Five Things: practical ways to bring your novel to life

Emma Healy Photo credit: Martin Figura
Category: Writing

When you’re beginning to write a book it’s easy to become overly focused on the word count and forget about all the other things you need to do to bring your novel to life. But at some point you might get the feeling that just putting words on the page, one after another after another, isn’t going to be enough. You may feel the need for more solid things to work from, more intense observations and new sources of inspiration too.

The five things below are the ways I tried to make my fictional world richer, realer and more navigable, both for me as a writer and, hopefully, for the reader too.


1. Keeping a novel plan

What I did:

I kept a very detailed novel plan. It was split into chapters, with each scene summed up in a separate paragraph. The scenes set in the present were in plain text, the scenes in the past were in italics, every character who appeared in the scene was highlighted in bold. At the beginning, while I was drafting the book each scene also had a colour – blue if it hadn’t been written yet, pink if it had been written but not edited, yellow if I’d shown it to my workshop group and no colour if I’d got as far as I felt I could with it.

Why this was useful:

I don’t write in a linear fashion, and I was often writing on the hop – on my commute, in the evenings, during lunch breaks. It would have been really easy to forget what was going on in the plot, what I’d written and what I hadn’t, whether something was finished or not and whether I’d shown it to my workshop group already (I don’t believe in showing people the same section too many times as the feedback becomes less objective each time). It helped me to see whether the plot was balanced, check that the pace was consistent, and make sure certain characters had enough of a role to justify their presence. There was also a certain kind of satisfaction to watching the plan turn pink and then yellow and then plain black and white, and know that I was getting there - sometimes this was all that kept me going.

The plan helped me to see whether the plot was balanced, check that the pace was consistent, and make sure certain characters had enough of a role to justify their presence.

Do you need this?

If you write in sequence and your plot is fairly straight-forward and linear, then a plan may not be necessary, but even the simplest-seeming stories have a lot of depth to them and it’s easy to get lost between scenes. A novel plan also helps with writing a plot summary for agents, later, as you’ll already have broken the book down into the most important elements.


2. Visiting settings

What I did:

I went to Bournemouth on a (very glamorous) research trip. My book was ostensibly set there, and although I wasn’t looking for total accuracy – I’d already cut up maps to suit the purposes of fiction – I did want to get a better feel for the kind of surroundings which would be familiar to my characters. When I got there I bought souvenirs, picked up bits and pieces from the roads and countryside (bus tickets, shells, leaves, etc), wrote down things I thought would be interesting to describe, anything that my characters might be able to interact with, anything that they would find an obstacle, the sounds and smells of the place, how busy it was, how light, how quiet or noisy.

Why this was useful:

Later, when I was trying to make a scene more vivid, this wealth of material came in handy. In Bournemouth I was surprised by the wealth of colour – red bricks, blue sky, dark green foliage and orange pine needles all over the pavements – and that went into the book. The landscape also often suggested plot points, or how a scene might change in direction and allow me to find out something more about my character. The bright sunlight and the way it cuts into you along the south coast gave me the idea of my protagonist blindly following another character.

Do you need this?

An imagined landscape can seem very stale on the page and so a few sharp points, a few really vivid descriptions, can help to lift it and make it feel fresh. It might be difficult to get to the Sahara desert, but a duney beach on a hot day might give you an idea you haven’t had before. If you’re writing about the car manufacturing plants of 1980s Detroit and can’t afford the flight (or travel back in time) the very least you could do is go and hang out with a mechanic for a bit. Even if you only come away with one usable observation, one thing to bring your fictional world to life, it’s worth it.


3. Drawing or making maps

What I did:

I drew plans of my protagonist’s house, her daughter’s house, her brother in law’s, and her friend’s houses. I also printed out, cut up and glued together images from Google maps to create my own picture of her local area.

Why this was useful:

Making the surroundings more concrete meant that I felt I knew my characters’ world as well as they did and I never had that confusion about whether one of them should be turning left or right to get to their destinations, and I never described something as being within reach when it was far beyond it. Maps also gave me a sense of purpose, they showed me how an area was being used, whether my character had more space or less than I thought. House plans work in a similar way, and I added details in too – where the sofa was in relation to the television, etc. (If I hadn’t wanted to draw the plans I could have found programs online or used existing floorplans on property websites, eg. Rightmove.)

Making the surroundings more concrete meant that I felt I knew my characters’ world as well as they did

Do you need this?

Characters tend to move around and it’s a good idea for a writer to keep track of where they go and how they get there. Travel is a considerable part of our lives (even if it’s just the journey to and from work) and it makes sense to think about what kind of travelling your characters might do, how they get around, and how mobile they actually are. This is likely to have a big impact on the way you tell your story and the direction the plot takes too.


4. Making a family tree (or a character list)

What I did:

I kept a list of names and relationships of all my characters. Maiden names and married names, nick names and who might use them. I even had a list of possible pet names although most of those don’t appear in the book. I then drew out a family tree and connected everyone, adding how well they knew each other and when they’d first met.

Why this was useful:

Although most of my characters’ first names didn’t change, their last names did and it helped to keep a list so that I could remember my latest choice and wouldn’t end up with any embarrassing mix up later. Thinking clearly about how my characters were connected, and for how long, told me a lot about the way they should interact with each other, and made it easier for me to get them to talk to each other naturally.

Do you need this?

There are many moments, especially in the editing of a novel, when you might change your mind about someone, and keeping a list or family tree means that you can make quite major changes without losing track of who a character is or how they fit into your story. It’s also great to have a cast list for workshops. People can get very hung up on who’s who when they’re giving feedback on later chapters, and having all the characters’ names and relationships in a handy document saves time (which means you have more to spend on the really important criticism).


5. Acting out your scenes

What I did:

I went blackberry-picking, spent hours looking for moss on brick walls which I could pick off with my fingernails, and often got up from my desk to make the movements my characters were supposed to be making in the scenes I was writing. I crouched and stretched and hid in cupboards to be sure of the way those things felt and to try and find new ways of describing them. I even asked my boyfriend to push me backwards part-way over a bannister so I could see what that felt like, though he refused to do this.

Why this was useful:

I’m a big advocate of reading your work aloud as this is the best way to gauge if dialogue in particular sounds right or realistic. Acting out bits of a scene is the physical version. Sometimes I will think I’ve got some active description right, but it sounds stilted or laboured and I need a simpler, more immediate way of expressing it. Other times I will know something is wrong with a description, but I can’t work out what that is until I’ve tried the action out myself.

Do you need this?

There will often be new sensations which you’ll notice when acting out the movements of a character and which you’d never have thought of just trying to imagine the action. Getting up and moving around in the way your character might will make you think about how that character might move differently from you, what shape their body is, how physically fit they are (or aren’t) and how they fill a space. This will give you hints as to how they interact with the space as well as the people around them. 

Emma will be appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Tuesday 12 August.

Emma Healey

Emma Healey grew up in London where she completed her first degree in bookbinding (learning how to put books together but not how to write them). She graduated from the MA in Creative Writing: Prose at UEA in 2011. Elizabeth is Missing is her first novel.