In a world where we have been reliably informed that there are only seven basic plot ideas, how can an author keep going beyond the first enthusiastic flush of producing three or four books, to maintaining a writing career that survives the long haul past book eight and nine, and on into double digits? I write standalone novels, which means a new set of characters for each book, different locations, and of course, a new, twisty and intriguing plot. Loyal readers expect the same kind of reading experience from each of an author’s books, but naturally, every story has to be different.
But how different can you get?
Apart from the actual discipline required to sit in a chair, fingers pounding the keyboard long enough to create a story of approx. 100k words, coming up with fresh stories and ideas time and time again can be a challenge. But it can be done. You only have to check out the impressive back list of many of our contemporary authors to see how successful they have been in sustaining a productive writing career.
When it comes to generating fresh ideas I consider one of the most important attributes to develop is that of curiosity. A lively curiosity will take us everywhere and light up the world of our imaginations. Whether it’s a newspaper feature or magazine article that catches our eye, a snippet of gossip on the bus, an argument at the café table next to us, a feeling or impression that steals over us when we’re in a certain place, if we’re in an open frame of mind, responsive to the constant energy and surprises of life going on around us, being inquisitive in order to understand can help us come up with many story ideas.
The next step is to take the nugget of an idea, that gut feeling or spark of impression, and scope it out by using the famous 5 W’s – so critical to journalists and newspapers rooms when getting to the main guts of a news story – the Who, Where, What, When, Why.
Who is this story about?
Where does it take place?
When did it happen?
Why did it happen?
No surprises that I have the ‘Who’ question heading up this list. Even with a riveting plot, I believe character is the most important element of any story. There might be only seven basic plot ideas, but look around at the vast array of people we meet on the street, in the supermarket, in a restaurant, even on social media, and we’ll see that the permutations of different plot points with a variety of people in diverse life situations are so vast as to be infinite. Last on that list but highly significant, is the ‘Why’ – your character motivation, without which no character has a place in your story, including the supporting cast.
When we’re developing the bones of a story, it’s useful to throw in the curve ball of asking the great ‘What If’ of every character and situation. We can surprise ourselves with spin off ideas and plot twists that emerge. It’s also a helpful technique to use if we find ourselves stuck at 30k words and our initial burst of enthusiasm for the story has waned somewhat.
The other vital element to be included at the outset of developing a story idea is the battle ground of conflict. All stories revolve around conflict of one type or another, an internal conflict personal to the character, and /or an outer conflict they have to face in the world around them. We have to analyse our story idea to see where we can deepen the stakes for our characters, force them to face their darkest fears, impel them to tackle their worst demons. That will lead in turn to many more ideas, and chances are, we’ll end up with too many to use.
What I find different from one story to another is how they evolve from my imagination. In The Visitor, a shabby Georgian square was the inspiration; in The Perfect Sister a building under demolition provided the spark. The House in The Woods, my latest novel and book number twelve, started off life as a shadowy image of three people standing at a hall door in a curved porch. I can still see the door in detail although it didn’t make it into the novel. What was important was the gut feeling I had, that yes, these were people I wanted to get to know, there was a story to be found here with my protagonist and Evie was her name. A chance visit to Mount Usher gardens hot on the heels of this first spark, gave me the inspiration for the perfect, isolated, Wicklow woodland setting, and I knew I had something to work with. Within a couple of weeks, Evie was a retired actress recovering from a suspicious accident with a backstory full of secrets and a family she was estranged from. I introduced her grand-niece Amber into the story, an Amber whose life had just imploded, who arrived in Wicklow feeling undone, but who gradually realised that someone was mounting a dangerous vendetta against her great-aunt.
Whether it’s Book 1 or Book 12, coming up with different ideas and inventing new people is the fun part of writing a novel. I think one of the most enjoyable times is those first couple of months I spend at the drawing board, using coloured sharpies and blank A3 pads, with half formed characters colliding across the page and all their hopes and fears becoming real to me, when the story can be anything at all and the possibilities are endless. The bit about writing that doesn’t get any easier is capturing what’s in your head and your heart and doing it justice on the blank page – that’s the part that leads to self-doubt and is always challenging, because most authors are constantly striving to improve their craft and bring their writing to the next level to enrich the reading experience. Like our first drafts, developing our writing skills is always a work in progress!
(c) Zoë Miller
About The House in the Woods:
When actress Evie Lawrence is injured in a shocking hit-and-run accident, she wants nothing more than to retreat to her woodland home in Wicklow to recover. But when she’s forced to admit that she needs help, she reluctantly opens up her solitary life to allow her grand-niece Amber, practically a stranger, to move into Heronbrook to take care of her.
Evie, who has been estranged from her sister’s family for many years, vows to keep Amber at a distance so her secrets – and the truth of what happened at Heronbrook years ago – stay buried.
Amber is initially preoccupied with the recent implosion of both her career and her love life, the details of which she’s keeping to herself, but soon becomes very curious about the rift in her family. And when unsettling incidents begin to make Evie’s secluded home feel less peaceful and more dangerously isolated, Amber starts to suspect that what happened to Evie wasn’t an accident at all – and the person responsible still has Evie in their sights. But can Amber persuade Evie to confront the past and get to the truth before it’s too late?
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