In the How I Write series, our Crime Cymru authors share their insights into the writing process. This week, Gwen Parrott offers a fascinating insight into finding the kernel of an idea and how she lets that evolve through inspiration, perspiration and planning into a story.
How I Write
How anybody writes a novel is an intensely individual process. Nobody does it in exactly the same way as anybody else. Some writers work out its progression in minute detail by using small cards with plot points which they stick on a large board, allowing them to swap them around at will. Others claim to start with a blank page or screen and just go for it. I don’t do either of those things. My books almost invariably start with a ‘What if…?’ moment, which can be something I’ve seen or heard that sparks an idea for a plot. Sadly, I don’t always remember where that original ‘What if…?’ moment came from, because sometimes it just doesn’t work out. However, in ‘Dead White’ the first of my series of Della Arthur crime novels set just after the end of World War Two, I do know where the inspiration for it originated, which is from a story my mother told me many times.
The winter of 1947 was extraordinary. For about three months from early January, Britain suffered the worst continuous snowfall in living memory. My mother was a teenager, living in a fairly remote hamlet in North Pembrokeshire. The blizzards would hit time after time, leaving roads impassable. People had no electricity and coal was still rationed after the war. One evening, the bus on which she was travelling home had to abandon its route because of weather conditions, which meant she had to walk the last two miles. It was dark by then, and away from the main road the snow was already thigh deep. Hardly able to breathe or see through the swirling snowflakes, every step was a huge effort. She was soaking wet and freezing and the deserted country lanes were pitch black. The temptation to sit down for a moment in the shelter of the hedge was overwhelming, but something told her that if she did, she would never get up again. Yet, she was so weary and the conditions were so bad she feared she’d never get home. Then, far ahead, she thought she saw a light flickering. With huge relief, she realised she was right. Her father had come out to search for her with a storm lantern. That experience stayed with her because she never forgot how close she came to giving up and dying in the snow.
What if, I thought, something similar happened to my main character? So I started typing possibilities for Della Arthur’s character. That level of determination and stubbornness would be essential for someone who had a crime to solve, and a desperate trek through a blizzard in the first pages of the novel would establish her personality immediately. How could I ramp up the danger? By making her a stranger in the area, the newly appointed head teacher of the local junior school who doesn’t have a clue, in the middle of a snowstorm, which unfamiliar lane to take to reach her new home. There would be nobody out looking for her as they didn’t know when she was due to arrive. What could happen before she reached safety? If she was completely alone overnight, say, that would be a good opportunity for her to make a grisly discovery that would set a chain of events in motion and allow the reader to get a further insight into her attitudes. This threw up more tangential questions – why had she been appointed in the middle of January? What had happened to cause the vacancy? Once I started exploring around her situation, the story emerged piecemeal.
As with every subsequent book, examining the possibilities and extrapolating outwards from one small initial idea without committing to anything allowed me to build a structure. It always begins very casually, almost like a stream of consciousness, but I find that as things become clearer my ideas become more defined and I start putting in large chunks of dialogue, or describing pivotal scenes in detail. The ‘Possibilities File’ can easily reach forty thousand words, and you will have realised, probably with a feeling of dismay, that I won’t have written a word of the actual novel before I’m satisfied that I’ve got enough material to make a proper start. This is the point at which the ‘Possibilities File’ becomes valuable because although I will not use everything in it by any means, I will use a great deal of it, especially in its later stages when the plot progression has revealed itself. It’s taken me a long time to acknowledge that the first possibility that comes to mind is not always the best one, but by noting it and working through it I may well discover something better.
This process is what works for me – it may not for you. I suppose what appeals to me about this way of working is that it stops me from setting ideas and events in stone until I’ve sorted out most of the novel. I suspect that if I wrote a novel straight off without the ‘Possibilities File’, the effort involved in planning and writing all at the same time would make me reluctant to change anything later. After all, if you’ve spent ages constructing a scene, it’s heartbreaking to realise further on that it isn’t needed. The temptation is to keep it in, to the detriment of the final work. But if it’s just one possibility among two or three…
If writing a novel at all seems like an impossibly huge undertaking, no doubt the idea of writing forty thousand words and more before you even begin has depressed you even further. I was the same, but it’s surprising how you can work up to these things. One of the most important lessons I learned on my journey was to finish every piece of writing. Years of attending workshops, panel discussions and classes made me realise that the much quoted ‘terror of the blank page’ where people don’t know where to start is not the barrier for most writers. The real difficulty appears to be summoning up the motivation to finish anything. Why is that important? It’s important because if you don’t finish a piece of work you never move on to the next stage, which is editing, rewriting and improving it. They are quite different skills from the initial creative outpouring and just as essential. So it follows that if you can properly complete a five hundred word piece, then a thousand word piece becomes less of a mountain to climb. Before you know it, eighty thousand words isn’t the Everest it once was.
Read more about Gwen Parrott on her Crime Cymru page.