To which the answer generally tends to be one of several possibilities: (a) “A novel, eh? Yeah, I’ve often thought of doing that, too, but I just don’t have the time” or (b) A polite “Oh, that’s very interesting” with an immediate segue onto a topic of more egocentric relevance to the speaker, or (c) “That’s amazing! I could never do that!”
By the way, folks, just so we’re all on the same page --- no pun intended --- (a) is just plain insulting. It’s denigrating an achievement, like telling someone that yeah, you too could have been an Olympic calibre athlete if it wasn’t for that pesky hangnail. And (b) simply illustrates our society’s growing inability to genuinely care about other people. So (c) is the best answer, especially if you follow it up with a breathlessly gushy, “How do you do that?” Especially if you want to see a writer actually purr. Or at least preen.
How do I do that? Well, I write. One word at a time, as Stephen King has so famously said. I don’t think there’s any kind of magical process involved in the act, as so many people seem to think. I start. Then continue. And finally, finish. That’s a glib answer, I know, but it’s essentially true. Although that’s not to denigrate the creative act, which obviously looms large over the entire enterprise. (Without it, we’re just slinging words together… which any illiterate teen used to be able to do verbally, but now can only do via text.)
I wouldn’t say I do a lot of research, for a couple of reasons. First of all, I’m writing fantasy set in my own world, so, my world, my rules. At least most of the time, and at least as far as its physical construction and development goes. That’s one of the great strengths of free-lancing. You’re not going to get someone coming back to you and saying, “they didn’t do it this way.” Of course, the flipside of that freedom is that you don’t have the benefit of someone else’s blueprints, so you’ve got to make it all up yourself. The second reason I wouldn’t say I do a lot of formal research is because, if you’re walking around in our world, observing and noting the people and events taking place, you’re already doing research.
In any event, the main thing you’ve got to focus on is interior logic. You can make things as different and wild as you want in your world, but they’ve got to be consistent within the framework that you create. It’s when they don’t that people stop their willingness to suspend disbelief. And at that point, as a storyteller, you’re in big trouble.
People who know me would assume I’m a plotter (someone who plans the story out in excruciating detail in advance), because I’m fairly meticulous in most areas of my life. But I’m not. I’m more a pantser (as in, flying by the seat of my). I used to write detailed outlines for chapters, but abandoned that approach relatively quickly. Why? Because I found, when you got into the groove of actually writing, a story is a lot like life, in that you can plan things all you want, but if you’re smart, you don’t expect things to happen exactly as you planned. People can be unpredictable --- they aren’t always, but they definitely can be. Because life is definitely unpredictable… Robert Heinlein spoke in one of his books about all military organizations (an, by implication/extension, life itself) consisting of a Surprise Party Department, a Practical Jokes Department, and a Fairy Godmother Department. He notes that “the first two process most matters as the third is very small: the Fairy Godmother Department is one elderly female GS-5 clerk usually out on sick leave.’ But what between life’s surprise parties, practical jokes and fairy godmother interventions, life’s unpredictability makes it well-nigh impossible, in my humble correct opinion, to plan out a story plot for very much more than a chapter, if that. Which is not nearly as awful as one might think. If you want your characters to be alive, to be real living beings, why would you want or expect them to behave like marionettes on your strings? Be grateful for that unpredictability. It demonstrates that you’re not just dealing with cardboard cut-outs. That’s not to say I don’t plan anything at all, especially if I’m stuck and none of the characters feels like helping me. (Yes, that’s a thing.) I’ll sit down and hand-write almost a Q and A session for myself. You know, ‘if this happens, or so-and-so does this, then what?’ it pretty much always works, or at least provides grist for the mill.
And the word count grows. So and so does this, which means that the other guy will do that in response, which in turn means that this happens, and… so on, one word at a time. Just like life. How did the old soap opera intro go? “Like sands through the hourglass, these are the days of our lives…” And eventually, months (or years, with some of us, sometimes --- but that’s a story for another time) later, you have somewhere north of 50,000 words… a novel. You have had, in the words of author James Branch Cabell, “literary parturition” i.e. you have given birth to a story.
‘Tis truly a wondrous thing, to be sure.