Dec 15, 2010

When the Story Truly Starts by MM Bennetts

To be honest, a novel starts for me well before I get anywhere near that first draft. It starts life as a series of unconnected scenes and passages of descriptive writing in a notebook or in several notebooks.

I don't write when I feel I have nothing to say. Instead, I allow the first ideas of character, of plot and of 'what-ifs' to develop in my head, to grow there, to ferment.

During this period of time, I'll also be doing large amounts of historical research, and all that I'm discovering will be going into this fictional synthesis in my head.

I always carry a notebook with me. Always. Because I find that walking with the iPod or driving or spending time on a train or in a museum will really get those ideas knocking about--and at that point, scenes and conversations will start pouring out. As and when they pour, I write--long-hand. Rather like a scribe just taking it all down.

So long before I sit down at the iMac to write that first draft, I have a great deal of the action, much of the dialogue, and certainly a strong sense of my characters, very firmly in my head and on the pages of my notebooks.

I create a novel scene by scene and chapter by chapter. Yes, I have the idea of where I want the novel to go, what ideas I want to cover, perhaps a couple of sub-themes which I wish to pursue, but from the moment I start writing at the computer, it's all allowed to grow organically.

So I get writing. First draft will be generally be absolute rubbish.

But I print it out, leave it for a couple of hours or even overnight, read it, take the red pen to it (lots of red pen), cross out, write over, write notes all along the margins, then incorporate all of that into the text. Then I rip those printed pages, throw them over my shoulder, and the piles on the floor begin.

Only when I've got that chapter to the state that I believe is as near perfect as I can make it (and that might be fourteen or fifteen rewrites later), only then do I move onto the first draft of the next scene or chapter.

It's probably not the most efficient way to work, but I suspect that it's down to all those years as a book critic that I don't feel able to allow anything out of my hands that isn't ready for publication at that moment. And it works for me.


Educated at Boston University and St Andrews, M.M. Bennetts is a specialist in the economic, social and military history of Napoleonic Europe. The author is a keen cross-country and dressage rider, as well as an accomplished pianist, regularly performing music of the era as both a soloist and accompanist. Bennetts is a long-standing book critic for The Christian Science Monitor.

The author is married and lives in England.

Bennetts’ latest book is Of Honest Fame.

You can visit the author’s website at

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