Monday, January 25, 2016

A New Year, A New Beginning, A New Novel

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: It's January of a new year and I'm starting a new novel — yet-unnamed Maggie Hope #7. Both the year and the book are pretty much a blank page — something I find inspiring and exhilarating — while also managing the accompanying anxiety and dread. You'd think having written six other novels would help with facing the blank page, but no — it's always a challenge.

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!


  1. I'm not terribly good at "new," so it's really trying to take things as they come along and not letting myself fret over what hasn't yet happened. Sometimes that's easy; sometimes it's difficult and I find seemingly unrelated choices being made over the possibility of what might happen. In truth, it's pretty much a case of simply having faith and carrying on with the day.

  2. Fascinating post, ladies. I love the idea of a new year and new beginning, and it seems that this one isn't quite starting out as many have. I seem to have stalled on making many plans, maybe just waiting to see where it will take me by happenstance.

  3. January never seems exactly like the new year to me so the pressure is off. September, though-- for people whose personal and professional lives cycle with the school year, that's the time when everything changes. Labor Day is always my personal New Year's.

  4. I love reading how you research your books. The settings, documentation, history... all of it. I have to say that I am grabbed by any bit of history in a novel. Whether it's your Paris during the occupation, Susan or an ancient cathedral in England, Debs... I'm right there. I don't know how to say it, but it feels a lot like I'm in the book. I am pulled into your stories.

    That's why you find me here at JRW. Each of you touches me personally in some way. Something in my personal history if not the world's history. Yet my head is so much into generational events and locations that the books I read get filled in with my own memories moving into the lived experience of your stories.

    Thank you.

  5. Hello everyone! Jennifer Gray, yes, for me Labor Day is really the beginning of the "New Year" since I'm (still) on a school calendar. Does anyone else also feel like that? New shoes, freshly sharpened pencils, blank notebooks....

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  7. Debs, not to push you--but I was at an event the other day, talking p the Reds of course, and one attendee said--Well, please ask Deborah Crombie WHEN her new book will be to! I assured her you were working on it..

    Susan, wow. Paris with Cara. LIsten, go to the Hotel St. Peres, and ask to see Room # 100. The Chambre a la Fresque. Promise me you'll do it.

    And I agree--Jennifer, Labor Day is definitely the new year. Pencils and notebooks. SO funny.

  8. So interesting to peek behind the curtain and see a little of the process.

    Now I want to go back to Paris with a new focus.

  9. If anyone happens to be in Paris in late April.... Hank, I think you told me the story of the Chambre a la Fresque! I'll bring Cara with me, as my French is more of the "French for Dummies" variety. Hubby just got me the Rosetta Stone app for my phone, so I'm working on French on that....

  10. This is reminding me ... way back when I was a teacher one of the things I loved about it was that every year you got a fresh start. New rosters, new grade book, new syllabi. How many careers do you actually get to press restart?

  11. Oh, Cara and Susan in Paris... I want in! Only I'll be tied to my desk finishing this book that was so much fun to start on.

  12. I had a good chunk of what was supposed to be my next Mistress Jaffrey mystery worked out and had started writing when my agent came back with the news that the publisher wanted the second book in my proposal first. The only problem with that was that all I had on that idea was what was in the proposal: "The next one will be set in Cornwall and will probably involve pirates." Six months later, after several false starts and a heck of a lot of research, it's finally coming together, but thank goodness my deadline isn't till June. I still panic when I think about the sea battle scene I have yet to write, even though I have a friend who sailed on the replica of the Golden Hinde and can advise me on all the ins and outs of sixteenth century seafaring. That blank page is always scary.

  13. So comforting to read that you all struggle with that blank page.That's where I am now: done my research, have a great background setting, have tons of historical tidbits,(all my books have a historical mystery and a current crime), even have some new characters popping up and telling a tale. What I do not exactly have is that book-long series of active scenes we call ...what was that...oh, yes. A plot. I do know where it will end up but I don't see how to get there. It is great to start this AM reading about how I am not alone. And since I know all the Reds struggles will result in another good book, I am encouraged to go tackle mine.Thank you. ( But how much fun you will have to struggle in Paris!)

  14. I love your research books pictured. I have Paris Underground too. I'm so glad that all of you are the writers and I can be a reader.

  15. It seems like the only thing writers have in common is that the process of starting can be overwhelming and each of you deals with it in her own way. But all the books come out marvelously, so something must be working.

    And yes, January is the start of the year, but September is another kind of start.

  16. I am so glad to read all of these accounts of the Reds' process of beginning a new book, because that is where I also am right now as well. My third Joe Gale--Truth Beat--will be out a week from today, and I am hard at work on a book that has been brewing now for months. For me, having a decent plot idea is one thing, but getting inside the skin of my characters is key. Once I can do that, I am in so much better shape.

    Good luck to all.

    P.S. Sometime soon I need to set a book somewhere like Paris . . .

  17. Kathy Lynn Emerson, if I were an editor, I would absolutely buy a book on the premise: "The next one will be set in Cornwall and will probably involve pirates."

    Triss, you are not alone! And Mary Sutton and Brenda, you are not alone!

  18. Love hearing everyone else's struggle and excitement over starting (or finishing!) the book.

    Reine, what a lovely thing to say. You really are the heart of our little community.

  19. I'd like to ditto what Susan wrote above, but for Ireland: If anyone's going to be in Ireland in early April ... :-) I can't wait to get over there for novel research.

    I'm in a frustrated place right now. It's not so much that I'm facing a blank page, but a half-blank page, and I don't know which is worse. Through the fall I started writing the first draft of my third County Clare mystery (untitled but I'm calling TOUCH OF DEATH) ... That's going along swimmingly, and I'm hitting the midpoint change-a-roos, and I'm jazzed, but then I need to set it aside to work on revisions for WHISPERS IN THE MISTS (August). OK, that's fine, I was jazzed, so I should be able to pick TOUCH back up easily.

    But no! I read a printed copy to get my juices going again, and I didn't feel jazzed. Far from it. More like, what was I so excited about? So, I essentially feel that beginning panicky feel again, only worse. Grrrrr

    Has this happened to you? What do you do to get going again when all seems crappy?

    Cheers! (Didn't know I was going to write all that.)

  20. Reds, Sorry I'm late to this party! I'm so excited to hit the haunts in Paris with Susan. Hopefully when we meet up chez Hemingway bar in the hopefully re-opened Ritz my next ms will be FINI! I'm already pondering the next and hope Susan will help me choose an arrondissement for murder Et alors? Cara

  21. I love reading about how people write and where their inspiration and ideas come from! I am a complete newbie to all this, and devour any tidbits of knowledge and experience others have, so thanks for sharing ladies. One thing that has surprised me with the novel I am currently writing is how it came about. Before, I would try and magic a plot out of thin air, and sit down and plough a furrow through the blank page. This time I began with an idea about a world. I even drew the map of the place first (after a number of attempts as I am no Picasso). Once the world started to take shape, and I had written descriptions of various locations in that world, the characters seemed to pop into my head and move about in that world, and I started to visualise scenes. I wrote them down as fast as I could. Then, one day, the whole basic storyline popped into my head, and I sat down with a stack of post-it notes and tried to scribble chapter outlines and put them into some semblance of order. So far I am on chapter ten, and for the most part I know where I am going. This has never happened to me before and it's very exciting!

  22. You are all so incredibly generous in sharing so much about the processes you use. Some of it is truly magic but most of it is just damned hard work and persistence. A great model for all endeavors!

  23. Reine, thank you so much.

    Lisa, I'd love to go with you to Ireland, but I think one European jaunt is going to tap me out.... And I feel panicky all the time. ALL THE TIME. Breathe....

    Cara, is that you? We are going to have SO MUCH FUN! Our hotels aren't that far each other, either!

    Susanna, I love that you draw a map! Wow, color me impressed.

    And thank you, Denise Ann!

  24. Susan, I love that you shared pictures of all those resource books. Your historical tidbits are one of the reasons I'm such a big fan of the Maggie Hope books. And, your trip to Paris, well, it's going to be amazing. I don't know Cara Black, but I have heard so many wonderful things about her that it seems you will be in good hands.

    Rhys, your Georgie and Molly books have that solid research behind them, too, and I'm always finding something interesting that I hadn't a clue about in your two series. And, oh, how will Molly get to San Francisco? And will Gus and Sid be there, too?

    Lucy, so can't wait for Killer Takeout, and how appropriate that you should look at your characters with a therapist's eye. Your characters just delight me, even the not-so-nice ones. Miss Gloria is a gem for sure.

    Hank, I can see how your books are built around that one idea, and it's something I enjoy so much, the way everything comes together around that idea, with the title giving the clue for what to look for. There are so many way that your theme plays out in the story, and sometimes I feel like a kid doing the Highlights hidden picture pages, as I'm so thrilled when a new thread is revealed.

    Hallie, what great fun it would be to visit a doll hospital and learn about what goes on there. That's some research I can't wait to see used in your new book. Your settings always play such a big part in the story, so can you tell us yet why you chose Beaufort, SC? I always think of the word "atmospheric" when I think of your stories.

    Oh, and Julia, your setting is always so important in what can or can't happen in the story, too. That ice storm was brilliant and guided the story, creating such great suspense. And, your themes are entwined so perfectly throughout the story. I agree with you that finding your way into a story would be the hardest part for me. Oh, and I hope the forceps are necessary for the birth of Hid from Our Eyes. Hehehe!

    Debs, you have made me fall in love with London, sight unseen. When I have said in the past that I want to do a tour of London based on your books, I am quite serious, and I'm still pushing for you to lead such a tour. You mentioned choosing a geographical location that is right for your characters, and I have to tell you that what you've chosen thus far has been perfect and made me want to learn more about each location. I know that Garden of Lamentations is going to be another adventure in a location I'll love.

    My blank pages right now involve starting fresh in February and forgetting January existed. With my husband's accident receding with his recovery, I'm ready to move forward and begin anew. However, even though I consider January a bad, bad month this year, I have learned a thing or two through this process, which will be important in moving forward. A little more patience, a lot more appreciation for the simple comforts of life, more gratitude for the people in my life who are always there to support me, and a realization that everyone needs "a person" who will fight for you and care for you to the end. This experience has actually benefited us as a couple, but, of course, I wouldn't recommend it for couples' therapy. So, expect to be hugged tightly when I see you all in New Orleans, because you are part of that wonderful community that has been there for me during this last month and kept me comforted in ways that only you can. Now, onward and upward, and let's have some fun the rest of this year.

  25. Kathy, yes, you've had a tough month. So glad your husband is doing better. Many hugs in New Orleans!

  26. Hallie, aaahhh! New York Doll Hospital!! We brought my Madame Alexander Marmee doll there when I was a kid and our dog ate her wig. I chose braids for the new wig, so she looked like Marmee as Pocahantas. I wondered if it was still there. Thank you.

    Great posts from all you wonderful writers whom I love so much.

  27. Susan and fellow Reds,

    I know exactly how you feel. It's both exhilarating and a bit scary facing the blank page. I'm in the in-between stage at the moment. In December, I finished Book 4 in my Emmeline Kirby-Gregory Longdon mystery series and made revisions. I will soon be embarking on Book 5. I like to take a little break between books to let the idea for the next one take root in my head.

    However, I differ from some of you in that I like to plan out the whole story in my head before I sit down to write. I may change things along the way or get new ideas, but I like to have that basic skeleton of the plot to follow. On the same token, I actually had the idea for the first few books in my head before I started writing LEAD ME INTO DANGER, the first book in my series which was released in October. This because I drop a little something in one book and then developed it a little more in the next one and so on.

  28. Ellen - A Madame Alexander Marmee doll? Marmee??? That strikes me as so odd. Did you also have a Meg or a Jo? I love that you chose braids. Where was the New York Doll Hospital?

  29. Yes, my Madame Alexander doll looked more like a golden age society heiress ...all red velvet and gold trim.
    Lisa, remember when you had the idea for that book? That's what you need to remember, I think. And there are certainly days but I think my books are terrible, and cannot believe I was ever excited about it. And then that goes away.

  30. Kathy thank you! That is so perfect -- and many hugs to your dear husband! XO

  31. Kathy, my best wishes to you and your husband for a good recovery. I read your comment here with special interest and recognition.

    I so very much appreciate your thoughts on couples and the difficult times we face especially your comment regarding the people in life who are always there to support you how you realize that everyone needs someone and that your "... experience has actually benefited us as a couple, but, of course, I wouldn't recommend it for couples' therapy."

    So well put--all of it, Kathy. Thank you.

  32. What a fantastic and inspiring post. It was really nice to read the various ways that you all find inspiration and face the blank page. I always love the beginning of a new year. I do feel like it is a chance to start fresh in some ways. Thank you!

  33. Thanks, Susan, thanks, Hank. Breathe and remember ... Perhaps my new mantra!

  34. Hallie, I have the entire set of Little Women Madam Alexander dolls - Marmee and all the girls.