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April 2019: What Comes First
~ Helen Henderson ~

CTR asked:

Which comes first when you start a new story? The title? The characters’ names? The plot? Explain your starting process and what you need before you can write the first words.

Helen Henderson said:

A story begins with an idea. It might be expanding a storyline from a previous work or the faint memory of a dream from the night before. And if nothing stirs my fancy, there is always the folder of possible story ideas in the bottom desk drawer. As you might have guessed, for me, a plot–or at least the beginnings of one–comes first.
So how to start? Do I sit in front of a blank computer screen? Nope. In fact, when I start a new project I pull a new lined pad or notebook off the shelf and slip in a few blank outline pages in the back of the notebook. Each outline page contains the template for three scenes. Other preparations include setting up a digital file folder, character tracking log, and chapter/word spreadsheet. The last item is to select whatever pen feels good in my fingers that day.
As thoughts come, I jot them down in a scene template. Sometimes the format in linear, other times the muse requires being able to simultaneously see location and activity of all three main point-of-view characters. Although I start off as a plotter, I don’t restrict myself to just a line or two for each scene. If the muse is whispering in my ears, the scene forms are designed that I can input anything from a bullet list of actions to a full-first draft complete with dialog and transitions.
Sometimes I don’t know a character’s name (or his physical description) until several chapters of the story have been written. Backstory is captured as it is appears in the story or as the character tells me. So how you ask, can I write a story without knowing the character’s name. A working name for the main characters serves as a placeholder until the characters tell me their real name. Sometimes there are two to three different iterations until the character decides on a name he or she likes. Sidekicks, spear characters, and town names get literal placeholders, Aaa, Bbb, Ccc, etc. so that I don’t have to tell the muse to hold the thought while I look up the world description, let my fingers do the walking through the name lists, or flip through the English-Gaelic dictionary until I find an appropriate name.
Scene by scene I record the movie as it unfolds in my head. About a third of the way through, the characters tell me they’ve had enough are are taking over. At this point, the outlining of a plotter shifts to the fuller draft writing of a pantser or explorer.

That is not to say a story is written in a smooth sequence. A single line might serve as a reminder to fill in a bit of background or a scene that I know is fighting me. If the beginning doesn’t want to start, I’ll pick up farther in the storyline. The ending is not always in sight when I start a novel. It solidifies once the characters take control.

I admit to being a plotter and to outlining. Forms are tools to be used to expedite the creation of a novel, not to fill one out just to fill it out.


Windmaster Legend by Helen Henderson cover

Windmaster Legend (The Windmaster Novels, #3)

[Historical Fantasy Romance]

A forbidden love. An impossible quest. The accusation of witchcraft.

Can love survive?

What history and time may conceal sometimes refuses to stay lost in memory. Windmaster Legend reveals the story behind the legend of the star-crossed lovers, Iol of the House of Cszabo and Pelra of the House of Pirri.

Fate conspired to keep Iol and Pelra apart. Friendship is allowed between members of competing trading houses, but nothing more. He loves the sea and wants his own ship. She hates the deep blue and has worked too hard to allow her dreams to be sidetracked by the lure of magic. Despite a beautiful woman on his arm every night, Leod wanted the one he couldn’t have—Pelra. His kin on the ruling council did more than put him on the fast track to his own ship. It provided him the power to fulfill his desires, or to ruin those who refused him.

Exiled to distant posts, given impossible challenges, and subject to Leod’s machinations, Iol and Pelra only have the hope of a future together to sustain them. But can their love survive the accusation of witchcraft?

Available in Ebook:


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