Kathleen Helms

One Step at a Time – My Recipe for a Novel

It took me about six months and just under 500 miles to write my first novel, A.I. Smith.

Walking frees my mind. I don’t know the science behind it, but I do know it works for me. Every author has their own process.

I have read that Janet Evanovich spends eight hours each weekday and four hours each weekend day working on her novels. T. Jefferson Parker writes each weekday from 9:00-5:00. John Grisham writes ten months out of the year and takes two months off. I walk. 

I’m often asked how I’ve managed to write five novels in four years.

I suppose the first ingredient is desire.

Writing is what I have wanted to do my entire life. I’m finally lucky enough to have the chance and I’m not going to waste it. My goal is to walk and write every weekday.

 

Most days that works out well. If I’m struggling, however, I allow myself to step away from the computer. If inspiration strikes on the weekend I’ll write then. I have a schedule I try to stick to, but I don’t force it.

The second ingredient is what I call the spark.

There is an old saying, truth is stranger than fiction, and I believe that to be true. The spark for A.I. Smith was hearing the story that two supercomputers, one from the United States and one from Russia, had started communicating in their own language. A language that humans did not understand.

 

For those of you who have read A. I. Smith, there is nothing in the novel about these two computers. The story was simply the impetus that sent me on my way and got me researching.

The third ingredient is research.

Everything in all five of my novels is researched and correct. The places are real, and the situations truly could have happened. This genre is called realistic fiction. It is what I prefer to read.

 

I strongly believe that authors should write what they like. That is not the same as writing what you know. Research will allow you to write what you did not know. Writing what you like will make it more real for your readers.

Once you can clearly explain your topic to someone unfamiliar with it, it is time for ingredient number four: characters.

I have two large whiteboards, approximately 3’ x 4’, that I use for character and plot development. On my daily walks, I get to know my characters. Of course, I have to invent the superficial stuff like name and description, but I must also create each character’s backstory.

 

Although the reader may never learn the complete backstory of each character, it is important for me to know it. In this way, the characters drive the story. I build the skeleton, and they flesh it out. While writing Loyalty, I was stalled in a particular scene. My husband, Brett, suggested something. I forget what his suggestion was now, but I recall my response being,

 

“He would never say that.” Brett looked at me like I was crazy. “You are the author,” he said, “they can say whatever you want them to.”

 

It was in that moment that I realized how much power the characters actually have. If you have only one takeaway from these musings, it is this; know your characters and know them well.

 

I use my second whiteboard to map out the storyline; ingredient number five.

Some authors outline from beginning to end before they write a word. This amazes me.

 

I know the beginning and the end when I start writing. The rest comes to me as I walk. I average four miles a day and during this time I basically daydream about whatever scene I am working on. I watch a mental movie during those four miles and then simply describe it for the reader when I get home.

 

Many readers have told me that they feel as if they are actually in the action as they read my novels. I’m sure this comes from those mental movies. When I have ideas throughout my day I jot them on the white board. Whether those ideas are actually included in the novel is determined during my walks.

 

My deep understanding of my characters really comes into play during this time as well. As I said before, the characters drive the action.

Ingredient number six is a critical listener who can be honest. Mine is my husband, Brett. I cannot count the number of hours he has sat and listened to me read all five of my novels. Suffice it to say that he listened to each novel more than a dozen times. His willingness to say the hard words has meant more than I can say.

 

Of course, he says a lot of nice things as well. We have had many in-depth conversations about plot and character over these past four years. I take some of his suggestions, but not all of them.

 

His most important suggestion was creating a detective in A. I. Smith. Loyal Truesdale started out as a very minor character. The more I wrote, the more I came to love him. He is the main character in my second novel, Loyalty; my third, Mistrust; my fourth, Deception; and my fifth, Identity.  

 

All five of my novels have their own unique flavor and feeling, much in the same way that my three adult daughters are related but look and act nothing alike. All five novels are connected, but each can stand alone.

One aspect that is common to all five novels is travel. Many readers have shared with me that they truly enjoyed the fact that the characters went places. Some have even expressed the desire to visit the places the characters went. If I am able, I visit every place and attend every event that I write about.

Perhaps someday, the action will take place on the Valley Center Trail. That is where I can be found most mornings, walking and watching mental movies.

Oh, and just for fun, these musings took me twelve miles to write.

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In loving memory of Mike

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