Starting a Novel: One Writer’s Approach by Lynn Slaughter
As both a writer and a voracious reader, I’m always fascinated learning about the writing process of different authors. There’s definitely no one size-fits all approach. So, my philosophy is to do whatever works!
Here’s what tends to work for me. First off comes a glimmer of an idea. In the case of Leisha’s Song, one came to me standing in line in New York’s Port Authority to board a bus for Connecticut. A grandmother and teenage granddaughter were standing near me, and being the nosey writer I am, I was eavesdropping on their conversation. The granddaughter was heading to boarding school, and she did not want to go. She was leaving all her friends in her neighborhood and didn’t want to go to “some fancy school with uppity white kids.” Her grandmother would have none of that. Her granddaughter was smart, she said, and the scholarship she’d won was her shot at a better life.
That got me thinking about what it would be like to be a whip smart young woman of color at a boarding school where the majority of students came from white, wealthy families.
Okay, so now, I had an idea for a character and a setting. After that, I spent an enormous amount of time thinking and writing about my character and the other principal characters in her world. For me, the most essential thing to dig deeply into is their back story and how their back stories have shaped who they are and how they view the world and their place in it.
For example, in Leisha’s Song, Leisha has grown up as more or less the stand-in for her late mother. With her father not in the picture and her mom having abandoned her and later died of a drug overdose, Leisha has grown up with her widowed grandfather. From the time she’s been identified as academically gifted, her grandfather has poured every one of his deferred dreams into her. He has a whole script laid out for her—Get a scholarship to a prestigious New England boarding school, which she has accomplished, continue to excel academically, which she has—and snare a college scholarship on route to becoming a physician. While she’s inherited her late mother’s singing ability, her grandfather repeatedly tells her that singing is fine as a hobby but certainly not as a career. He’s also been adamant that she never become romantically involved with a white boy, since he blames her mother’s demise on a white man she met at the night club where she was singing.
For Leisha, there’s been a lot of payoff in being her grandfather’s golden child and replacement daughter. She loves her grandfather, and he’s enormously proud of her. She gets a lot of accolades for her academic accomplishments. It’s never been a problem for her to be a pleaser.
Right away, from knowing about her background, all kinds of ideas for both internal and external conflict spill out, as I play the “What If?” game. What if her experiences at boarding school cause her to feel conflicted about following her grandfather’s script for her life? What if she falls in love with classical singing and really wants to pursue music rather than medicine? What if, despite her grandfather’s dictums to leave it alone, she can’t bear not to try to find her beloved mentor who suddenly resigns and disappears in the midst of preparing her prize students for a vocal competition? What if she finds herself attracted to another student, a sensitive cellist who happens to come from an ultra-wealthy conservative white family?
Suddenly, she’s way out of her comfort zone and has to figure out who she is and who she wants to be apart from her grandfather’s script for her, as well as what price she may have to pay for following her own path. If she continues to defy her grandfather, he may pull her out of school and away from Cody, her romantic interest. Moreover, she may even end up risking her life to find her missing teacher.
As the mystery writer Elizabeth George advises in her craft books, I’ve found that if I start with character development, all sorts of plot ideas and complications will follow.
But here’s the caveat. I know lots of wonderful writers who don’t do it this way! They get to know their characters in the process of writing their stories and would never spend days and weeks thinking and writing about their characters beforehand.
Are they doing it wrong? Absolutely not! It’s whatever works, and the answer to that question will be different for every writer.
I’d love to know what your process is and what works for you!
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After a long career as a professional dancer and dance educator, Lynn Slaughter earned her MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Section Hill University. She writes coming of age romantic mysteries and is the author of the newly released Leisha’s Song; While I Danced, an EPIC finalist; It Should Have Been You, a Silver Falchion finalist; and Deadly Setup (forthcoming from Fire and Ice, 2022). She lives in Louisville, Kentucky, where she’s at work on her next novel and serves as the President of Derby Rotten Scoundrels, the Ohio River Valley chapter of Sisters in Crime.