31 March 2018

Musings on...Where To Start A Novel

Your characters are nailed, your setting researched, your time period decided. You’ve brainstormed The Big Problem plus a few smaller ones to scatter, and you’ve chosen who’ll carry the story. So where to start? If you’ve written some sort of plan, even a feeble outline, how can where to start be a problem? As always, the Devil is in the detail.

Received wisdom points to a moment of conflict, something to hook the reader. But conflict arises in many forms: conflict with self, conflict with an outside agency, conflict with the environment… And how can the reader be hooked into the story when there hasn’t been page-time enough to learn about the lead character so as to be able to make an emotional investment in him, her, it, or them?

One of my earlier novels, reincarnated as Beneath The Shining Mountains, is set among the native Apsaroke people on the cusp of American-European encroachment on their land. My publisher’s editor at the time dismissed it out of hand as “a Western”.

I could see her point of view; well, I couldn’t at the time and made my position felt, but I can now. Television was full of “Westerns” where the original peoples of the North American continent received a very bad billing. I was a historical re-enactor who gave talks and whose collection of books, recordings and anthropological papers outshone those of the local university. My problem, an insurmountable one according to my editor, was divorcing popular assumptions from the novel’s reality.

This is what readers do; I do; we all do. It’s an easy way of releasing our hold on our own reality and sliding into the reality offered by a novel. We read the signs and make assumptions:  flawed detective suffocating under a never-ending caseload being handed a shitty job because there’s more stress in the station than there is on the street... sort of thing. It might not state that in the opening, but from the tone of the cover, the back-blurb and the first couple of paragraphs, that is what the reader extrapolates. Over the next three or four chapters the reader constantly adjusts that expectation, realigning it to something akin to what the writer had in mind.

For my “non-Western”, I needed to plant a new set of expectations in readers’ minds. Having no control over the cover or the back-blurb, I chose to do it from the first page via an overview of Apsaroke village life, narrowing down to my lead character and her ally subsidiary. The opening was thrown back at me. “Pretty pictures” didn’t mean anything to a reader; people did. Readers wanted a character they could immediately identify with, ie connect with on an emotional level. The “pretty pictures”, if used at all, should be threaded in between.

So I gave the editor what she wanted. The story opens with two women having an argument about the male lead, therefore heralding him for the reader. A few “pretty pictures” are, indeed, threaded in between, but so is something more fundamental for the novel: a sense of personal history about to repeat, of a stalking catastrophe for more than just the main characters. Once written, I mirrored the same tone further in the chapter when portraying a snapshot of the life of the male lead.

The new beginning, about four pages worth, can be read by clicking the Preview option beneath the cover image in the right-hand column. Pick out the Big Problem, the “pretty pictures”, the elements that make up the sense of foreboding. Preceding the opening is a Historical Note to help slip the reader from their reality to the fictional reality, reluctantly allowed by the editor “as long as it’s no longer than 100 words”. So I ensured that it wasn’t.

These musings on where to start a novel came about due to the current work-in-progress, a true “Western” which will appear under my pseudonym Tyler Brentmore sometime over the summer. The story dates from 2014, so my notes tell me, when I’d written the first two chapters before the novel stalled. Returning to it, I could tell exactly why it had stalled: I’d started at a moment of major conflict. There’d been no page-time to learn about the lead character so as to be able to make an emotional investment in him.

This moment of major conflict still stands, but in the rewrite it erupts four chapters in. The preceding 9,500 words contain a few “pretty pictures”, but more to the point they contain a series of smaller, escalating conflicts: with self, with the past, with a hoped-for future, with outside agencies. The initial moment of major conflict has morphed into the novel’s Inciting Incident.


  1. Interesting, Linda. I took years to find a starting-point for my novel Cody. People were thinking it was a kids' book because it started in my protagonist's childhood. Eventually, the penny dropped and I had the bright idea of starting in a Nevada whorehouse. (As in, this is for grown-ups.) Good to see you writing instead of fighting off the ravages of winter/'summer' and the East Coast's general resentment about human activity.

    1. Hi Alan. Yes, what can feel to be a natural starting point doesn't always deliver. Sometimes it's down to the slant we choose to focus on. There is never one way to write anything.

      As to the "fighting off the ravages of winter/'summer'...", currently my legs are wrapped in a fleece blanket, I'm wearin two big jumpers and longing for fingerless gloves. Needless to say our boiler decided to go mute last night, three weeks after a service. It's been an interesting foray into the lives of our parents, or even my own childhood, sans central heating. How you managed it for so long in your Scottish retreat in February is beyond me.

      Thanks for calling by.