It’s not necessary to have ingredients on hand to start writing a novel. Unlike scratch cooking, you concoct most everything that goes into it and make up the recipe as you go along.
Planning my current story began with a brief image from a dream that I recorded in a notebook some time ago. The dream had a poor child huddled in bushes by the door of a privileged home, an open carriage driving up to the door, a man who pulled his children roughly to the ground, a girl who fell, and the small girl who rushed from hiding to help her. The story, I thought, might be about the poor girl and the privileged children who’d just lost their mother.
I pursued that idea for some days, looking at pictures of carriages, imagining scenes for the child, creating her history, considering where and when the story might take place. Eventually she became a different character; I didn’t use the bush scene, reduced the children and their father to minor characters, and forgot about the carriage.
To get to that point I did a lot of thinking in many directions, recording even the least promising ideas in my messy spiral notebook or the better organized OneNote Notebook, sometimes waking and writing in the dark to preserve a thought without coming fully awake.
It’s harder in the beginning. Writing from scratch is not like cooking, but like working a puzzle of your own design, having only one piece and no clue to the whole picture.
I thought a lot about the main character and possible bumps in her road, and tested ideas in brief scenes. In a OneNote section labeled “Problems,” I created a page of “Character Problems” and one of “Author Problems.” Author Problems included things like “Why would she be in that place at that time?” Also inconsistencies to be fixed.
To make the setting and society authentic for 1900, I developed 49 pages in a OneNote research section and to answer questions that popped up, like “Would there have been metal barrels then?” In the research section I also pasted pictures, thanks to Internet, of such things as decorative iron gates and primitive washing machines, and copied words to a Fanny Crosby hymn and quotes from Longfellow’s “Evangeline.” Now that I’m 20 chapters into the story, I know I won’t draw on most of what’s in those 49 pages, like the description of glove-making. But I have a feel for the time, and the search has been fun.
When I get stuck I read back over all my notes and hope a new, logical direction will emerge when I wake in the morning.