Ask a room full of authors how they set about the task of writing a book and you will get as many answers as there are wordsmiths in the room. Some will declare they start with an idea and have no plan, relying instead on the book to develop in a flight of creativity. Enid Blyton is said to have written this way, churning out six thousand words a day but then she was writing about Noddy. Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing easy about writing children’s books. Children are a particularly difficult audience and there is a lot of competition for their attention. Other writers lay out the plot for their book like an intricate atlas with every twist and turn calculated and mapped before the first paragraph is written. They write detailed character profiles and spend hours collecting background material.
The truth is there is no right or wrong way to write creatively. We all have different approaches and what works for one author may not for another. Take for example when you write. I prefer to keep regular hours, writing during the first half of the day when my mind is fresh. It works for me but if you are a night bird, who likes to be creative and burn the midnight oil when all around you are in the land of nod, fine. Normally I write to a target of a thousand word a day. It doesn’t sound much but, by then, I begin to run out of enthusiasm and it’s time for me to do something else. Sometimes, when something exciting is happening in the story, I push on. Writing ‘Welsh Legends and Myths’ was easy to manage. The eighty stories, in the book, were about a thousand words each and were written from an initial idea which grew along a, ‘let it develop itself’ approach. My next project ‘The Iron Masters,’ an historical novel stretching across half a century, proved to be far more complex and needed more discipline.
To start with my idea was, farm boy leaves home and makes good, becoming the richest industrialist in the world, supplying cannons during the Napoleonic Wars. So far so good, but I hadn’t worked out how does he do it, what are the challenges, who are his enemies and loves, how does the story end, and importantly is the story historically plausible. Suddenly, a wing and a prayer for creative juices to flow wasn’t enough. With one bound, Nye Vaughn (my main character) was free, would not cut it. It was time for some research.
It took me nearly two years to gather the historical background and what a treasure trove it was. Everything I needed was there, corruption in high places, riots, murder, avarice, love, war and betrayal. My story was taking shape. The next step was to create a timeline of real events from 1780 to 1833 using an excel spreadsheet. It was a huge document and formed the skeleton on which I could graft the flesh of the story. Before I wrote the first chapter, I produced profiles for the key characters and added their ages to the timeline. Nye Vaughn is a hot-headed 18 year old when he fights with his father and leaves the family farm. He dies a rich old man, aged 70. His achievements and experiences as the years passed required regular adjustments to his character profile. Other players were added, as the plot developed, until I had profiles for 65 individuals all playing their part in the story. The complexity of the novel would have been impossible to manage without the character profiles and timeline to hold everything together.
Writing ‘The Iron Masters’ has changed the way I construct a book. It forced me to become more disciplined and professional. I have always enjoyed writing but the pleasure of completing a multifaceted historical novel is immeasurable and, being a glutton, I am already working on the sequel. That really is the key to being a writer; if you enjoy writing it doesn’t matter what strategy you use. We can all be creative, in our own ways.
Graham Watkins author of ‘The Iron Masters’