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Tuesday, 14 April 2020

Colour-code your characters. It’ll save a lot of confusion.

The Nebraska Sandhills, where most  of the new novel takes place

What is writing a novel like? The beginning: a ride through a spring wood. The middle: the Gobi Desert. The end: going down the Cresta run.’

That Edith Wharton knew a thing or two, didn’t she?

I surprised myself by starting a novel in Scotland. I got 20,000 words down in quite a hurry. And I fooled myself into thinking it really was going to be that easy. Twenty thousand a month, I calculated, meant 60,000 by midsummer. Another month for straightening out the bends, and bingo. Should be done by about August.

Yes. I know. And thank you to that part of my brain which always – always – wants to reduce everything to simple mathematics. Will you please shut up?

The beginning was such an easy ride. I had a character on a long journey, by car. Portland, Oregon to western Nebraska, in a winter storm. He’s eighty years old, so he can think about all kinds of past experiences as he ticks off the miles along Interstate 80. He can spin yarns, reminisce, express opinions. All good entertaining stuff. When he arrives in the Panhandle, he puts up in a hotel, and thinks about the ordeal ahead of him: a visit to the ranch where he grew up sixty years ago, and to the nursing home where his sister has had a stroke. I skipped through that lot. It was a piece of cake. Not so much a ride through a spring wood as a barefoot run across warm sands towards a tropical sea.

And then. Then I started to ponder how to take it forward. How to account for my man’s life over the past six decades. How to explain his refusal ever to return home over the same period. What exactly was the unspeakable act by his father that drove him away? Why didn’t he even come back for the old man’s funeral? And so on.

Over the past six weeks I have written endless notes to myself. I have compiled  timelines for several major characters, both living and dead. I have stared out of the window even more than usual. I have sweated over a huge wall-chart where all my characters’ lives are laid out in parallel. (It’s a pity the wallpaper I used didn’t let the post-it notes adhere to it, meaning that half of them are now on the floor. How I wished I’d stuck to my plan and colour-coded them.)

And then the problem of how to relay all the information I have about the guy’s father (dead these thirty years), his grandfather, who conked out in 1953 when my protagonist was thirteen. Throw in a character we have yet to meet who may be my man’s real father and will most likely have to be murdered before I’ve finished – or at the very least ‘disposed of’. And weave in a role for the author Mari Sandoz, who was courted by pop for twenty years until she shook him off.… These things can tax a fellow’s brain.

However. I have somehow squeezed out a further 12,000 words and am ready to set out across the Gobi (see Wharton, above).

Still crossing sand, and no whiff of the sea. Yet.


  1. Sarah J9:40 pm

    When I used to make documentaries it always came down to coloured Post-It 'carpets', literally entire floors covered like mosaics. Writing may be by definition a literary form but somehow it's still good to visualise the arc of the story. Good luck in the Gobi. Sarah

  2. Oh, I am at EXACTLY this stage myself, at the mo., Alan!!! (..but I am now sitting down to write you a disgracefully overdue email...I promise) x


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