So, what to do?
Well, I start with lots of research — books, documentaries. I especially like first-person accounts of the time from people, who were really there. Luckily, there are many memoirs from people in the French Resistance. Here's a powerful photograph I've found of Nazis performing outside of the Palais Garnier:
I think about my characters — where they are emotionally and physically after the last book. How much time has gone by? What is happening historically? I left Maggie in THE QUEEN'S ACCOMPLICE in March of 1942. Do I pick up where I left off? Or do I let some time go by and start the story later in the spring? If I do start later, I can work in the Vel' d'Hv roundup of the French Jews on July 16, 1942. Ah, that's an idea....
Sometimes I need to work in pen and paper, not just on the computer. So I'll draw things out, especially how the characters are related to each other. Here's a picture I did recently.... The final book may not have anything to do with this drawing, but it's a start.
Through Hubby's airline points (he's traveled all over the globe working for Sesame Street International), I'm able to make plans for a trip to Paris. But my trip isn't just for seeing the tourist sites. It's for experiencing the Paris of the Resistance, SOE agents and Nazis in the spring/summer of 1942. Here's where my research meets guidebooks and the internet, as I try to come up with a schedule of must-see places and things to do off the usual path:
Address of Paris killer Docteur — 22 Rue Le Sueur
Gestapo headquarters – 93 Rue Lauriston
Avenue Fochs, #72 — where SS Colonel Helmut Knochen orchestrated the crushing of resistance forces
#31 — Theodor Dannecker and Adolf Eichmann planned the Grand Rafle of 16 – 17 July in which over fifteen thousand Jews were taken to the Vel d’Hiver before eventually being sent to death camps.
#84 — small servants’ rooms of a large villa. "In these cramped rooms on the fifth floor the legendary Violette Szabo, “The White Rabbit”, “Madeleine” and other British SOE agents were tortured until their upscale neighbors could hear their screams."
Sometimes, serendipity comes into play. I've corresponded with Colin Fields, the head of the Hemingway Bar at the Paris Ritz, for a cocktails book I wrote. He was gracious and lovely, and so, I'll send him a letter. Getting a backstage look at the Ritz Hotel would be amazing. I've also been chatting online with fellow novelist and friend Cara Black, who writes the New York Times-bestselling Aimée Leduc series of books set in Paris. As it turns out, we will be able to coordinate our trips to Paris! Watch out — two novelists on the loose in the City of Light!
Back to the blank page. I'm still staring at it, as the days of January tick by. In the words of fellow Red Julia, it's like having a term paper due all the time! And so, in a moment of quiet, I start typing. I'm not sure if the scene I write will be int he finished version of the book, but I have to start somewhere. Even if I don't use it, I'm farther along than I was — and when you're pulling together something as huge as a novel, sometimes that's all you can ask for.
Reds, what do you do when starting a new book? Does the blank page make you excited or terrified? And what do you do to put those fist few words on the page?
RHYS BOWEN: Susan--you and Cara in Paris together! You'll have such fun. She knows all the good places to eat drink and be merry and all the secret places, alleys and hidden gardens and all the best flea markets. Since I've been writing two books a year for the past few years it seems I've always a new book looming ahead of me. Some I approach with joy--ideas waiting to happen, like Malice at the Palace was. I knew I wanted to focus on the Duke of Kent, his scandals, mistresses and his royal wedding. I already knew a lot about him so research was easy and the book galloped along merrily. Other times I start a book knowing very little, like the next Molly book called TIME OF FOG AND FIRE. It's set around the great earthquake in San Francisco and that was all I knew when I started out. How does Molly get across the continent to San Francisco. And why?
And who will die?
Those are the times I begin in utter panic. For the first fifty pages I'm convinced that there will be no good plot, the whole thing is doomed and I might as well quit now. Then I find a glimmer of hope and finally I can see the way ahead. But like Susan I always begin with months of background research and reading. For Georgie books I wander around her old haunts, browse tea shops, antique shops and listen to my family members talking (a great source of inspiration.) For Molly I often come to New York and wander Molly's streets, visit museums, look at hundreds of old photos so that the environment is firmly in my head before I start..
I always seem to know the underlying theme of a book: Freud's interpretation of dreams, the Dreyfus affair etc, but it's the smaller details--who might die (as it is supposed to be a murder mystery) and why might my heroine become involved in the investigation?
LUCY BURDETTE: I love the way you describe how this book is beginning--and I envy that trip to Paris!
I usually begin with what is happening or what has happened with my character. In DEATH WITH ALL THE TRIMMINGS, I think I think I started with the Christmas season. So Hayley marches in the holiday parade, and rides in the boat parade, and sees all the lights. In FATAL RESERVATIONS, I began with Hayley's roommate Miss Gloria taking a job as a guide in the old cemetery--and discovering more than dead bodies. And in the upcoming KILLER TAKEOUT, her friend Danielle has been crowned as queen of FantasyFest, and yet is suspected of murder.
In a bigger way, I try to think about the questions a therapist would ask: why is this person here now? What drives her and feeds her passions? For an amateur sleuth, why is she getting involved? Usually this ends up having to do with good-hearted Hayley worried about a friend or relative who's landed in big trouble.
HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: That's exactly where I am, too, Susan! Well, not in Paris, more's the pity.
But this week my final final edits will go to the editor--and SAY NO MORE will be finished! Amazing. And I am so excited, I must say. I actually love it, which is something I should remember , because I DO have perfect recall of all the times I thought this book was NEVER going to work.
Like now, as I madly procrastinate beginning the new book, OUT COLD.
I always begins the same way: I never know when it will happen, but I get one great idea. Just one! And the feeling washes over me: "My book!" Knock on wood, it happens every time.
WHAT YOU SEE began with a story I did on surveillance, and my visit to the Boston City Hall surveillance room.
SAY NO MORE's opening scene came from my real life. I witnessed a--well, more to come on that later.
But there's always one ripped-from-my-own-headlines moment where I instantly understand that the one situation can carry a whole book.
And then: I need a first line.
Only when I get that do I sit down at the computer and think: here goes! And I never have any idea what will happen next.
HALLIE EPHRON: I'm in the middle of a book which is fully outlined and sold, so you'd think I'd know what to write next but I don't. Every day it's like blind man's bluff, feeling my way.
I agree, research is a great way to start something new. When I started writing this book I knew it would be about a woman who makes dolls, so first thing I did was visit a doll hospital. Then I decided to set it in Beaufort, SC, but I waited to go until a week ago and now I'm going back into what I've written and fixing, adding. changing. I'm always amazed when the strands start to cohere and I can say THIS is what my book is about, because I never really know until I'm in the midst of writing it. BIG act of faith, for me anyway: writing Page One.
JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I'm beginning to feel about HID FROM OUR EYES what I felt in the ninth month of my pregnancies: Get it out already!
I usually begin with a theme, something I want to explore. Occasionally, it's a specific act or event: in THROUGH THE EVIL DAYS I began with "An ice storm of historic proportions shuts down all of upstate NY - and traps Russ and Clare in a remote cabin." More usually, it's character and issue driven: A group of damaged Iraq war vets try to reassimilate into their small town or Central American farmworkers in the North Country.
The tricky part for my is finding my way into the book - I've been known to write three or four beginnings before I can figure out who, where and what is happening. I'm not talking half a chapter either; I once threw away one hundred ms pages and started over again. It's ridiculously inefficient, but I can't seem to be able to short cut the process.
DEBORAH CROMBIE: I am in London desperately trying to finish--or at least get close to finishing-- book #17, Garden of Lamentations. But at the same time, I'm thinking about the next one, and what I might need to see and do to at least have a starting point when I get this one turned in. It's such a mish-mash of ideas, usually including place (both a setting I think would be interesting to explore, and a geographical area that I think would make sense for my characters), some THING I want to write about (an occupation, an historical event that might tie into a present story, a social issue, or the story of a particular character I've become interested in), and then of course the continuing story strands of my main characters. Then throw in a murder! I never have any idea how I'm going to make it all work. And even when a book is finished I'm not always certain it did.
Now I'm starting to hyperventilate just thinking about the next one!
Susan, did you see they had a terrible fire at the Ritz a few days ago?
SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Debs, yes! And they're just completing a HUGE renovation. Luckily, no one was hurt. It was the top floor, where Coco Chanel had her occupation apartment....
Reds and readers, what blank pages are in your life as we start 2016? How do you face the challenge of the new? Tell us in the comments!