How do I begin to tell the story  pen

Of how great a love can be
A sweet love story
That is greater than the sea…

No that isn’t right.  I’m not writing a love story this time.

When in doubt start with a brawl… Except
that the brawl needs three chapters of set up and starting with the fight then flashing back to—whatever is cheating.  Isn’t it?

Oh if only I had a great and wondrous line that promises what is to come in the story and will be remembered for a hundred years.  “It was the best of times.  It was the worst of times.”

Nope, not gonna happen.  At least not with the first clunky paragraphs I write.  Maybe by the time I know what the story is and what to promise the reader on the 3rd or 4th draft.

Yep.  That’s me dithering over a blank computer screen, or notepad, or typewriter.  For as long as I have written stories—I think I was five when I started—I rarely know where or how to start a story.  I have tried to start in the middle and work backward, then forward.  I have been known to write three chapters and a synopsis to sell a book, then junk it all and start over someplace else.

I have been known to postpone starting a book because I needed to do more research.  And some research always leads to more research.  I could write a masters’ thesis on some of the stories I have never written.

What all this dithering does, is tell me where not to start.  But it also gives me play time with the story premise, or the characters, or the setting that is compelling me to write. I can cover acres of blank pages in brainstorming and research and character studies, but I can’t know how that character walks or talks or thinks until I give him/her space and words.  Since I write character driven stories and books that is the most important part.

I sometimes start with a premise. For example: Oh, I have to write one of my historical fantasies about Queen Elizabeth I of England.  Um… okay, I have 45 years to cover.  Where do I begin?  Queen Elizabeth was a strong woman.  I need a character who is strong enough to be her foil.  I need a man who will love her but never be in love with her.  I need… to do some research.  I found the right character.  He started thumping his staff inside my skull about ½ way through the research.  And then I let him tell his story.  My best work happens that way, letting the character talk to me and tell his own story, not mine, his, or hers, depending upon who is clattering inside my head at the moment. writtenin


About Phyllis Irene Radford

Irene Radford has been writing stories ever since she figured out what a pencil was for. A member of an endangered species—a native Oregonian who lives in Oregon—she and her husband make their home in Welches, Oregon where deer, bears, coyotes, hawks, owls, and woodpeckers feed regularly on their back deck. A museum trained historian, Irene has spent many hours prowling pioneer cemeteries deepening her connections to the past. Raised in a military family she grew up all over the US and learned early on that books are friends that don’t get left behind with a move. Her interests and reading range from ancient history, to spiritual meditations, to space stations, and a whole lot in between. Mostly Irene writes fantasy and historical fantasy including the best-selling Dragon Nimbus Series and the masterwork Merlin’s Descendants series. In other lifetimes she writes urban fantasy as P.R. Frost or Phyllis Ames, and space opera as C.F. Bentley. Later this year she ventures into Steampunk as someone else. If you wish information on the latest releases from Ms Radford, under any of her pen names, you can subscribe to her newsletter: Promises of no spam, merely occasional updates and news of personal appearances.



  1. An enormous amount of backing and filling is sometimes called for. Even writers who are purely linear (I am thinking of Harlan Ellison, sitting in a store window for two hours and banging out a short story as a PR stunt) have done a lot of preliminary work, sometimes without even knowing it.

  2. Beginnings don’t daunt me; nor do endings – nor even the big scenes in between. It’s navigating the pathways which connect point A to point B to point C that always trips me up. I seem to write best in vignettes, but vignettes don’t really comprise the kind of narrative that most readers expect.

    I sometimes feel like a strictly prose version of Harris Burdick – but I don’t know how well that would ever translate into a workable writing career…

    • We all have our strengths and our weaknesses. Sounds like you need a workshop on plotting. Lots of good books out there on the subject. I use Jack Bickham’s “Scene and Structure” a lot. Also Christopher Vogler’s “The Writers Journey.”

      Good luck.

      • You could be right; lord knows I’ve certainly spent enough time on ‘plodding’…

        Thanks for the references – I will definitely look them up!

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