Rachel Abbott is psychological thriller writer who has sold over a million novels. Rachel generously shares her views on novel writing with DyingWords followers with this abridged piece which has been republished from her website,

A1The world is full of people who really want to write. For some, it’s a burning ambition. They dream about days of sitting in front of their computer (or even more whimsically, in their attic – with pencil and notebook), having great ideas and getting them all down on paper.

Some of it is like that. It’s exciting seeing your ideas grow and develop and watching the words appear on the page – sometimes it’s as if your sub-conscious has taken over and when you read back your latest chapter you think “where the hell did THAT come from?”. It’s a wonderful experience.

With the growth of self-publishing and the ease with which any writer can publish their work, that dream can become a reality.

But where do you start?

A2I’m sure that everybody writes in a different way. Some people say that they start with the title. Others say they just sit down and write and see what comes out. So I’m just going to talk about what I do – not because it’s the right way, but just because it’s the only way I know.

I start with a question.

In Only the Innocent the question was “What set of circumstances would be so bad that a woman would have absolutely no other option than to kill a man?

A4It had to be a scenario from which she couldn’t escape. But initially each avenue that I pursued left me with a “but she could do this or that” and it took a long time to work out what would make me kill a man. And for me, that’s the way it has to be. I have to think how I would behave, and not just one of my imagined characters.

For The Back Road I thought about a group of people, each with a secret that they need to hide.

The secrets had to be credible – secrets that you might encounter amongst your own friends. Or at least, the majority of them had to be. Perhaps in one case the secret is darker than the rest. Then I asked myself what kind of catalyst would it take to blow everything apart and expose the lies and deceit, and what would be the outcome. I have been to dinner parties or business dinners and seen looks exchanged between people and thought “I wonder what that’s all about?” knowing that I would probably never find out. To me, that dinner party is real.

That is always my starting position – what is the overall issue that the protagonist has to solve.

A22Then comes the incubation time. Once the initial idea is in my head, I start to carry round a notebook and pencil, and each time I have an idea that develops a character or plot point, I jot it down. There are always plenty of false starts – storylines that I begin to develop and then discard. I think that’s fairly normal (at least, I hope so).

Once I have a rough idea of the beginning – the inciting incident (the conflict that begins the action of the story and causes the protagonist to act) – and the end – how the protagonist solves (or doesn’t) the problem – I switch tack. I start to develop my characters, locations and timelines.

For each character, I find a photograph that matches my idea of how they might look.

A9It may be a picture of a famous person, or it might be a random person that I find in images on the Internet. It doesn’t matter. I grab their photo and put it into their character file. Then I begin to develop their characteristics – Age, date of birth, personality, likes, dislikes, greatest strengths and weaknesses, story goal, past traumas – a whole list of details which gives me a very clear idea of who they are and how they would behave. It also means that I know how to describe them, and because it’s all written down, I can always remember how old they are, what they drink, what secrets they have, what job they do.

Next come the locations.

I was recently interviewed for a blog, and the interviewer very kindly said “I find the atmosphere of place very strong in your novels.  I know those villages – I’ve met those people.  How do you get that atmosphere?

A3The answer is that I also know these places – because I have found photographs of interiors and exteriors of all the houses or other locations that are featured. In The Back Road I used Google street view to walk around the Cheshire village that I used as my main location, and found the perfect property for my protagonist. I was inspired by an atrium dining room that I saw on an architectural site, and grabbed that image too. I found a map and worked out which road would be “The Back Road” and then plotted where everybody lived. Only that way could I be sure that journeys were logical. Even at the dinner party, I wrote down the menu and a seating plan. It was important to know where everybody was sitting, so that I knew when people had to lean forward to speak across somebody, or when people’s eyes could meet.

Timelines are really important – and not just the timeline of the book.

A14Most people have a back-story – when did they meet? What are the major events in their lives? The back-story timeline is really important, because I have often read books in which a section has made me stop and think, “How old is this person? Does this make sense?” and anything that slows a reader down is bad news. If you are confident because you have the information in front of you, the reader will feel that confidence.In short, then, I need to know every detail so that when I write about a location or a person I have a very clear vision of them in my mind. In The Back Road, if I had any artistic skills, I could paint you a picture of every room in the house, and how the rooms connect with each other. It’s as clear in my head as my own home, and allows me to write with confidence.

Of course, the important thing is the story!

A16As you will have gathered, I am a fanatical planner, and I use two different pieces of software for my planning. My main tool is a piece of software called Scrivener. This has some fantastic features that I will talk about briefly here, but hope to do a more detailed blog post soon. However, it doesn’t do one thing that I need, and that’s to create the equivalent of a story flowchart. For that – and the initial planning stages – I use Storylines.

With Storylines I can either create a number of story threads, or character threads, and I can see them all at the same time on a cork board using individual ‘cards’. The board is arranged in columns for scenes and rows for character or plot threads. I can move these around and see all on one screen how the story develops and how and when characters appear in the story. It gives me the main outline of my book, and the software does so much more than this. You can write your whole book using nothing else, but there are some elements of Scrivener that I prefer for the writing process.

A5With Scrivener I create folders for each chapter, and then write scenes within a chapter. I can colour code scenes – for example, in The Back Road I coded scenes in relation to the level of tension. I could see when there were spots in which the tension dropped, and it gave me an opportunity to think about the scenes and how to ramp them up a notch.

Similarly, I used keywords extensively. The Back Road has a number of story threads, with huge potential to get lost! So each scene is given one of a number of keywords each of which relates to a thread. I can then search on the keywords, and find all the scenes, allowing me to read one storyline in complete isolation – a fantastic tool for checking consistency and story development. Scenes can be written in any order – once the structure is in place you can add a scene, move it around, put it in an ideas folder for later use – the options are endless. But with the structure in place, the writing can begin.

A8I could talk all day about the tools I use and how they help – but this is supposed to be an overview of how to get started. Remember, I am not for a moment suggesting this is the right way or the only way, but it might give you some ideas of where to start.

*   *   *

A15Rachel Abbott has written four psychological thrillers which, combined, have sold over one million copies. She self-published Only the Innocent in November 2011. It raced up the UK charts to reach the top 100 within 12 weeks and quickly hit the #1 spot in the Amazon Kindle chart (all categories) and remained there for four weeks. 

A10Only the Innocent was so successful that it was re-edited and the new version was launched in the US by Thomas and Mercer in paperback, audio, and Kindle versions on 5th February 2013, hitting the number one spot in the Kindle Store in August 2013. Her second book, The Back Road, was also published by Thomas and Mercer.

Her third book, Sleep Tight, was published in February 2014 and her newest, Stranger Child, was released last month.

A13Rachel Abbott was born just outside Manchester, England. She spent most of her working life as the Managing Director of an interactive media company, developing software and websites for the education market. The sale of that business enabled her to fulfil one of her lifelong ambitions – to buy and restore a property in Italy.

Rachel now lives in Alderney – a beautiful island off the coast of France, and is now able to devote time to her other love – writing fiction. For more information, see Rachel’s website, or follow her on Twitter.

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  1. Sheila Good

    I’m so thrilled to have found your site. I too use Scrivener and you gave me some wonderful tips to make it work even better for me. Thanks so much for such an informative post. I look forward to reading more of them.

  2. Dave F

    Scrivener is a must, I would hate to go back to anything else now. And Aeon Timeline syncs with it for timelines very nicely.

    The main learning curve that I found with Scrivener was that it was different to any other word processor in mindset as well as looks. Once I got over that and learnt how to use it best for my way of working (rather than adapting my workflow to the software as was often the case with Word) I never looked back. You can keep your research in it, your story beats, your character and location details… It’s the Swiss Army Knife for writers.

    If you do want a little more hand-holding with it, then I can recommend Scrivener Coach who has released a very comprehensive series of tutorials. To get a feel for them, follow him on Twitter and attend one of the free webinars that he does frequently in conjunction with various bloggers and authors.

  3. Rebecca Vance

    Gary, I am the same way! I am a very green newbie, and although I can do basic software programs (very basic), I am far from technologically competent. Scrivener sounds like a godsend, to those able to use it well, but I also worry about the learning curve. I have Evernote, but haven’t used it yet. It is free, opposed to Scrivener. Does anyone know the differences between them and whether or not Scrivener is much better? Sorry for getting off topic. I’m back now. I was glad to hear that I am not the only one that has many false starts. I’ve had several on my first novel, WIP. I can’t seem to plot ahead, I have a block when it comes to outlining, and it stops me in my tracks–yet, without some planning, it is hard to know where I am headed. So, it happens that I keep trying to plot and nothing is getting written. I thought it was just me! How do you know when you are on the right track?

    1. Garry Rodgers Post author

      Good question, Rebecca… how do you know when you’re on the right track? I’d say the only way to proceed is just by doing it. Sounds simple, but it’s a matter of just putting down words. Knowing the craft of storytelling is critical and, fortunately, there’s so many resources available. Sue Coletta, a regular DyingWords follower and fellow crime writer, highly recommends “Story Engineering” by Larry Brooks. Here’s a link to Sue’s piece on “Story Engineering”. Sue’s going to have Larry Brooks as a guest on her blog shortly.

  4. Sue Coletta

    My process is very similar, but I use old-fashion index cards instead of Scrivner. I’ve never heard of Storylines before. I’ll have to check that out. Google Earth is a godsend, especially when you use real streets like I did in my last novel. Don’t want to use a real house number and get sued. Yikes! And I love your idea about seating charts, too. Excellent points made here. Lots of food for thought!

    1. Garry Rodgers Post author

      I’m like you, Sue – kinda old fashioned. My first novel was a total plotster with graphs, timelines, character profiles, and cross-link analysis. The one is a pantster with the story evolving as I write. I think Rachel makes a great point about starting the story with a question and going from there. Regarding Scrivner, I see many others using it & highly recommending it. I’m barely competent in Word – I’m leery about the learning curve. What’s other’s opinions?


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