It may go without saying that, experimental forms of writing notwithstanding, a good story is at the heart of good fiction. And I assumed for many years that knowing what the story will be is a prerequisite to putting pen to paper. I saw no chicken or egg quandary; story first, writing to follow. My experience leads me to conclude otherwise. A basic story can, and often does, develop, take shape, emerge, reemerge, or simply hide for thousands of words while writing. It can take full shape during a first draft, or not reveal itself until a third or fourth draft years after the initial go around. It can spring from a random footnote recalled years earlier, or from a phrase that sticks and refuses to go away. Or it can come tumbling in all at once, as clear from the first day of inspiration and writing until the final draft is polished and ready to go. Some examples follow:
My first crack at fiction was a book originally titled Of Palms and Hardwoods. I finished the first draft of that book in 1995. Over the next 19 years, I tossed more than half of the original manuscript, rewrote what was left, and chopped that down to a novella with a new title, Judging Paradise. The story in its final form as of 2014 has little resemblance to what I first wrote in 1995.
Nick Temple File no. 4, The Flemish Coil, was nothing more than a title for years. My father owned a sailboat that I had the privilege of crewing on a number of times, and I was reading as many spy novels as I could get my hands on back then. While on my father’s boat, I learned the term “Flemish coil,” which refers to stowing a line on a deck or other flat surface in neat concentric circles. When I heard the term, I thought, “That’s a title of a spy novel.” For years I held onto that idea, and eventually wrote the story that emerged from that single phrase.
A footnote in Robert Massie’s biography of Peter the Great became the source of my 21st century thriller The Holy Lance. Peter’s eldest son, Alexei, was shacking up with a Finnish serf who’d been given to him. She gave birth to their child somewhere near Riga while traveling back to Russia from Vienna. Massie drops a footnote, after some brief exposition on the event, stating that the child is lost to history. When I read that, my immediate reaction, and one that teased me for more than a decade, was, “What if that child survived?” That question became the seed from which the story at that heart of The Holy Lance grew.
Finally, the entirety of Nick Temple File no. 2, The Heraklion Gambit, came to me over the course of no more than a week. My wife and I spent our honeymoon on Crete in 1985, so I have vivid and fond memories of the island. After I wrote Switchback, I was in the mood to write another Nick Temple File. The story started to emerge, and just kept revealing itself, so much so that I completed a first draft of the book in just about two months. Before I started writing nearly the whole story was already in my head and it had taken only a week to get there.
Maybe other writers have a more methodical approach, but I have found over the years that I have to take the words as they come to me. Writing is hard enough without fighting the moment.