Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Going round in circles

Are you a writer? Is there any particular way in which you like to kick-start your novels (or short stories)? I'm not sure if I always start the same way. Sometimes it's with an incident that then grows into a longer story. Sometimes it's with the victim, and sometimes I start by thinking of the perpetrator first. Certainly that's what I'm doing in my second novel, Washed in the Blood.

But I asked established crime writer, Margot Kinberg, to talk to us about her methods. Here's what she said.

Will it Go Round in Circles?*

Thanks so much for inviting me to guest-post – I’m honoured. One of the challenges writers face is taking all of those creative ideas that always seem to pop up at either 2 am, or in the middle of a traffic jam, and putting them into some kind of coherent story.  Every writer handles this differently, so I can only share the way I go about it. But here’s how the process works for me.

I write crime fiction, so in my stories, there’s invariably at least one murder, and at least one murder victim. And that’s where I always start. Who’s the victim? What is that person like?  I’ve gotten inspiration from many places for the kind of person who would make a good victim. There really is no set pattern there, at least for me. But once I decide on who the victim is, then I get to work on setting up the story.

One way to look at the way I do things is a set of circles. First, of course, there’s the smallest circle around the victim. What is her or his personality? What is that person’s background?  What about that person might drive someone to murder?  Once I know the victim a little, it’s time for the next circle: the victim’s close friends, family and so on.

In that second circle is where you often find the suspects in a murder mystery, so that’s where I start adding in people who may have something to gain by killing the victim. In one of my stories, for instance, my victim has something valuable that one suspect wants. Another suspect feels threatened by something the victim knows. Another is obsessed with the victim. Well, you get the idea. This is also the place where one can add in another circle for the people the victim comes into occasional contact with – sort of an ‘outer circle’ of people. Those are people who can give an interesting perspective on the victim and certainly could be suspects.

Then I add another circle, separate from the victim’s – the sleuth’s circle. After all, it’s hard to do a crime novel if nobody tries to solve the crime. My sleuth is Joel Williams, a former cop, now a university professor of criminal justice. He has his own circle, including his wife, his contacts at the police department, his university colleagues, his students, and so on. Those circles are important (at least to me) because my sleuth is not a cop or PI. So he doesn’t have any official reason to be investigating anything. And nobody is required to tell him anything. That means that one of his circles has to overlap with one of the victim’s circles.

Let me give an example. In one of my stories, my sleuth is working on a research project with two colleagues. In the process of that research they uncover a ‘cold case’ that leads to a not-so-cold murder. In this case, that research circle overlaps with one of the first victim’s circles. That step, as I say, is perhaps less of a critical issue for police procedurals or PI novels, where the sleuth is supposed to investigate. That’s what cops and PIs are paid to do.

Once I have my circles set up, I outline the action in the story. I add in things such as where things happen, how exactly Joel Williams gets involved, and who has critical information for the case. With that rough structure in place, it’s time for the details.

One thing I like about this approach is that it allows for flexibility. It lets the writer put in as many or as few characters as needed. The story can take place at any time, in any place, and feature just about any kind of victim. So there’s a lot of ‘wiggle room.’

I also like the way the circles encourage me to add character development and sub-plots. As I look at each circle I see opportunities to sketch in things such as people’s home lives, minor characters and the other details that make a story (hopefully!) more interesting.

Circles don’t work for everyone of course. More than anything else I believe that each writer has to find her or his own way to frame ideas and get those ideas written. But as for me? Yeah, I go around in circles. ;-)

Many thanks again for hosting me!! Please feel free to get in contact with me (margotkinberg(at)gmail(dot)com) if you want to connect.

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Billy Preston song, co-written with Bruce Fisher.

Margot Kinberg is the author of the Joel Williams mystery series. She blogs at


  1. I really like this suggested way of building up each character's 'context' and showing overlaps in their social or professional networks. I guess it would also be useful in developing the extent and limits of each character's perspectives on others. I'm certainly going to try this approach in planning my next project. Thanks!

  2. Clare - That's kind of you. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. And you're right about perspective too. Standing in each character's 'circle' allows one to see how that person views everyone else, and that includes the victim, the sleuth and the criminal.

  3. I like your description of how you work Margot, so sensible and concise. It reminds me of pie charts. I know some writers have post-it notes everywhere and others have lots of pieces of paper laid out on the floor or pinned to a board. I can see how your method is easy to use and leaves space to add or take away facts or characters as and when you suddenly find the need. I keep notebooks and draw maps; it works for me. It is so good to see how others write and especially you. Good luck with Joel and his future 'cases'.

  4. Jane - Thanks - and thanks for the good wishes. Joel and I are both grateful. ;-) I've found that using something concise, and something where I don't have to read a lot of my own handwriting ;-) is very useful to me. I admire writers who can do storyboarding and I've seen it work brilliantly. The same with Post-It notes. Every writer has a different approach and like you, I enjoy learning from them.

  5. Wivenhoe Writers, thanks for hosting Margot.

    Margot, your example of circles is quite interesting. In some ways we are all connected like links in a chain. Developing your stories in this fashion ties everyone together in one way or another making them very realistic. Wishing you much success with Joel and your writing.

    Thoughts in Progress

  6. Mason - You know, you're right. We are all connected in all sorts of different ways, and although I didn't start using circles for that particular reason, it is pretty realistic. Thanks for the good wishes!

  7. Fascinating stuff. Sounds like mind-mapping.

  8. J. L. - Thanks. And yes, I suppose you really could think of it as a kind of mind-mapping.

  9. I really like the sound of Margot's circles and her helpful methodology. I have used balloons (actually they look more like hippo's when I've finished with them) for all my characters and linked them with flowing lines of connection, creating a chaotic venn diagram, which is then always there to refer to to aid continuity. I find it useful to have dates, especially dates of birth, to refer to on the chart as well - helpful if there's time shift in the story.