Beginning to write a novel is like many little fires burning. A flame of a topic bursts into your awareness. A spark of character lights your horizon. A site for murder burns into your consciousness. Then a catalytic event, like an accelerant, intensifies the little fires into the conflagration of an idea: this could make a terrific story! And the process of a new book begins.
P.D. James, author of literary crime thrillers, at a 2010 Literary Festival at Dartington Manor, Devon, speaking of her writing process, pointed to place as the most common catalyst for her novels. Whether the awareness hit suddenly or evolved slowly, she prickled with the knowledge that this particular place would be the scene of a crime in one of her novels.
For Better Dead Than Bred, the place struck me first. My partner and I were at an evening agility class for our two shelties on the property of the dogs’ breeder. Located only a few kilometres outside Winnipeg, surrounded by farms and protected by a grove of spruce, the yard was perfect for running and barking shelties. The fields beyond boasted an unused airstrip, desired by local farmers for irrigation and weed control purposes, but unavailable to be rented because the growl of the planes’ engines would distress the puppies. Old farm buildings loomed over the agility field, lit by the flaming sun sinking beneath the prairie horizon. I shivered, but not with the cooling night air. Rather I felt what P.D. James spoke about: this would be the site of my next novel.
Immediately, the threads of a story began to knit together. A drug cabal wanted to buy the property and camouflage the airstrip to import illegal substances. Finding the owners unwilling to sell, the leader would seduce the breeder’s mother, who lived in her own cottage on the property, and gradually take over. By the end of the agility class, my storyline consumed my thinking processes so much that I guided my dog through the wrong half of the agility course.
While my head was still swelling with burgeoning ideas, after the agility class, I spoke with my breeder, to ask if she would mind my using her home as the site of a crime in my next novel. She gave me an enthusiastic “yes!”
My sheltie friends, overhearing my request, were full of suggestions.
The plot did not develop at all as I had begun to plan it that night. However, the property became the site for a puppy mill in my story and the airstrip and outbuildings inspired the helipad and general layout of Paradise, the centre of evil in the novel.
In the meantime, my conversation with my agility buddies had two significant consequences, which I will write about in my next two blogs.
Sharon J. Hamilton has taught English in every grade, from one through master’s level, during her forty-year career. She earned a PhD in language and literacy at the University of London and has participated in writing seminars at Corpus Cristi College, Oxford, and the Faber Academy, London.