HOW I WRITE
So many of my readers, fans, and friends have asked how I think up my story ideas and write my books, so I thought I’d talk about “How I Write” in this February blog post. Every artisan—author, painter, photographer, composer—develops a different method, so what I’m sharing here is my method. It evolved as I began to write from my own personality, my own academic and personal background, and my own study about the methods that worked best for successful authors I admired.
(1) AT THE BEGINNING OF EVERY BOOK IS A GOOD IDEA.
Coming up with a story idea is where every one of my books begins. Active with life, my ideas often evolve from news events I’m reading, places I’m visiting, or thoughts and questions that run into my mind. For example, always interested in social work and the foster care system … I wondered how a social worker would handle a case with children she knew that she couldn’t find a foster home for. I thought, “What would I do?” And then I smiled, realizing an old softie like me would probably try to take the kids in if I could. From that idea my book FOR SIX GOOD REASONS began to evolve about a young, single social worker who ends up taking in six siblings….Another book idea actually came to me while hiking with my husband on the Cooper Road Trail out of Abrams Creek Campground. We’d always loved the scenic, rural Happy Valley area we drove through in order to get to the Abrams trails. I said to J.L., “I’d love to set a book here but there’s little here but rural farmland and no businesses, not even a store.” He laughed and said, “You could put some survivalists in your book to spice it up. They love backwoods places to live.” He told me some stories about survivalists he’d heard of and met delivering his fishing and hunting guide magazines. I forgot our conversation while hiking, but started laughing on the way back down the trail. “I’ve just had the best book idea for Happy Valley,” I told him. “With a store and with some survivalists tucked into the plot.” … And that’s how the idea for my upcoming book HAPPY VALLEY, publishing in April, came to be.
(2) DEVELOPING STORY CHARACTERS IS ALWAYS THE SECOND STEP.
An old quote says “Characters are the lifeblood of any good book” and there is much truth in that. A book needs rich, realistic characters that a reader can relate to. It takes time and thought to create book characters that will linger in the minds of a reader after they close the book at the end. And that’s always what I want. I like books about basically nice, likable people wrestling with life problems and issues, trying to live a morally good life. Of course, as in real life, not everyone that my characters know in their family or among their work colleagues are equally interested in being wholesome individuals. Many have unresolved problems … and that’s always where the fun comes in. All of us wonder how to get along with the problem people and difficult issues in our lives and we like stories about how others handle those things.
Because I write contemporary romances, my two main male and female characters always evolve first. Who are they? What is their story before the book begins? What will happen to them as the story idea moves along? As I begin to see these plot and character factors, I start to also envision how these characters will look. I search for photos from magazines or the internet like the images I’m seeing in my mind because I believe actual visuals help artists create richer art. As I develop and envision these main characters and the story line of the book, secondary characters begin to naturally come to my mind, too. The family, neighbors, work colleagues, and others in the main characters’ lives begin to find places in the developing drama–the sweet, supportive characters in their lives and the difficult ones causing concerns. In my book LOST INHERITANCE a sweet young girl gets cheated out of an expected inheritance by a flaw in the will, with everything going to a somewhat nasty nephew. I wanted the readers’ hearts to go out to Emily and their anger to go out to Leonard, mean for no good reason. In my book WELCOME BACK, I wanted the reader to feel the heartache and dilemma Lydia faced living with a truly dysfunctional mother-in-law. Difficulties with family members are often some of the hardest situations we all face.
(3) THE THIRD STEP IS CREATING A RICH AND MEMORABLE SETTING.
The setting is the time and place in which the story occurs and it needs to fit the story, enrich it, and help the ongoing story come to life more for the reader. I like to create a setting that makes the reader feel like they are “there” in that setting, and I love using real places readers can actually go to visit later and enjoy. If I have personally visited a setting and spent time there, I can bring it to life better for my readers. So my main book settings are always in places where I’ve spent a lot of time. Most of my novels are set in and around the Great Smoky Mountains near my home. I love this area of East Tennessee and North Carolina, and I love bringing my readers to visit here.
To enrich every book further, I visit my settings, exploring up and down area streets, hiking trails, checking out spots to visit, restaurants where characters can eat, local events they can go to. I take photos, I pick up maps and brochures. I talk to people, getting local tips and stories I might bring in. I later draw my own map settings of where the main actions in my books will take place. I draw or find room designs for the main homes and businesses essential to the story. If I can see it, I can write it with more passion and realism. After J.L. and I discovered the charming small mountain town of Bryson City, North Carolina, while hiking trails near there, I was purposed to set one of my upcoming stories there. And in this case, the town itself helped to inspire the story for DADDY’S GIRL. Seeing a beautiful old white turreted home for sale and a lovely old swinging bridge, both on the Little River in Townsend, gave me the vision and dream for a bed and breakfast and the story for DOWN BY THE RIVER set there.
(4) PLOTTING OUT THE STORY LINE FOR A BOOK COMES NEXT.
After the idea for the story is beginning to develop and flesh out, the characters formed, the setting established, I am ready to plot out the story line for a book. Plot is the chain of connected events that make up a story. I am a methodical person and could never be a panster writer, just sitting down to see what might flow out of my pen at random, and later trying to reorganize it into some semblance of order. I think logically and chronologically when writing a book and I want every plot point researched and planned before I start a book. To me writing a book without a plan would be like taking off on a trip without a map or any planning. I organize the story events from the opening scenes throughout the book to its end before I write. To me what I hate most in a book is when it seems to wander around as if it doesn’t know where it’s going. I also want a thick story with a lot of side sub plots within and around the main plot. Otherwise I am quickly bored. A slow or too easily predictable plot will lose my interest so I work hard to create a rich plot that will keep my readers involved and guessing a little about what happens next. I want my plots to have some surprises, some unexpected emotional moments, some insights and some life teachings. I don’t want readers to easily put the book down once they begin.
At this point for me, I have folders full of character sketches, setting material, plot and story notes I want to weave into my book. And now is the time to pull all that research and planning and envisioning together. I do this by creating a story outline. Often these start with paragraphs about each chapter as I work through the action, conflicts, and story lines I want to occur before the book ends. Every character’s problems have to be resolved in some way and there needs to be enough action all the way through so there are no sagging points in the story. Once I get the plot planned, I create a one page chapter-to-chapter outline to follow, reminding me of the book plan I’ll be following as I write. With my Edisto Trilogy, this process proved even more complex as the three books planned are a continuing series. While writing CLAIRE AT EDISTO, my mind had to “plot ahead” the next books in part to lay hints and factors that would link from the first book into the subsequent novels. As I wrote the next two books RETURN TO EDISTO (publishing this April) and EDISTO SONG (publishing next year) all my facts had to coordinate. I found this harder than my other stand-alone books. In those books I occasionally let a side character from a past book wander in again, as in MAKIN’ MIRACLES where a side character from two past books became the story’s main character, but the story was new and there was little to coordinate in plot. It takes a lot of planning and work to develop a good plot that will keep readers engaged in the story until the end. Many call this the most difficult stage in the writing process.
(5) AT LAST IT’S TIME TO WRITE THE STORY!
At this point, I’m finally ready to write, following my outline, digging out all my notes and research as needed, and putting up my bulletin board filled with pictures of characters and setting scenes for ongoing inspiration, like the one for a future book EIGHT AT THE LAKE below. There is so much more work and discipline and hard, long days of labor than most people realize in writing a book and bringing it to life. A critical factor at this point is making the time to write consistently until the book is complete, which doesn’t mean a chapter here or there with big gaps or weeks between the writing. Think of it like watching a movie. If you don’t stay with the movie, you lose the flow and story of it. If you leave it too long and come back, you may even lose your passion for it.
I have tried many writing patterns, and I have had to vary my writing times around other ongoing work schedules in my life. When I first started writing I was teaching 8-9 college classes a year at Tusculum College, working with my students, helping my husband with his business, and carrying a part-time job as the educational coordinator for Huntington Learning Center. My usual writing hours then were from right after dinner to bedtime or after because those were the only blocks of free time I had. My minimal writing goal, even then, was to put in 20 hours a week. This is still my minimal goal every week although I put in much more time than that now. My early writing goal was to write two books a year; that is still my goal. And it’s rare that I haven’t achieved it. But it takes dedication and discipline. Much of a writer’s time is spent alone in front of a computer working and writing. Anyone who doesn’t love creating stories and sharing them will probably quit as soon as they realize how much work writing is.
Right now, I am finishing my planning and research for the next book I plan to write which will be set in Cherokee, North Carolina. I hope to settle into writing in the next week or two and to hopefully finish all or most of the book before Book Tour for my two new books begins in April. I write far ahead of my publishers. I don’t like the stress of looming deadlines, and I like to have about a year with every book to edit and re-edit with fresh eyes after the book sits for a few months and before it goes to my editor for more edits. At this time, all the books in the little photo listing are completed plus another Mountain Home book called EIGHT AT THE LAKE that I finished at the end of 2019. Around writing my new Cherokee novel, J.L. and I will be traveling and working to finish a South Carolina state parks guidebook and continuing to work on a joint devotional in progress. And in a file box by my desk are a multitude of folders of other book ideas I’m planning and thinking about in my spare time…. Writers are always writing a book, planning the next book, and thinking ahead to even more books to come!
I hope you enjoyed learning a little about “How I Write.” Next month I’ll be sharing about my new books coming in April … about our Book Launch … and about Book Tour stops and plans… So tune in again in early March.
See you then! __ Lin
[Note: All photos my own, from royalty free sites, or used only as a part of my author repurposed storyboards shown only for educational and illustrative purposes, acc to the Fair Use Copyright law, Section 107 of the Copyright Act.]