When I started to write my first thriller, I wanted it to begin with a murder. I didn’t want there to be any doubt that the murderer was a woman, and quite honestly I didn’t really mind if people guessed who the murderer was. What I wanted them to wonder was why?
I also wanted my murderer to have a reasonable chance of getting away with the crime – not an easy thing to do – and so the planning had to be perfect. I started to research train times, flight timetables, the duration of a car journey from one place to another – depending on the time of day, of course. All fairly standard stuff.
But then my murderess had to dispose of the evidence – and there was quite a lot to dispose of. Everything had to go into separate bags, to be dumped in different places. I created post-it notes to represent each of the clues and each of the routes and times. But then, of course, I had to think about how these would reveal themselves, and how other evidence – such as a missing mobile phone – was going to be explained.
It felt like a huge jigsaw puzzle, with so many pieces and so many things to potentially go wrong. How could I keep track of each and every element of the crime plus the underlying crime, ie the reason the victim had to be killed in the first place?
And then I realised that something from my past – something that I would never have actually considered in relation to fiction writing – was going to come to save me. It was a flowchart.
I had spent the vast majority of my working life running an interactive media business, which I started when I was working as a systems analyst, and when trying to work out how to set procedures in place and design software to manage those systems, it is necessary to look at each of the processes in turn, work out how they relate to each other and create links to ensure a smooth flow.
Surely this was the same for planning and committing a murder?
The post-it notes came off the wall, and I opened a simple piece of flowcharting software. I needed to create a linear story from a series of events that each had their own timescale and their own ‘life’ off the page. At each point in the story, using the flowchart I was able to consider a range of ‘what if’ options, and look at the outcomes and how they would impact upon the story.
Elements that were happening outside the main thread of the story could be plotted alongside, with links at appropriate points to add them to the linear story that I was going to tell.
I would never have believed that writing would actually draw on such a skill from my past, but now I use it all the time, creating a separate strand for each element of the story – from the most complex, such as the revelation of the circumstances that demonstrate why person A hates person B, to the most simple, such as why the mobile phone is missing, how and where it is found, and its impact on the story. Every thread has its own complete tale to tell, so that nothing can be left hanging or unexplained.
I now use a very simple (and cheap) tool called Scapple, and create boxes for each event, each clue, each piece of evidence. I can link them together into the main story flow that runs down the centre of the page, space the revelations appropriately, and produce the complete flow of the story.
Then, of course, comes the writing – the bit that we all love – the exciting bit.
But with the storyline very firmly established, I know what’s going to happen in each scene and I can see how each of my story elements develops, checking that everything makes sense and no clues are left dangling.
I know not every writer works like this, or would even want to – but for me, applying logic to an emotionally tense story helps me to keep focus. Four books down, and it’s still working. In my latest book, Stranger Child, it was more vital than ever, because the plot is complex with a number of different stories running parallel, but all coming together at the denouement.
It’s great to know that a skill that I thought was redundant has been able to come back into play – and whoever would have thought when I first learned to flowchart that I would be using that skill to plan a murder.
Stranger Child by Rachel Abbott will be available in both a Kindle version and as a paperback
Rachel Abbott is the UK’s most successful independently published author. She was born just outside Manchester. She became a systems analyst, forming her own software companyin the mid-80s and selling it in 2000. She then moved with her husband to Italy and bought a small ruined monastery with its own chapel, restoring it and making it into a home, before moving to Alderney, where she now lives. In 2010 she decided to try writing a novel. Only The Innocent was published in 2011 and was a number 1 e-book bestseller for four weeks. Her subsequent books, The Back Road and Sleep Tight, were also bestsellers. Her work is translated into seven languages. For more information about Rachel Abbott, please visit www.rachel-abbott.com