Over the next few weeks, as I approach the release date for my next novel, The Bishop Burned the Lady (now available for pre-order here at 10% off), I’m going to share some of my experiences in bringing a book from the idea stage to publication. I’ll focus these posts on the process I went through in writing The Bishop—but it is very similar to how the first two books grew.
I am always fascinated to hear from other writers how they midwife a wispy idea into a meaty draft that hangs together as a novel. My own process is not unlike many other writers. I start with an issue that intrigues me, outrages me, somehow ruffles my feathers enough to make me want to dig into it. For instance, Book I of the series, Climbing the Coliseum, arose out of my frustration about tax evasion and anti-government conspiracies, which rear their ugly heads every few years and invariably get someone killed. In Nobody’s Safe Here, the second book in the series, I toggled between wanting to explore school shootings and their underlying drivers on one hand and investigating the long-term consequences of clergy sexual abuse on the other. So I wove them together.
The Bishop Burned the Lady grew out of a story I’d heard about rural sex trafficking, specifically about how many trafficking gangs operate as businesses, but often hide behind a religious cover, pretending to be a usually secret fringe church or cult.
Once I decided this might be a big enough subject with plenty of dramatic and human emotional power, I started the asking myself “what if?” What if sheriff’s deputy Andi Pelton (a main character in the series, set in a small Montana county) was assigned to investigate a suspicious fire in the forest above the town? What if she discovers charred bones in the ashes? What if, between her visits to the fire scene—which perhaps is a murder scene—someone completely removes every clue, down to the bare earth? What if she discovers an old man living in a forest compound—with a dormitory-like building on his property—near the scene of the fire? What if she invests a lot of energy in the old hermit whom she suspects of being the leader of the sex traffickers, but it turns out she’s wrong? What if, after she’s forced to start over, she is suddenly betrayed by her co-investigator? What if she is captured by the real leader of the gang and finds herself with his knife at her throat? What if . . .?
No doubt you recognize that each “what-if” is a turning point that makes things worse for Andi. Each increases the stakes—tightens the tension—for her and for the investigation. Those turning points, once I had fine-tuned them, formed the skeleton of a plot-structure, and once I was satisfied that that skeleton could support real flesh-and-blood and blows to the human spirit and conflict galore, I was ready to start writing the first draft. That’s when it gets fun, for me.
Next, Michele, my wife and a former teacher, read it and wielded her trusty red pencil. Her critique is always invaluable at this stage, because she shows me errors and gaps I failed to see (because I was too close to the story). She points out passages that don’t work so I can either rewrite them–or send them packing. The next draft incorporates her advice–and allows me to tighten and trim the story itself. The third draft then focuses on the writing itself–making it stronger, finding more robust verbs and sharper images, sentences that sing, nouns that pop. Each draft forces me to feel the book as a whole, to satisfy myself that the pace and sequencing, the conflicts and their resolutions, the dialogs and the inner monologs are true to the story and true to the characters. And when I decide they are, it’s time for my editor to take the stage.
Next week, I’ll write about that next step: beta readers and my editor.