Baby Steps First

Creating characters is rough. Sometimes I think I have nothing new to say about anyone. I worry that Iíve already created these people before, in one book or another. . . The truth is that we can only write about that which we understand or have experienced or can project ourselves into, and I have been more skilled than a lot of other writers at doing this latter trick. But my personal experience has been limited. . . So I wonder if I 'm capable of truly delving into the human heart and mind. Anyway, all I can do is my best. I can take the necessary steps one at a time. And thatís it.
Journal of a Novel,
June 8,2001

Every writer has to develop her own process: what works for her time and time again. Having no process is like having no craft. It leaves you dangling out there over the abyss, a potential victim of writer's block. Having no process puts you at enormous risk because writing becomes a threat instead of a joy, something that you are terrified to begin each day because you are at the mercy of a Muse that you do not understand how to beckon. If I had no process and no craft to fall back on, I would be paralyzed with fear every morning and, frankly, I see no fun in that. Because I have both process and craft to guide me, I approach my daily writing with anticipation, joy, and delight. Really.
     I cannot force my process upon you, however. What I can do is tell you what it is, what I believe about it, and how it works for me. Your job is to discover your own process by trying this, that, or the other: whatever feels right to you over time. (Note that word feel again. Your body will tell you when you're doing what's right for you.)
     So what follows is the process I use when I'm writing a novel. These are the essential steps that I've developed for myself over the creation of twelve books.
     I don't begin until I have an idea. But this idea is more than just a glimmer, more than a potentially evanescent wisp of inspiration. For me, what the idea is is a complete thought that contains one of three elements: the primary event that will get the ball rolling in the novel, the arc of the story containing the beginning, the middle, and the ending, or (and please note that word or) an intriguing situation that immediately suggests a cast of characters in conflict. If I have one of those three elements, I have enough to begin.
     Consider the story idea for my novel In the Presence of the Enemy. I knew I wanted to write about a kidnapping because I wanted to see if I could tackle the challenge. I needed a high-profile kidnapping in order to involve my Scotland Yard crew. .I chose to kidnap the child of a Member of Parliament because the other apparent choices for a high- profile kidnapping (like a member of royalty or the child of a well- known entrepreneur) didn't excite me and because I'd not yet written about Parliament. Thus I had the chance to learn something new in the course of writing the novel, which always energizes me. So my story idea bee: "This is a novel about the kidnapping of the child of a Member of Parliament."
     This was well and good because it continued two of my three requirements for a story idea: primary event (kidnapping) and an intriguing situation suggesting A cast of characters (if we have a kidnapping, we must also have a victim, a kidnapper, the relatives of the victim, the police, the suspects, etc.). But since I wanted to in the novel some of my continuing characters who are not police professionals, I had to add to the initial idea a reason why the police could not be involved at first in order to involve my nonprofessional investigators.
     Why then, I wondered, would the Member of Parliament not want the police involved since, certainly, she could -- by virtue of her position in the Government -- call upon the best police officers the Met had to offer? Ah, I thought. If the child was illegitimate and if the identity of the father of the child was a secret that could destroy the career of the M P should it be revealed . . . Now I had something that felt even more exciting to me than the kidnapping alone, Consequently, the idea became: "This is a novel about the kidnapping of the illegitimate child of a Member of Parliament,"
     What was good about this idea was that it immediately prompted a number of questions that I had to answer before I could write. Those questions and their answers created for me the next step in my process: the expanded story idea.
     The most obvious question to me was not "Who is the kidnapper?" but rather "Who is the father of this child, the revelation of whose name would destroy the career of the Member of Parliament?" Answering this question and the questions that grew from the answer expanded my simple idea into the more complicated story idea that follows:
     "The illegitimate daughter of a female conservative M P (touted to be the next Margaret Thatcher) is kidnapped, The ransom note is sent not to the M P but to the child's natural father, a married, antigovernment, left- wing tabloid editor whose identity has never been revealed by the editor or by the M P to anyone, The note he receives says, 'Acknowledge our firstborn child on page one, and Lottie will be freed,' which leads the father to realize that his (and the mother's) most closely guarded secret is known by someone else. Because nothing the police will bring in the media (who will in short order destroy the M P's reputation in best British tabloid fashion) and because the M P believes that the editor himself is behind the kidnapping in order to bolster his newspaper's sales with a front-page confession of the affair he and the M P once had, Simon St. James (This is my forensic scientist.) is prevailed upon to get involved against his better judgment. Big mistake. The child is murdered, which triggers the involvement of the police. Next, the tabloid editor's legitimate son is kidnapped and the ransom is the same: 'Acknowledge our first-born child on page one.' The editor does this (to the M Ps furious protests and to the tabloid-reading public's delight) but his son is not released. Instead he receives a message saying, 'You got it wrong,' Thus, he learns he has another illegitimate child, one older than the kidnapped and murdered Lottie. This other child is the kidnapper,"
     This paragraph answered all of the relevant questions about the initial idea. It gave me the sense of direction I needed to move onto the next step in my process: the research.

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