops a second personality who can murder with psychic powers, was the inspiration for this novel where an abused boy believes he has a murderous split personality (but who is actually a werewolf).
- Waiting Room – Sometimes I can force an inspiration by giving myself a challenge. In this case, I was writing fanfiction, and hadn’t yet done a high school AU. I also hadn’t used the enemies-to-lovers trope, and I read a critique of fanfiction that erased canon character disabilities. Put it all together and I came up with a boy who is an amputee meeting a popular jock in a therapist’s waiting room and how they begin to see beyond their assumptions about each other.
My inspirations can come from so many places! Sometimes it’s a feeling, sometimes it’s a “what if?” Sometimes I read a book and I want to explore something the book does not – sometimes it isn’t a book, but a movie. Sometimes a song can inspire me.
An inspiration does not always come fully formed and ready to be a novel, so I write them down in a cool leather-bound book I bought at a renaissance faire.
My inspiration book is split into several sections:
- Title Ideas
- First Lines
- Story Ideas (sometimes these can include titles and first lines)
- Character Names
It’s really helpful to have a book to record these inspirations so they don’t fly away. You never know when that additional element will come along that will work with something else to create a story idea. My inspiration book is organized a certain way, but you should use whatever method works best for you. At one point I had everything on index cards. That worked for me for a while, and now I’d rather have something more cohesive and portable.
Sometimes, at the moment of inspiration, I realize that I’ll need to do some research in order to make this idea work as a book – especially when that book is historical fiction.
For The Victim’s Ball, I read the Tumblr post and then started looking up information. Initially I was just trying to find anything about victims balls. I started searching the internet, found a few articles, then searched for some of the sources listed in the articles. I requested those that I could find, as well as some books about the French Revolution and the time period.
For the other books, any research I needed happened as I was writing the rough draft.
Setting the Mood
As I’m starting to think about a novel, I might create a cover, a playlist, or a moodboard to help me find the tone I want. I make covers using Canva and playlists using 8tracks or Spotify. Moodboards can be totally analog (magazine pictures on posterboard) or digital (using Canva). But sometimes these things come along a little bit later in the process, just before I begin the rough draft or while I’m writing it.
So this is how my process begins! Stay tuned for part 2 of this series, where I’ll be talking about first lines!
How do you find inspiration? Do you have a way to keep track of your ideas?