In the How I Write series, our Crime Cymru authors share their insights into the writing process. This week, Jacqueline Harrett asks what is central to storytelling: character or plot, and gives us a fascinating insight into how she manages the various stages of the writing process and the differences between writing alone and with a partner.
How I Write by Jacqueline Harrett
Years ago, when I was teaching in primary school, I ran a writing club at lunchtime. We didn’t do any writing. We talked about stories, things they had read and enjoyed and the fact that writing does not start with the physical act of putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Writing starts with an idea that rumbles around before it takes shape.
I was brought up immersed in story. My father told wonderful stories and encouraged me to do the same from a very early age. This oral training was the basis on which imagination was built and further stoked by reading. Getting lost in a book is one of life’s great pleasures and all writers need to read.
My approach to writing has changed over the years. I used to be a pantser, but I’m more organised now. I think part of that stems from having two writing voices and writing in different genres. I write crime stories under my own name and co-author women’s contemporary fiction with Janet Laugharne. Our writing voices as individuals are different. However, when we come together, we have our J. L. Harland blended voice.
It is my belief that character is central to the story. If the reader cannot engage on some level with the character, why invest time in finding out what happens to them? I like to get to know my characters but sometimes they surprise me. For example, The Nesting Place was supposed to be a psychological thriller with the interactions between the four women central. Then DI Mandy Wilde came on the scene, and she took over. It became a police procedural. I keep a notebook with character names and a bit about each one, even minor characters. It’s useful as a reference point and saves confusion. It’s easy to forget little things such as the name of a pet and readers are quick to spot mistakes.
My co-author on What Lies Between Them, Janet Laugharne, and I always start with the characters. We have a vague idea of what the story will be, where it starts and ends and some bits in the middle. Detailed plotting comes later in the process. We begin with the names of the characters and build up from there. We start with a spider diagram, name in the centre, noting physical appearance, background, relationships, likes and dislikes. We talk through together, making notes until we have a sheet covered with information. Sometimes we use a photograph in the centre so that we have continuity in description.
Then comes the plot. What’s going to happen in this story? What conflict will the character face and how will that change them? More notes. Beginning, middle and end. Big picture stuff. The idea will have been turning over in my head for ages, but I know it needs to simmer and bubble away before starting to write. If the story is given enough thinking time, the writing is easier. With The Nesting Place I developed more of a plan and had a synopsis before I started. Plans can change though. A few people have commented on the twists and turns in The Nesting Place. That happened because I kept changing my mind about who did what and why. Things can alter as you start to develop the characters and the story. Flexibility is key. Even with co-writing, although more of a plan is essential, we are both inclined to go a bit off-piste. It can make life very interesting as things develop in unexpected ways.
The Nesting Place is based in and around Cardiff and south Wales as it was written during lockdown when we couldn’t go anywhere very far. Originally, I wanted to set the story in west Wales as an excuse to go to beautiful Pembrokeshire. So, location features as part of the planning stage. Where is the action taking place? What does it look like? Sounds? Smells? Anything unusual. It all helps the readers to place themselves in that scene.
While writing I keep a table as an overview of how the novel is progressing. It’s a useful guide and gives me an idea of where I’ve put the clues and the overall shape of the story. I record how many words in each chapter as a guide. It helps if I want to check something, or add a clue or red herring, as I know which pages to look at. Word is the only software, and everything is saved to the cloud. I write in a linear fashion as the story unfolds and have great admiration for other writers who can write different scenes and then put it altogether in a coherent fashion. I get into enough of a mess as it is. This little chart demonstrates how things progress. The synopsis, a separate short overview page, helps if I forget what I’d planned to do next, but the story seems to unfold in a natural fashion once I start writing.
The Nesting Place Plot Plan
|1||Sets scene. Introduces detective DI Miranda (Mandy) Wilde and DS Joshua (Josh) Jones. Set in Vale of Glamorgan. Girl reported missing early morning, but she’d gone out in the middle of the night. They find the body half a mile away in the middle of a field. Could be accidental death? At the scene. (Rishi – pathologist)Looks as if the girl tripped and died. No significant wounds. Natural causes?||Some insight into main detective. Female, feisty. Respected. Lives with her niece, Tabitha. Twin sister, Joy, (Tabitha’s mum).||Clue: Earring found near body 2098 words|
After the creative fun of making the story, comes the secretarial side. The editing. I write every day and tend to read over a little of the previous day’s writing to get into the mood and remind myself of the previous day’s work. Sometimes I’ll make a note of things I want to change, or add, by writing comments in capitals to myself into the text and highlighting bits in red. I don’t have a set time to work or number of words I want to reach every day. It could be three hundred or four thousand depending on how things are going and other commitments. Life can get in the way. Sometimes my ‘writing’ could be scribbles in one of my many notebooks or talking into my phone or just dreaming the next scene. When I am deep in the story, I can be seen mumbling to myself, working out plot or talking to the characters as I go on my daily walk. Thank goodness for social distancing! Even when preparing a meal one half of my brain will be elsewhere.
When I’ve had enough of editing and ready for someone else to read, I send the draft out to my writing buddies for constructive criticism. If I’m concerned about details, I’ll ask them to look at those aspects as they read. When the comments come back, I address those issues. I also read through again myself and check for continuity and repetitions. There is always something, and I know when it goes to the publisher the editing process will identify other errors. (Such as two minor characters, both called David.) Having several people reading, commenting and making suggestions helps, although at the end of the day it’s your story and it’s fine to disagree.
I’ve always loved writing. It’s my therapy. My first ‘novel’ was written when I was about seven, so it’s taken a long time for my debut to be published although I’ve had other non-fiction books published and a series of children’s books. I’m still learning about the craft and love that process of learning from other writers. There are so many wonderful books out there still waiting to be discovered and a lot still to learn.
- Join a writing group or start your own so that you have a supportive group of people who are willing to read and give constructive criticism. Our Criminal Fairies group formed after taking writing classes together at Cardiff University.
- Read your work aloud. It’s the best way to see what works and what doesn’t and the rhythm of the words.
- Just go for it. Ignore that inner voice telling you that you can’t do it and write for your own satisfaction. Write every day so you have a writing habit. There are worse things you could be doing!
You can order your copy of The Nesting Place here.
To find out more about Jacqui’s writing with Janet Laugharne as JL Harland, visit their website.
You can order a copy of What Lies Between Them by JL Harland here.