How do you turn an idea into a novel?

For the last five years or so I’ve started each new book the same way – with a Papier notebook with a design that somehow reflects the theme or plot of the book, and a customised working title and my name on the front. Here’s the notebook I chose for the book that would become The Guilty Couple.

The idea

The Guilty Couple started life with a single thought – ‘I want to write a heist novel.’

This is where I admit that I’ve never actually read a heist novel but I have watched a LOT of heist movies and TV shows and I absolutely love them.

I love every thing about them – from the gathering of the heist team, to the individual characters that make up the gang, to the plotting and the actual heist. I imagined how much fun they must be to plot and write and determined that I was going to write one.

But I write psychological thrillers, not heists, so how could I incorporate a heist into a book whilst still writing a ‘CL Taylor book’?

The very first thing I decided was that my heist wasn’t going to be for money or jewels, it was going to be for something else, but what?

Evidence, I decided. My character would have to steal the evidence that proved that she hadn’t committed the crime she’d been convicted of..

She would be out on licence, I decided, having served five years, and desperate to prove her innocence.

Why?

That was the big question. I had to give my character a compelling reason. It had to be about more than just clearing her name.

I decided to give her a daughter, Grace. Grace would be seven when my character was sent to prison, twelve when she gets out. And the character is only allowed to spend supervised visits with her daughter. The rest of the time Grace lives with her father, the ex-husband of my character, the man who framed her for a crime she didn’t commit.

Naming the main character

I needed to remind myself of all the names I’ve already used (you’d think I’d remember but it’s been ten years since I wrote my first psychological thriller, The Accident!).

I thought I’d settled on a name, then changed my my mind, several times!

Alex became Laura, then Jude and finally Olivia/Liv.

Several characters also changed name a few times. Olivia’s cellmate was Kelly, then Duffy, then Smithy (Kelly Smith) and another character, a female bent cop was Brook for a long time before I decided she was more of a Dani.

This cartoon by Tom Gauld is so spot on it always makes me grin.

What does the main character want?

So, once my main character had her name I did what I always do with my books and tried to work out what she wants in the book, what she needs and what her flaw is (sometimes I include a character’s worst fear too.)

Let’s just say that only the ‘want’ in the list below made it into the final book.

What’s the inciting incident?

Next, I thought about the inciting incident in the book. What forces Olivia to switch from someone who sticks to the rules and abides by the law to someone prepared to break into several different buildings to try and find the evidence that proves her innocence?

I decided that, within days of leaving prison, Olivia would track down her daughter and, instead of the heart-warming reunion she’d imagined, she’d discover that her daughter distrusted and feared her. It would be vital that Olivia proved her innocence. Otherwise she’d lose her daughter forever.

What do the other characters want?

I also brainstormed the motivations of the other major characters in the book:

– Oliva’s ex-husband Dominic

– Dani, a female Detective Sargeant who betrayed Olivia and helped Dominic frame her

I can’t share what I brainstormed about Dominic as it contains too many spoilers and Dani’s main motivation for helping to frame Liv is revealed in the book but here’s a little insight to all the possibilities I considered for why Dani decides to keep an eye on Olivia once she leaves prison (not all of them made it into the final book.)

One word I continually ask myself when brainstorming a book is WHY?

There’s a LOT more like this in my notebook, including actual plotting, but it’s far too spoilery to share (if you want to know how I plot I filmed a couple of YouTube videos about it a few years ago, apologies for the low quality.)

Research

I did a lot of research for The Guilty Couple, including asking lots of questions to Neil Lancaster (author and ex Met detective), Tony Kent (author and barrister), three solicitors, Noelle Holden (author and ex-probation officer), office managers and cleaners.

I also read a lot and watched several documentaries about women in prison (to understand what life would have been like for Olivia inside.) My notebook is full of scribblings like this:

Finally, when it was all plotted and I felt that I had enough to get started, I wrote the first page.

The first page

I definitely suffer from ‘fear of a blank page’ when it comes to my laptop so I tend to write the first chapter by hand and then transfer it to the screen when I am confident that I have nailed the voice of the main character and I’ve written my way into the story.

As you can see there’s a LOT of crossing out! Here’s how that part of the first chapter reads in the published version of The Guilty Couple, only a tiny part of my original attempt survived:

‘Only one member of the jury glances in my direction as they file back into the room: she’s early-forties with long dark hair and a soft, round face. She looks like a Sarah or a Helen and her heavy gaze has rested on me for the last five days. We’re around the same age and I hope that’s made her sympathetic towards me; there but for the grace of God go I and all that. Or maybe she believes that I’m the monster the prosecutor has painted me out to be: a liar and a cheat , a woman riddled with hatred and obsessed with money and death.’

Having started with ‘I want to write a heist novel’ The Guilty Couple became much more than that.

It’s a story about a woman fighting against injustice, against the people who betrayed her, against the ‘criminal’ tag society forces her to live with despite being innocent, about a mother’s love for her child, about secrets in a marriage, about revenge.

The actual heist only takes place in a single chapter of The Guilty Couple but I had a hell of a lot of fun writing it. It’s probably the most ‘heart-in-mouth’ chapter I’ve written. I hope you enjoy it, and the rest of the book.

The Guilty Couple is published on 23rd June in UK/Eire and 28th June in the rest of the world.

If you live in Bristol, Swindon, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Harrogate, London, Stirling or Chepstow do please come and see me at one of my events this year.

Pre-order a copy of The Guilty Couple:

UK

USA

IRELAND

AUSTRALIA

CANADA

4 thoughts on “How do you turn an idea into a novel?

  1. kellyfairy says:

    Hay Cally

    I used to be Kelly Smith! I hope her friends did not call her Smelly Whiff like mine did!

    This was so interesting to read. Completely fascinating! I can’t wait to read the book.

    I hope that your stay with Nat was productive. As soon as I read you were going to Cornwall to stay with a friend and write I knew where you were going 🙂

    Much love,

    Kelly

    >

  2. stucumminsreads says:

    This is so interesting Cally! Thanks so much for sharing. Love seeing how The Guilty Couple developed. It’s such a brilliant book and the heist chapter is outstanding!

    Best wishes,
    Stu 🙂

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