My #1 Secret to Start Writing Your First Novel - Hint: It's Not Writing
Updated: Aug 31
This is the first book I used to research A WHITE ROOM. I have a degree in history with a specialty in women's history, but even a degree like that doesn't mean I knew what it was like to live day to day at the turn of the century. To write any novel, historical or not, you need to know as much as possible about what your characters do and encounter every day. Is it set somewhere you aren't familiar with? A different place or time? Are your characters working in jobs that you know nothing about? Do their mannerisms match their personality, their baggage match their childhood traumas? These questions can require some pretty in-depth research, depending on the level of detail you want to include in your writing.
For my book, the house and furniture were going to play a large role, a character in of themselves, so I wanted to have detailed descriptions. The best writers don't stop at sight. They use all the senses, so I researched the feeling of fabrics, the smell of different types of wood, the taste of specific teas and cakes made during the time, and the sound of carriages and insects of the area.
When I first realized I needed to do a lot of research, I headed to my local library in Churchill County, Nevada, and skimmed the stacks for books on the time period (this was before you could find library books online). This one was the first and only title I found that day, but it was the beginning of a six-month research spree. Even after that, I continued to research as I wrote and edited all the way until the final copy editing when I double checked facts. This book is important because it focuses on home life and fueled many of the home scenes in A WHITE ROOM, like Emeline's chore routine, cooking, laundry, mealtimes, and the dinner party details. For me, research is an extremely important part of my creative process. When I get an idea for a story, that's all it is, an idea. I can't build on it from nothing unless I'm already a subject-matter expert in that area or have experienced it for myself. As I research the subject, I get ideas for where the story will go. For example, I did not know that Emeline would become an underground nurse until I started reading about the history of it. That would be my #1 advice to anyone who asks how to start writing their first novel. It's all about research. Even if you aren't writing historical fiction, research is so important. This goes for all genes, including fantasy, from clothing to languages and more.
In addition to your subject matter research, I highly recommend also researching how to write because no one knows everything without doing some digging and learning. Look into any top selling novelist or your favorite novelists, and they will all say that they still study writing because there's so much to know about the skill and there are deep layers of information on every aspect from the macro, like the history of character arcs and ancient storytelling techniques down to the micro, like specific punctuation, word choice and sentence construction. If it's possible to learn it all, by the time you did, you will have forgotten half of it, and there will be just as much new information to look into. Also, many writers say learning about writing helps them break through blocks. The practice has many uses.
So don't get too wrapped up in putting words to paper. The more research you do, the more words will come pouring out.