How is a novel born? What's the first step? Get ten writers in a room and probably each will have a slightly different answer to that question. Since I'm in the very early stages of story-weaving Jesse, working title for my up-next novel, here's my answer:
In the case of Jesse, I saw him running out of deep forest into a small mountain clearing at night, where a fire burns, either chasing someone, or being chased by someone. He didn't burst onto the scene with a name or back story or love interest or motivation or goal (these early glimpses of character almost always adhere to the "show, don't tell" axiom). I was given this vivid glimpse, a sense of personality and that something is desperately important to this young man.
I don't know where these initial glimpses come from. Most likely they're born of a combination of the books I read, photos I see, movies and television I watch, and historical research along the way for other stories. But when such a vivid image as I just described visits me, I'll linger over it, and usually in very short order (minutes or even seconds) something about the character's situation will attach itself to the image. In this case, I noticed his clothing was fringed buckskin--he's a frontiersman. His surroundings felt mountainous, densely forested, and for some reason southern. He's in Kentucky then, or maybe Tennessee, or if it's early enough in the 18th century then western North Carolina or Virginia.
At this point I begin a file, named for the character if he happens to come with one. If not a name, then a word that evokes that glimpse I had. In this file I describe what I saw. Often as I begin this brief description, more details come. A story situation, maybe a little bit of back story, some physical attributes, another character or two I see connected to this main character. I type furiously, getting it all safely out of my head and into written form. This seems needful in order to make room for more. If I write it, more will come.
I usually don't have to do much at this point, as far as conscious brainstorming, for the questions I have about the character to be answered. More supporting characters start popping up. The setting starts to sharpen in focus. I find myself looking at maps for likely settlements or villages or towns (or frontier forts, in this case), or research books with historic timelines of the late 18th century for a likely year, or span of years to place this character and his story.
Somewhere in this process his love interest will show up, and the same waiting/forming process will begin with her and the people and places she's connected to. And the antagonist... I start to think about who he, or they, might be, and what goal he could have that would stand in opposition to Jesse's.
Then comes a fun part. Scenes. They come in a flood, in bits and pieces, in swift silent montages or in clear exchanges of dialogue. I might see the scene where hero and heroine meet, or perhaps a scene between them later in the book after they've been together for a while. These early scenes are vivid, and hit with such impact that I don't question them. I'll refine them later, but for the most part these kernels remain intact all the way from this early stage to the finished first draft.
All the while I'm running to my file as often as possible to get these scenes and snippets into words. I'm looking for photos of people who resemble the characters, if any can be found. I'm writing detailed back story for the main characters and many of the secondary ones, as I've blogged about here.
Mostly I'm doing a lot of daydreaming, following mental trails marked "what if." Some turn out to be dead ends, and I retrace my steps. Many of them lead to more trails, and eventually to the the next step in my process, plotting out the external and internal story arc for the main characters, grappling with spiritual arcs, and the moral premise (what, in essence, the story is about). But that's no longer the beginning of the process.
And since that's the point where I'm going to leave Jesse until I'm finished editing The Quiet in the Land, that's where I'll leave this blog post.