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How Do You Begin A Novel?

When I first started writing I used to think that there was nothing in the world quite as intimidating as a blank sheet of paper. A thought I was reminded of only a few days ago when staring at one myself, waiting for the inspiration to begin my new novel, the next in the series after The Pindar Diamond.

There is something about it that always seems - well, so improbable somehow.

It always feels as though there’s something else I should be doing. Some sort of preparation: reading, researching, dancing round a maypole, perhaps? It’s the reason that writers’ houses are always supposed to be so terribly clean. We are forever putting off the evil moment.

It’s hard beginning any book, but novels are particularly difficult. Before you start it, a novel is something that does not yet exist. It is – what? A thought. A feeling. A castle in the air. In my own case, a ghostly presence (the character of John Carew) who has been stalking me for the last 15 years, damn him, wanting his moment in the sun.

Here are a few strategies that I’ve tried over the years. If beginning at the very beginning seems too daunting, I try writing small fragments (a description of a character or a place, or a piece of dialogue) which might end up at any point in the novel.

On Monday I started by writing a scene that I’ve had in my head for many months now. It’s rural England, 1606. Sometime towards a winter nightfall. A man in ragged clothes is making his way down an ancient drover’s path. Who is he? Where has he come from? Where’s he heading?

At first, it’s all horribly creaky, but I spend all Monday and Tuesday fleshing out a description of the man and the drover’s path (it helps that I have a real location in mind), and by Wednesday, suddenly, things are beginning to happen.

Everything I’ve been doing this week begins to feed into that one scene. I think of the photographic portraits I went to see at a friend’s exhibition on Bankside (Tessa Traeger: Voices of the Vivrais) and somehow they insinuate their way into my description of the man - who then mysteriously becomes two men.

My mystery man now has a companion, some sort of... well, he looks like a vagabond, or a country type that used to be called a ‘moocher’. Who is he? What’s he doing there? And where is he going?

So: how do you begin a new novel?

Firstly, don’t wait for inspiration. Inspiration comes during the actual process of writing, not while you’re waiting to begin.

Instead: put a date in your diary. Sit down. Start writing.

Katie Hickman is the author of six previous books, including two bestselling history books, Courtesans and Daughters of Britannia. She has written two travel books: Travels with a Circus, about her experiences travelling with a Mexican circus, which was shortlisted for the 1993 Thomas Cook Travel Book Award, and Dreams of the Peaceful Dragon, about a journey on horseback through the forbidden Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. She was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Young British Writer of the Year award for her novel The Quetzal Summer. Katie Hickman lives in London with her two children and her husband, the philosopher A.C. Grayling.

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