I begin with an image of a character. Often strong, female, and in terrible circumstances. My characters are often young–I’m preoccupied by the themes associated with coming of age. They are usually members of broken families. One or more of their parents are dead. The men that love them do so because of their strength, in spite of the fact that it sometimes pushes them away. I write biographies for these characters.
I see these women in a place in history. I research this place until I know it inside and out. I look at many, many pictures. I interview people in any way associated with the time and place. Through this research, the plot starts to emerge.
I don’t outline–that feels far too mathematical–but I do have pages and pages of notes that are born of my historical research. I do need timelines. I often write out pages of dialogue before I know where they’ll go in the story. I write scenes I know I won’t use–either sexual or cliche in nature–to get them out of my system so they won’t nag at me, and so I know they are roads I’ve explored even though I know they’ll lead me nowhere.
Then I start to weave the fragments and dialogues and descriptions into a story, the way a quilter would put together a blanket. Sometimes I have to tear out stitches and place them in other places. Often I’m surprised what patterns emerge.
When writers say that characters write themselves, it’s true. I’m often amazed at the things my characters do. I’m surprised by the people they meet and the circumstances in which they find themselves. But as long as I understand their motivations and desires, the events in the story tie up as they should.
But it doesn’t matter how you go about writing, or even what you write. What matters is habit. Writing is a muscle. It must be used every day–sometimes rigorously. Sometimes you have to do it until you hurt. Sometimes you will beat yourself up because you were weak. Other times, your strength will surprise you.
Ernest Hemingway only averaged 500 words a day, and look at what a prolific writer he was. Whatever your process, just get the words on the paper. Find your stories and tell them.