In 2009 I published my first novel and now have ten published books set in the Smoky Mountains with another—LOST INHERITANCE—publishing in April 2018. I’ve also published a novella in one of Kensington’s Christmas anthologies and, with my husband, a Smoky Mountain hiking guidebook. When speaking for events, I am often asked how I create a book, so in this post I’m going to talk about the method and process I use as I work on each new book. No author works in exactly the same way and the creative process varies greatly according to the individuality of the author and the book type or genre. But this is the process I use in working with each of my novels.
STEP 1- CONCEPT: Every one of my books starts with a concept or idea. Whenever I get a good book idea I try to write it down so the concept won’t slip away. I’ve written ideas on napkins in restaurants or on the back of deposit slips. Once I get a new idea or concept, I entertain it, think about it, and play with it creatively in my mind—starting to imagine the characters, setting, and conflicts that might be a part of that book. If I decide my idea has good book potential, I create a manila folder for it and tentatively title the book. I put whatever notes or writings I have about that idea into the folder and as more ideas come later, I keep adding them to my folder. When it is time to begin the book, I already have a big head start on the novel.
STEP 2 –CHARACTERS: The next step after forming the general concept for a book is to create story characters. I start with my main characters, which in a romance are the main male character, or hero, and the main female character, or heroine. I plan in detail who they are, what they look like, what age they are, what their personalities are like, where they come from, and how their backgrounds shaped them. As I work on main characters, I also create all of the secondary characters whose lives will interact and intertwine with my main characters. For every book, I develop all my book characters to such depth that I know them like a best friend or close family member. I get into their skin, learn their past hurts and conflicts, how they’ve grown and still need to grow. I “see” my characters in my mind as I think about, plan, and name them. As a highly visual author, I flip through magazines or internet sites to find pictures that look like how I envision each of my characters. These pictures help me solidify and flesh out the characters in my books and bring them to life. Before starting a new book, I choose a selection of pictures and create an inspirational bulletin board to prop near my desktop computer.
STEP 3 – SETTING: Often I flip back and forth between creating characters and developing setting. I research my settings extensively, studying maps and reading up on area history. I usually collect more information than I can ever use … but it is there and at hand if I need it while writing. My Smoky Mountain novels are all set in different places around the Smokies not far from my home, so I visit each area and “map out” where my book will be set. While there, I rough out my setting maps … plotting actual place names, stores, tourist attractions, and other highlights I might include within my story. Later I draw detailed maps of my story areas, including the black-and-white drawing always used by my publisher in the front of each book. The setting in a book is a constant backdrop for the story … and weaving in just the right amount of descriptive content around the ongoing action makes a book come alive for the readers.
STEP 4 – PLOT: Once concept, characters, and setting are researched and established, I am ready to play with plot and conflict. Plotting, by definition, is taking all one’s ideas, characters, and setting and fleshing them out into a full-length story that will capture readers’ attention and hold it throughout the book. It is a writer’s job to create a story for their main characters that readers will want to read and follow, with characters wrestling with difficult problems, situations, or individuals, feeling torn about what to do. All these ongoing conflicts hold readers’ interest. I personally outline the plot and story of my books in extensive detail before ever starting any book. Then as I write, I let the novel develop within that structure. After my plot is formed, I create a brief chapter-by-chapter outline on a single sheet of paper so I can see the whole book story laid out at a glance. Having a sound outline strengthens my overall writing and causes me to need less editing and re-writing after my book is done.
The whole process of plotting, planning characters and setting, researching, and outlining a book takes me approximately three months. Like being pregnant, there’s a point when I finally feel ready to “deliver” and then begin to write. But it’s a work process to get there.
STEP 5- WRITING: Once all the research and planning stages are complete, I am ready to write. Because of the preparation I do ahead, I can usually write the book I’ve plotted and outlined in three months, just as it took three months to plan it. Normally, I write two books a year when life doesn’t throw me too many curve balls. Ongoing consistency in writing is critical to getting a book completed. I schedule a bare minimum of 20 hours a week for writing. When I write regularly on a schedule, I stay immersed in my story and characters. As I move along with the book, I follow my outline and let the story flow and develop as I write. Sometimes the planned pattern I laid out ahead of time follows true; other times there are detours and turns. Generally, as I write, I become a part of the story, the characters, the settings, and the ongoing conflicts. Some days I find writing is simply work while other days I get lost in the writing in a joyous way, termed “flow,” and lose all track of time. These are the best of moments. The most important thing to remember in the writing stage is to keep writing and to keep the story moving.
As I work day to day, I edit small spelling or grammatical errors I see but avoid any major editing that knocks me out of my creative mode. Editing and writing are like wearing different hats and it took me time to learn this. Editing is a detached, analytical “professor” hat and there is time enough to wear that hat after all the creative effort is done. Then I can return to the finished work to critique, tighten, revise, and strengthen it. The mental process of writing is totally free and creative while the mental process of editing is analytical, logical, and structured. They are not compatible efforts. When a book is completed, I lay it aside for a month or so and then return to it to begin the editing process.
Just because a book is completed doesn’t mean it’s finished. An author will probably need to do several edits of his or her book before it is at its best … and it is often good to put a space between each manuscript edit … so the author can return to it with fresh eyes. Few books come out right in every way the first time – and working hard to self-edit a book is an important part of the writing process. More editing stages with outside eyes will be completed with a publisher before the book goes to press. A writer’s life can be very challenging, but like in all the arts, there is great joy in sharing your work – and in seeing that first rough draft of your new book cover when it arrives. But remember, no book happens without work and effort. And no dreamed about idea or book, remaining unwritten, ever gets published.