That’s my 3-step approach to planning, structuring and writing a chapter. Or a book. Or an essay for that matter. I write narrative nonfiction: biography and cultural history. I’m often trying to capture a time in history, or a particular person’s contribution to history, so I need to research and absorb lots of disparate facts before trying to string it all together into a coherent, engaging narrative.
I’ll take you through the 3 steps I’ve developed, and describe how they work for me.
I also call this phase ‘Dream.’ It’s where I read for hours, days, sometimes a whole week, absorbing everything I can about the subject in question. I prefer to read actual books, especially second-hand ones I’ve found in bookstores or libraries. There’s something more inspiring about the smell of old texts, the yellowing of pre-loved pages. While reading I prefer not to take any notes, but occasionally I’ll jot things down in pencil on 5×3 index cards, each allocated to a different sub-topic. I especially like to record things I might not remember, like quotes, dates, names and facts. After reading for a few days, I go for a long walk or have a sleep, and when I return I . . .
I also call this phase ‘Draw.’ It’s where I activate the right hemisphere of my brain, the visuospatial part, to map out scenes for my chapter, chapters for my book, or if I’m writing an essay the subcomponent ‘pulses’ or ‘beats.’ Each of these scenes is represented by a post-it note, ideally just one word, that might have underneath it several 5×3 cards with details, facts, dates, quotes, etc. Even though I write nonfiction, I like, as much as possible, for the scenes to have the qualities a scene has in fiction: subject/protagonist, action, object, place, time, etc. I like to be able to visualise the scene as if it were in a film. And the post-it notes together must have a dramatic arc that gives narrative shape to the chapter.
Sometimes I find it helpful to do a bit of mind mapping too. There are apps for this, such as Scapple and Simplemind, but I find a big block of white art paper and pencil (and eraser) easier to work with. Here is my mind map of the same chapter, including all the characters that will be involved. (If you’re wondering, this is a chapter on Marie Geoffrin, the greatest salon host of the French Enlightenment, and one of the seven women I explore in my next book, Salonnières.)
Now that I’ve read/dreamed and plotted/drawn, it’s time to put it all away. I have my structure ready. As Hemingway once said:
‘Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.’
When I’m ready to write, I will select whichever post-it note I’m up to, read the 5×3 cards under it, put it all away, go for another walk, and when I come back, start writing non-stop (without notes) until that chapter (usually 1-3,000 words) is complete. I won’t stop to check dates, quotes, etc because that will stop the narrative flow that is so crucial to first drafts. I can always come back later to fill in the missing bits.
Anyhow, that’s my process: Read. Plot. Write. What’s yours? I’d love to hear your thoughts about what I’ve described above, or any other processes you’ve found helpful to get those words flowing in the way you want them to!