I’ve written six books (seven if you count the one that is in draft stage right now) and with each book my process has been a bit different.
I’m not a seat-of-my-pants writer, but not a compulsive outliner either. Thinking about making a neat outline with Roman numerals and indents makes me break out in a cold sweat. I need something much more flexible. I take a large sheet of white paper and write down what I know about the story. In the beginning, that usually involves the victim (I write mysteries, to there has to be a victim), the murderer (ditto), and the murder method (also ditto).
Then I begin to think about how my protagonist is connected to the murder (is it through a friendship with the victim? With a suspect?). I draw lines and jot down ideas as I consider who would be on the suspect list and how characters are linked—are they friends, neighbors, coworkers? The story begins to take shape in my mind and I sort out when events will take place. Sometimes I make a rough timeline on the paper.
By the time I get to this stage, I’m pretty sure where the first third of the book is going and I know how it will end (I already know who did it and why), but for that middle part…well, I have to write my way there. Once I get the first part of the book written, I’ve usually sorted out what happens in the middle.
For the first few books, after I completed my messy brainstorming schematic thingy, I wrote extensive character studies. I knew the character’s childhood, her favorite perfume, the color of her comforter, her hopes, dreams, and fears. I drew floor plans of homes, neighborhoods, and towns. I research absolutely everything. While writing Moving is Murder (the first book in the series), I learned obscure details about bee stings, wasp stings, off-shore bank accounts, and county record-keeping. I probably could have won a round of Jeopardy if those were the categories. After I knew every tiny detail about my characters, I used index cards to break out scenes.
But by the time I wrote Book #3, I realized that I was writing these loooong character studies, but when I was in the midst of writing the actual book the characters turned out differently than I’d planned. I thought one character was from Minnesota and had five brothers, but in the book it turned out he grew up in Georgia was an only child. I stopped doing the character studies after that.
Now I still use my crazy schematic, but I skip the endless pages of character background and index cards. I have no idea what I’ll be doing in a few years…whatever works, I guess.
That’s what I recommend to people who ask me how to get started on their book idea: do whatever works for you. There’s no set formula, no “right” way to do it.
Just sit down and do it. You’ll figure it out.
Rosett is the author of the Ellie Avery mystery series, an adult “whodunit” mystery series in the tradition of Agatha Christie. Publishers Weekly has called Sara’s books, “satisfying,” “well-executed,” and “sparkling.” Library Journal says, “...Rosett’s Ellie Avery titles are among the best, using timely topics to move her plots and good old-fashioned motives to make everything believable.”