"How's your novel coming?" is the first question asked when fiction writers get together.
"I'm not writing a novel," has never been a satisfactory answer. Writing short stories is my joy and writing a novel takes sooooo long.
Around the first of the year, I hit on a safe plan. I would start a novel, so that if anyone asked I could say, "It's coming along slowly." I wouldn't have to do any work on it, maybe take a look at it now and then, change a word here or there. I took some characters I have used in two short stories. I am rather fond of them, so I thought I could live with them hanging about in my computer for eternity in an unfinished novel. Hannah and Silas live in colonial Delaware in the mid eighteenth century.
When ever I start writing anything, I set up a three ring binder with all the information I need to make sure I don't mix up eye color, what Jane takes in her coffee and exactly where the house is in relation to the print shop.
This is my first completely fictional setting. In the short stories it was a mere sketch of a town on the Delaware River. For the novel I started drawing maps, figuring its location relative to the real towns around it. I even dug into the geology of the area to see if there was enough solid ground under the marsh to support a town. Since there wasn't, I made up a better foundation for it. I populated the town with secondary characters of all classes, including indentured servants and slaves. I added businesses, farms and a government. One section of the binder is for setting so all this went behind the divider labeled "Cobbs Crossing."
I spent time pouring over the Pennsylvania Gazette and found just what I was looking for: pirates. A prominent pirate of the time was from the nearest big city. What had been a childish fantasy in the short story became a full blown obsession in the novel. Hannah has given up any idea of ever becoming a pirate, but the skills she learned prepared her to be an 18th century detective. I found the historical figures under whom Silas would have served as town constable. A second divider was followed by 100 pages of newspaper articles that I might find useful.
I read books on slavery and visited historical sites that are coming to grips with the fact that the men who owned them were not only great patriots but also slave owners. So another divider with notes on my reading and visiting.
In the front of the binder is the manuscript for the story which has now grown to 7,000 words, one tenth of a novel. I've begun working through some possible sub plots. Deepening the characters, and making the two dimensional people from the short stories full blown characters in their own right.
At some point along the way I realized I was actually writing another novel. I wasn't just visiting sites and reading books and papers, but putting words on paper. Sometime in the next six months I should have an entire first draft.
The final divider has behind it a list of the people who helped or inspired me along the way. I don't want to forget any of them. My editor who loved the characters but who never pushed me to write a novel; the blacksmith who answered questions about Sam Bly, the people at the John Dickenson Plantation, the staff of Newlin Grist Mill, and my critique group. I will even thank those who said "What? You aren’t working on a novel?"