Special Assignment – The story behind my debut novel

I love speaking to different writers about what sparks their imagination for various plotlines.

The idea for my debut novel stemmed from a creative writing course assignment I completed a few years back.  “Hooray!” I remember thinking, as it plopped through my letterbox, “Only one more after this and I’m done.” I’d so enjoyed the course and had no plans at that stage to draft a novel; I was simply revelling in exploring the different avenues writing presented and, if I was lucky enough, might offer me.

Boy did I struggle with that particular assignment though. It was seeing the words ‘STAGE PLAY’ that did it. As in writing the opening scenes of one. Gulp! I could only pick two characters, giving my tutor minimal description of them and their surroundings, using only the specified number of dialogue lines (which was rather stingy, if I remember correctly!) to showcase their personalities and the tension and conflict within their situation.

Erm… Right…Okay…

Well, with little faith of doing it much justice, I set to it as enthusiastically as I could.

My scenario involved a jealous husband and his wife’s best friend. He’d secretly invited her round on the pretence of discussing his wife’s surprise 30th birthday party. Instead, he confronted her about some gossip he’d heard regarding a recent weekend trip the two women had taken together.

For all my concerns about this assignment, the feedback I received on it was some of the most positive I’d had.

Which also prompted the question: What DID happen during that weekend away?

Suddenly an outline started to take shape in my mind, swiftly followed by characters. I’d always veered more towards reading novels with multiple viewpoints, so instead of just focusing on the wife and her best friend, perhaps I’d give their respective partners their own subplots. Base the story mainly around that one weekend. Create an emotionally charged clash of agendas, plunging them headfirst into moral dilemmas that would test their loyalties, their scruples, their mettle.

By now, I’d started naming people, visualizing locations and venues, pondering mischievous secondary characters, thinking about the aftermath of the weekend and how explosive it could be…

And so began my story.

Thank you Assignment 19. You hold a very special place in my heart.          

Where did your plotlines spring from? I’d love to know.

Jan x

32 thoughts on “Special Assignment – The story behind my debut novel

  1. I didn’t know that! Weird how the situations that stump us can often end up being the most rewarding. I know it’s off topic but I remember having to create a presentation for a role I was interviewing for at Colgate, they gave me an hour – and I vividly recall being 5 seconds from walking out thinking I couldn’t do it. Not only did I do it. I got the job and beat 300 candidates to it! The worst that can happen is it doesn’t work out. The world isn’t going to end is it?

    But going back to your story, inspiration is a weird one as I get ideas in dreams and in off-kilter moments in conversations. But never lightning bolt moments. Not really.
    I see scenarios once they start unravel like films in my head.

    Gunshot Glitter is a good one : ) I got the opening line from a Soya milk carton!

    It said ‘ Try Me Free’. And I thought to myself where in life would someone say that? And I thought – a seductress with an ulterior motive or a VERY saucy nature. How would that make a man feel? And then the film started playing in my head.

    So there you go, a soya milk carton set off a story that has been playing out in my head for years and is v.v.v near being launched into the world.

    Good luck with your weekend of intrigue and multiple POV. I like that kind of novel too. Lisa Jewell’s A Friend in the Family holds a special place in my heart for that reason. xx

    • Wow, Yasmin, that is some background story to your presentation. Well done you! It just shows you, eh? And I love the inspiration behind Gunshot Glitter. I bet you can’t look at a carton of soya milk now without beaming from ear to ear 🙂 Thanks so much for commenting and for your good wishes re my novel. Oh, and ‘A Friend of the Family’ has pride of place on my bookshelf too.

      Jan x

    • Ah, thanks so much Rachel. I’ve really enjoyed drafting it, even if it has given me a few sleepless nights. Appreciate you taking the time to drop by 🙂

      Jan x

  2. What an interesting post, Jan. Now on my second novel (first out on submission) I look back and wonder where most of my ideas come from. But I know the opening to Book 1 happened when my husband and I were at a village Bonfire Night party and I wondered aloud if a bonfire was an efficient way to dispose of a dead body (I’m a crime fiction fan in case you didn’t guess). My husband turned to me and said, ‘Why don’t you find out and then write it?’. So I did. Which sounds ludicrously simple, but of course, it wasn’t.

    • Oh, Janet, I can just picture you both standing round the fire, debating. It’s so interesting to hear about how these plotlines take shape. You’ve got me well and truly intrigued now. Best of luck with both novels. Thanks so much for your comment.

      Jan x

  3. Great post, Jan–and it’s fascinating where ideas come from, thanks for sharing (and can’t wait to read the book!!). The idea for my debut was born on the sofa in front of the telly. You have to understand that I’ve always had a bit of a weak spot for rock singers and certain actors (some of whom are also rock singers, if you get my drift). Anyway, I was cuddled up with my husband, highly pregnant (me, not him), and I made noises about how no girls could resist this particular star. Hubby said, ‘good job you’re married to me, then,’ and I laughed and said, ‘yeah, but if HE ever proposed… well, I can’t guarantee anything.’ Enter the crux for Sophie’s Turn! Four months later, the novel was complete (and baby born, too). XX

    • Love it, Nicky! What a fab story! Blimey, at this rate we could all write an anthology of our experiences. From now on, whenever I hear a rock singer, I shall think of you 😉 Thanks so much for your comment.

      Jan x

      • Ah, now, that would be telling!!! 🙂 Think tall, think lovely deep voice, think been around a long time, think blond hair, think various countries around the world, think great lyrics and beautiful ballads. And the resulting three or four will give you a good idea! Who do YOU like?

  4. Hi Jan,
    Really love the idea of your multiple viewpoints. Next time I’m certainly going down that road, and will make sure I include the male VP as well as the heroine’s. I know your novel will be full of humour and incident – because that’s just how you are. Can’t wait to read it. Hope you and the other Romaniacs get favourable reports from the NWS this year and send your novels out into the big wide world. Wonder if any of us will make the Joan Hessyon line up in the next couple of years.

    The idea for my novel had been fomenting (or should that be stewing?) for some time. I loved the film Notting Hill and a few years ago had the chance to tour the private garden squares one weekend, including the one where the movie was filmed. I also adore anything historical, especially Scottish history, so I thought – why not combine the two? That was the start of my current WIP – where two spoiled trustafarian sisters trash the family home in Notting Hill, get arrested and are summoned home to their estate in Scotland to account for themselves to their brother. I’ve also thrown an in an out of work beauty therapist for good measure. Then I lit the blue touch paper and stood well back. . . Just three more chapters to go and its finished – and then slash and burn (see Liz’s blog post yesterday).

    • Thanks so much, Lizzie. I am blushing 😉 And yes, how exciting must it be to be nominated for an award, let alone win one? I love the idea behind your novel, the dual settings (always appeals!) it sounds like you have some fab ingredients there for a cracking read! Really appreciate your comments.

      Jan x

  5. The idea for the book I’m working on at the moment came about after writing a different book a few years ago. The main character had a baby and I started to wonder what happened to them next. Fast forward fifteen years and here we are. The characters aren’t the same but he situation I imagined them in is.

  6. @ Nicky Wells – MICHAEL BOLTON! It has to be! Even if the dude is short-haired. I can’t think of anyone else, except Rod Stewart and he’s not that tall.

    But, if it IS Mr Bolton then you’ve got to watch this ; ) And watch it all the way through. http://youtu.be/GI6CfKcMhjY

    Who do I like? I’ve always had a soft spot for Larry Mullen Jnr, the drummer from U2. I used to have a huge crush on Grant Nicholas from Feeder. Wow, just realised it’s been ages sinced I’ve really crushed on a musician! I tell you who I would make a tit of myself in front of, if our paths ever crossed – Aidan Turner who played Mitchell in Being Human. For sure. Big Utter Tit!

    • lol! I’m giggling away to myself about this rock star guessing game, ladies 😉 x

  7. The fire has always been burning inside your belly!! How far you have come since putting your quil to paper. The plot has TNT written all over it. I know for sure your novel will be an explosive read. 🙂


    • Thanks so much, Clare, for all your valued advice & support over the years and for listening to me bang on about this character or that character well into the night, over the odd *ahem* glass of vino. So pleasing to know that you’ve shared my journey from day 1. Really appreciate your comments.

      Jan x

  8. Lovely post Jan, I also enjoy finding out the inspirations behind the story.

    And as for Nicky, I’m going down the Bon Jovi road.

    Sue x

    • Ah, thanks so much, Sue. What always amazes me is the variety of tales behind those tales. How one little (or large!) thing can instantly fire up the old brain cogs. Re Nicky, well I must admit that Bon Jovi did cross my mind too. She’s keeping us on tenterhooks 😉

      Really appreciate your comment.

      Jan x

  9. Four months? And a baby? Going to take the sledge hammer to my pc right now. Ha Ha. Good for you, Nicky – and good luck with Sophie’s Turn.

    • lol – Lizzie, that’s exactly what I thought.

      Nicky, I take my hat off to you 🙂 x

  10. Yes, Good luck with Sophie’s turn, Nicky.

    Ah girls, I’m now tittering away too, and at the thought of Michael Bolton! How can someone with such an amazing voice not make me instantly melt in the bedroom department!! 😛 Sorry, don’t get me wrong, it’s the case for most of the best rock stars – think Dylan, Eric Clapton, Robert Palmer…
    But the only one who would cut it for me, music and looks wise, is John Bon Jovi, or maybe Brian Adams 🙂 ..


    • Wow! That’s some rockstar roll call, Debbie. You’ve got me thinking now… I must admit, I think it would only be JBJ from that list for me too. I remember working with a lady a few years back who was absolutely mad about him and had to take the day off after going to see him in concert to recover, bless her 🙂

      Thanks for commenting. Much appreciated.

      Jan x

  11. Great post, Jan. I also love hearing how plot ideas are born. I look forward to reading all about the aftermath of that weekend, one day.
    My plot came about after a visit to the lock keepers cottage that my great-grandma lived in a very long time ago. It’s only steps away from an old pub where people sit and watch the world go by and has a cafe on the oposite side of the canal. I daydreamed about what it must be like to live and work in such a beautiful place and then have to someone come along and try to take it away.

    Re the rockstars, I was lucky enough to see JBJ in the flesh when I was 15 (but keep it quiet as my parents still don’t know where I was!) I was so in love with him at the time. These days he comes a poor second to Bryan Adams. *sighs*

    • Claire, I am soooo jealous to think you saw JBJ in the flesh! (Promise I won’t let on to parents 😉 )


    • Ooh, you’ve got me intrigued about your novel too, Claire. Sounds like a good, meaty plot to me. The venue sounds fabulous, really scenic. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment. I really appreciate it.

      Oh, and I promise I won’t let on about JBJ 😉

      Jan x

  12. Hi Jan, firstly may I say that 19 is my favourite number as it is the day of my birthday in August and it seems to come up a lot (it’s always one of my choices if I do the lottery). Enjoyed your post-it’s so interesting to see how writers come up with their plots. I came up with the idea for mine when having a few drinks with a friend a few days before my wedding. The conversation went a bit like this: ‘I’ve always wanted to write a book.’/ ‘What would it be about?’/ ‘Well, I’ve lived in Yorkshire and Siena and worked in New York so I’ll make it about a Yorkshire girl who goes to Siena to au pair and meets an Italian-American.’ Best of luck with your novel-sounds interesting-and happening over a weekend gives it such impact. I always enjoy films and plays which take place over a short space of time.

    • Well, there you go! Do you know, I think I remember you telling me your number 19 story, Anita. You’ve got me thinking of any other significant nineteen’s now – lol. Love the sound of your novel, by the way. One of my weekend settings is York so we have the old Yorkshire connection too 🙂 Thanks for your lovely comments re my novel. Much appreciated.

      Jan x

  13. Hey Jan, I too want to know what DID happen on that weekend away! Very very best of luck with your book – I’m looking forward to reading it.
    My NWS submission last year began life as an assignment as well! Assignment 13 for me, I think. Hope that’s not unlucky…;)

    • Ah, thanks for calling in, Elle. I’m chuffed that you’re intrigued enough about my novel to wonder… 😉 Interesting that we have the ‘assignment’ connection. Let’s hope they come up trumps for both of us, eh. Thanks so much for your comments 🙂

      Jan x

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