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My Messy Writing Process

"So how do you actually write a book?"

A question I get occasionally from non-writers, but one that always freezes me to the core and wipes my mind completely blank.

"Oh, I don't know," I usually reply with a nervous laugh. "Come up with some ideas, write them down, edit it about a thousand times, and see if people want to read it."

Which not only is completely unhelpful, it doesn't exactly inspire confidence that the book is going to make any sense, does it?

And as a writer, I'm always interested to learn how other people tackle their writing, so I'm using this blog post as a multipurpose excercise:

Firstly, to get my thoughts in order so I maybe don't clam up quite to much when someone asks that question

Secondly so the curious reader can lift the curtain and see what goes into creating a book

And thirdly (and the one that is probably why most people are reading this) is so my fellow authors can snoop around behind the scenes, and hopefully reaslise that they're doing things in a much more orderly and logical way that this hack over here.

Hey, fellow authors! I see you over there

So, rather briefly, this is how I write a book. Specifically, historical murder mysteries, in case you're new here and have stumbled across my blog without having a clue who I am or what I write.

DISCLAIMER: I'm not saying that this is the way to write a book, or that this is how I recommend writing a book, or that I've even got my writing process sorted out. I'm definitely not saying that last one, as I expect (hope) that it'll change and improve over time. However, right now at the start of 2023, this is kinda how I do it.

Okay, so now we've established that this is in now way intented as a guide, or advice (except perhaps as a cautionary tale), shall we get started?

Yeah, all right, I get the point. Off we go, then...


Step 1: Find an idea and fit the rest of the story around it

Like it's just that easy, right?

Well, actually, this is generally not too much of a problem for me. I have a cast of regular characters who I know pretty well by now* so I don't need to worry about creating a whole new set of characters and settings each time. Lazy mode, right?

*But if you don't know Lucas and co. yet, you can pick up book one on all the Amazon sites now. Here's the link to it on the US site, and here's the UK version - or, if you're feeling really keen and like getting three books for the price of two, you can get the first three books in a box set here (US) and here (UK)

I have a more detailed blog post planned for later in the year on how I get the starting point ideas for my books, but briefly, there a 4 points in a mysteries that need to be there for it to work:

1: Murder method (which here I mean to be the actual means e.g. poison, being stabbed, etc, and I figure out the opportunity part later)

2: Vctim

3: Killer

4: Motive

and, because my amateur sleuth Lucas can see and speak to ghosts (no matter how much he doesn't want to), I have a fifth point that most mystery writers don't have to consider:

5: Why the ghost can't/won't just tell Lucas what happened.

Point 5 is often the trickiest point to work out.

But basically, I take an idea for any one of those points as a place to start, and work out how the other points need to look in order for the story to work.

It's kinda like working out a logic puzzle: If THIS is true, then what other things need to be true for that to make sense? And if THAT's also true, then where does the next thing come in? And so on, until I know every point from that list above.

For example, if there's a particular poison derived only from a rare plant from South America, I need to work out how that would've ended up in 1920s England, who would have access to it, and why that person would want to use that poison to kill someone.

Most likely, someone like a bontanist would have something like that in a greenhouse. They probably have family, friends, collegues, competition, and, because they'd likely have a bit of money, servants, all of whom would be able to access this poison fairly easily too - or become victims. We now have a set of potential victims and killers/suspects.

And if, for the sake of this example, we assume the botanist is the victim, we need to go through each suspect and figure out why they'd want them dead. Jealousy? Love gone wrong? Money? To keep a secret? Any of those would do, plus a dozen more possible motives, and at this point, it's usually just a case of picking the most intesting combination of suspects, and we'll pick the Killer from this list later.

We now have the Method, Victim, Killer (sort of), and Motive (again, sort of) in place, plus a handy pack of red herrings to drop around the place.

And as the method in this case is poison, that could've been added to the victim's food or drink at any time, so it's perfectly reasonable that the botanist wouldn't know for sure who killed them. But do they suspect someone? Is their guess correct? Are they hiding something from Lucas to protect someone - or their reputation? There's loads of reasons why the ghost can't/won't help Lucas, and again, it's a case of picking the one that most makes sense with the story, and is the most interesting.

This process is a lot of fun, but it usually ends up with a lot of nonsense around the parts I'll actually use, so the next stage is refinement.


Step 2: Refining the Idea

This part is easy, really, and kinda blurs with step 1 because I often start to see the shape of the story as I'm brainstorming things out, but at this stage, I basically make a list of all the things I figured out/decided on in Step 1, so that I don't have to sift through my initial notes when I get stuck later.


Step 3: Working out how Lucas and co fit into the story

There's a reason my main man is a newspaper reporter, and that's so I have an excuse to send him into places he wouldn't necessarily go to if he was, say, a baker, or a stockbroker, or a farmer. I told you, I'm a lazy writer.

However, I don't rely on his job all the time. It's usually a case of him just running across a spirit wherever he happens to be - but regardless, I need to know how he fits in to this story, and roughly how he's going to figure it out, or I'm going to be in a right mess later on.

That usually happens regardless of what I do in the planning stages, but that's by the by.


Step 4: Write the First Draft

I bet you were expecting me to write an outline around about now, right?

Well, I usually try. I try scene by scene lists, I write a very drafty version of each scene - but this almost invariably ends up being a waste of time as something will change on me and be a much better idea, and I'll have to scrap at least half of my beautifully constructed outline.

So for my current book, I've got really clear on the 5 points above and how Lucas and co fit into the story, and now I'm just... telling the story.

I'll need to go back and fix things later - take out the rambling parts, move things around, drop clues throughout the story, that sort of thing - but for now, I'm just seeing where the story takes me, and if I end up somewhere near that skeleton of a plan, I'll consider it a successful first draft.

So far, so good, by the way. This is basically the way I've accidentally been writing all along, I'm just accepting it this time around!

Note For The Curious: I write my first drafts in the onine writing RPG 4 The Words and copy it scene by scene into a Word doc. If you want to give 4TW a try and see if their writing sprint-based system will work for you too, head over to and sign up for a trial :)

And if you use code RNMGS22954 then we'll both get some in-game currency if you decide to move to the paid subscription - it only costs a few dollars a month and almost instantly sent my word counts through the roof, so personally, it's well worth the money


Step 5: Spellcheck

"This isn't a real step!" I hear you cry.

Well, I don't do this along the way, so it takes some time. Also, I don't use the built-in spellchecker on Word, I use ProWritingAid (which has a free version if you want to just try it out) which is a lot more in-depth and gives hints about writing structure etc. as well as correcting typos.

So, it usually takes a while to get through, and a lot of things can change at this stage, not only thanks to ProWritingAid, but because I'll spot things along the way that need altering. It's kind of like a mini edit.


Step 6: Read 'Em And Weep

I print the manuscript off, grab a pen, and start reading. As you can probably guess from the heading I've chosen for this step, this generally isn't fun and involves a lot of red ink.

This is basically my structural edit stage, and the point when a lot of big changes happen.


Step 7: Put Those Edits On The Computer

Whilst I never actually rewite a full manuscript, this stage usually changes the next printout beyond all recognition from that first printout. Some parts need completely rewriting, new scenes sometimes get added, sometimes I'll scrap thousands of words at this stage. It ain't pretty.

I'll also run another round of ProWritingAid, as typos usually sneak in at this stage.


Step 8: Read It Again, Sam

I read through it again on the computer and make changes as I go. This is usually a lighter pass over the manuscript, though there can still be fairly major changes happening at this point.


Step 9: Listen Very Carefully...

Did you know there's an option on the Review tab in Word to have it read your document to you?

I didn't until recently, but it's a brilliant way to catch missing words, misused words, clunky sentences etc.

This usually takes a quite a while, as I'm making corrections as I go, but it's well worth doing.


Step 10: Seeking and Using Feedback

As you've probably guessed by the lack of "... and then I send it to my editor" in the previous steps, I self edit. This is partially because I actually enjoy breaking a story apart and rebuilding it in a better way, but mostly because editors are (quite rightly) expensive and unfortunately, my budget won't stretch to hiring one at the moment.

So until I can afford an editor, to make sure the story makes sense, I ask trusted friends and family to read it and let me know what works and what doesn't. I then make changes based on that, do another round (or two... or three) of ProWritingAid and listening, and call it done.


Step 11: It Never Ends

But it's not really done.

It never can be. There's always something else that could be changed - a sentence that could be tweaked to be more effective, a bit of dialogue that could be snappier, yet aother typo that slipped through the net.

However, at some point, I have to just let it go.

Sometimes, I have to let it go because I've announced a release date already and I'm out of time.

Preferably, I let it go when I'm making fewer than half a dozen very minor changes on the first 5-10 pages and I decide it's not worth carrying on with the editing pass.

And usually, by this stage I've done the early steps for the next book already, so I'm more excited about getting started on that than worrying about whether three words could be changed on page 52.

Then, of course, it's on to the cover and the formatting and the uploading and the promotion and...

But at least the story is done, right?


So, there you have it! That is how I write a book.

Is it perfect? No.

Does it work for me? Mostly, but it could be better. It will be better.

Will it work for another author? No idea. As I said at the top, this isn't a guide to writing anything, just how I do it. Feel free to try it though!

And as you've probably guessed, I'm partway through this set of steps at the moment with the next book in the series. I usually start talking about a new book as I hit Step 7, so if you want to be kept up to date with this and future projects, make sure you're signed up to my newsletter and following me on Instagram and Facebook :)


That's all for today! I hope you found this post interesting and/or useful, and I'll be back soon to share an author interview with my friend, thriller writer Stephanie M. Matthews :)


Saff xx

P.S. Don't forget to check out my books on Amazon to see what the end result of all this planning and writing and editing is! Just head over to your local store and search for the Lucas Rathbone Mysteries, and they should all show up *crosses fingers*

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