Starting my next cop novel…how I plan a novel

New Year – new novel.

I’m planning my next DCI Matt Proctor crime novel, number three in the series and I’d like to share my approach to “PLANNING A NOVEL”.

How do you put your novel together? Please let me know.

I’ll set out my approach in separate blogs – this is the FIRST. There are SEVEN in all. 

From the outset let me say say I’m more a ‘planner’ than a ‘pantser’- but please, you ‘pantsers’ out there, don’t tune out now – we can all learn from each other. (I wonder if there really are out and out ‘pantsers’ or ‘planners’ – or are most of us somewhere in between on a spectrum?)

PLANNERS                  IN-BETWEENERS               PANTSERS

I may be a planner but one who leaves space for the story to breathe, to bend and flex, change direction at times. Yet the CORE story line remains.


I need to know my story plot(s) in detail, understand the motivations, secrets and fears of my main characters before I can progress to writing my first draft. From my outline, I develop scenes and flesh out characters. The process is very much iterative, synergistic. I hop from one to another; adding to my character profiles, summarising a scene in a brief heading, modifying and reordering the outline chronology using a ‘scene order’ grid, to get a visual overview of the book.



A great tool for doing this is Microsoft OneNote. Some swear by Scrivener, Ywriter; another good tool is Hiveword. There are others. I think writers need to experiment to find out what suits them best. Two factors influencing my choice are a), the ability to write the book content within the planning tool, and b), to work offline sometimes – I may be on holiday and want a hour or so of ‘writing therapy’ but might not want to go on-line, or have available on-line access.

By giving me an overview and instant access to the components of my story on a single screen, I get control of the project and so I find the process of drilling down into the ‘core’ of my story easier, more efficient and fulfilling. Certainly much less frustrating than switching from one screen to another, hunting down folders and files, hopping back and forth from page to page on websites and between different websites.   ARRRGH…



  • In planning my novel I use seven COMPONENTS.  They are not written in a strict chronology – that’s important. They have synergy, they feed off each other. Maybe it’s like bringing up a family – you don’t focus all your energy on one child and when that job’s done, move on to the next. Oh, no, – you don’t bring kids up like that. You juggle, you compromise, negotiate, discipline, encourage, motivate, and so on. You spread your attention, your focus, your love. (OK, OK, we didn’t have seven children but you get the picture!). Now – please let me show you in specific terms how all this works (and for me it definitely does) in practice.


  1. CORE – Who is the Main Character, what’s their goal, problem, obstacles, what are the stakes for failure? In 50 words; yes, I keep this to 50 words. Concentrates the mind!
  2. OUTLINE – Two pages max. Written in present tense, with a start, middle and end. Split into key scenes with short headings. Leave room for the story to evolve.
  3. MAIN PLOT – Spine of the story, the heart of the MC’s journey. Sub-plots add complexity and richness. The main plot (and sub-plots) summaries need only be a sentence or two.
  4. SCENES – Scenes are the building blocks of the novel. These are where the action is. As you write scenes you are writing your book.
  5. CHARACTERS – Absolutely critical. The reader must care about these people.
  6. SETTINGS – Give ‘colour’, atmosphere, they complement characterisation, add credibility and context whether real or fictional places.
  7. SYNOPSIS – Comes at the end because a synopsis is a ‘selling’ tool; your book summary. You write a synopsis when you’ve finished your book. (I include it as part of planning because you’ll need it for submissions).


in this first blog in the series, I’ll focus on my starting COMPONENT in PLANNING A NOVEL, namely the CORE of my story. 

 1 (of 7). CORE – a basic idea.

  • CORE – Who is the Main Character, what’s their goal, problem, obstacles, what are the stakes for failure? In 50 words; yes, I keep this to 50 words. Concentrates the mind!

Q.  What is in that CORE as a novel writing idea?

A.  Main Character with a Goal, facing tough Opponents, hitting Insurmountable Obstacles, and under threat, using their Sole Abilities to win through.

Here’s the CORE of my novel IN IT FOR THE MONEY.

‘DCI Matt Proctor fights to break an  international ‘match-fixing’ gambling syndicate and becomes their kill target when he gets too close. Serbian Mafia boss Petrovic hunts him – yet real power lies in sports boardrooms, directors’ boxes and wheeler-dealer agents. Matt Proctor is a marked man.’

Think of an apple, a pear. The core is where that fruit started. In that core are seeds. And in the core of your novel are the seeds that will grow your novel. Define that core in no more than 50 words – keep those words in front of you – and then let the seeds grow.

Coming up NEXT. What’s the future gig?




How the police can help crime writers

Getting the inside info…

The pace of change is increasing everywhere, not least in the world of police investigations and forensic science. So that’s why I contacted the Press Office of the West Midlands police service to seek help in updating my understanding of the latest practices. They were most helpful, for which I am genuinely appreciative.

image photo : Police car with a flasher at lorry crash

I gave some thought beforehand about what I needed to know and used a check-list that I submitted in advance. Working through the list covered all the ground – and more.

My visit to police headquarters in Birmingham was a truly eye-opening experience and I am sure will lend greater credibility and verisimilitude to my crime writing. At least that’s my hope – although I fear all those keen-eyed police procedural experts out there will still find slips and flaws! Still, as they say – that goes with the territory.

However, verisimilitude is ‘the appearance of being true’ and after all, I am writing fiction. So if – or rather when – I’m challenged, in defence I’ll hold up my hands and say, ‘At least I made the effort to get things as right as possible.’

Here’s how my visit was reported in the press office news section:

(Click the link below to read the article as it appeared on the West Midlands police website)

Saturday 24 May 2014

A murder suspect fugitive leaps from a moving train − narrowly missing a high-speed commuter shuttle − and staggers across a boggy field in a desperate bid to shake off the detective chief inspector in hot pursuit.
The female DCI leading the manhunt rugby tackles him in a swollen brook and, as the two trade punches, an exasperated cry echoes out from an armchair far, far away.

“Oh for goodness sake…that would never happen. I’d be lucky to get out of the office during a murder case!”

The disbelieving TV critic is West Midlands Police Superintendent Mark Payne. A hugely experienced detective, he’s led many homicide enquiries during his 20-year career…and precisely none have involved a punch-up with his number one suspect in a stream!

Today he’s agreed to meet Stourbridge crime fiction writer Tom Bryson who is on a modern-day policing fact-finding mission in order to keep such outbursts from readers with insider knowledge to a minimum.

“It’s important to have a solid working knowledge of how police investigations unfold,” said Tom, whose fictional top cop DCI Matt Proctor has cracked two complex West Midlands murder cases.

“For my books to be credible they must have their foundations in real-life police practices and techniques − but at the same time there has to be creative licence to keep audiences captivated. It can be hard to juggle…and I can imagine there are many police officers who shake their heads in disbelief when watching TV crime dramas!

“In the 1980s I worked in the personnel department at Lloyd House (the force’s HQ) so I’m familiar with police processes − but science and technology used by police to stay ahead of criminals advances so fast that it’s important for me to get a refresher.”

Tom is talked through terminology such as “nominal” − a common police label for a criminal − and acronyms like PoI (person of interest), FSI (forensic scene investigator) and HOLMES − a very apt crime fighting abbreviation for Home Office Large Major Enquiry System.

HOLMES incident rooms are set up to manage complex cases and see detectives assigned specific roles − statement reader, receiver, indexer, allocator to name a few − to ensure no information slips through the net, any links are identified, and all leads are followed up.

image photo : British police

Det Supt Payne also brings Tom − whose 2012 novel Too Smart to Die opens in dramatic fashion as a dead body turns up on the council steps in Victoria Square − up-to-date on advances in forensic science and communications analysis.

He said: “There have been incredible advances in how we’re able to forensically recover and examine tiny particles of DNA − including prints, blood, hair, saliva and skin − and the lead officer must manage these evidence opportunities. That means appointing separate FSIs at each scene to avoid cross contamination of DNA samples.

“And it’s amazing what we can do with phones and IT technology these days to obtain an accurate picture of who our suspect was contacting and where they were at times central to the investigation. I won’t divulge some of the wizardry…a lot of what we recover is crucial in building up a solid prosecution case.

“An SIO might also consider calling a pathologist out to a murder scene if there’s something odd about the positioning of the body or the injuries, and will also oversee the post mortem and interview procedures.

“Another big change is that only a few years ago you could lock down a crime scene and manage the information flow. Citizen journalism has brought lots of benefits − and helped us trace wanted people − but also presents many challenges. I’ve had key witnesses tweeting about what they saw and residents of homes overlooking the scene taking photos or videos and sharing them on social media. Information management is much more difficult now.

“Unlike in TV dramas where the lead officer is actively involved in all lines of enquiry from knocking doors and assessing CCTV to chasing suspects and quizzing them in interview, I’m so busy managing the enquiry that I’ll rarely step out of the office!”

Richness of character goes hand-in-hand with plot depth for author Tom so Mark’s candid account on juggling personal, family and work life whilst immersed in complex investigations was equally insightful.

Tom added: “It’s important to explore the lead characters’ personalities so to get a first-hand account of how all-consuming running a murder enquiry is was really helpful. Mark recalled emotional moments when his children have pleaded with him not to go in at weekends, and countless occasions where he’s missed family gatherings or school plays.

“And even when SIOs aren’t physically at work managing the enquiry Mark said it’s hard to escape…even when at home watching TV or over dinner he’ll be mulling over lines of enquiry, actions and potential motives. But when you’re responsible for finding a killer, and getting justice for bereaved families, it must be hard to take time out.”

Tom Bryson’s second novel (in cop Matt Proctor series) ‘IN IT FOR THE MONEY’ − again centring on DCI Matt Proctor − was released last month (April 2014).’

Coming soon ‘BLOOD RED RABBIT’ Psychological thriller/romance set in Ireland. 




Goodreads is a great place for readers and writers – have a look.

I’ve been answering questions on Goodreads and I thought I’d share them with others here.  I hope you will contact me here or via Goodreads with your questions and comments please. Thanks, Tom
Power pole down blocks Railway Place Coburg
Power pole down blocks Railway Place Coburg (Photo credit: Gavin Anderson)
Tom Bryson I don’t suffer from the dreaded WB. I think that’s because of my approach to novel-writing. Once I have the nugget of an idea I write a short 2 – 4 pages outline of the book. I develop character profiles for the main and some minor characters. From that I write short scene summaries – not all, I leave a lot or room for the story to breathe. Now I write my first draft. Then I rewrite, rewrite, edit, edit!
Because I have a plan to follow I find the words soon flow. I suspect if I didn’t do this I’d probably hit a brick wall and become demotivated. I know many writers detest the idea of outlining, planning, etc considering it stifles the creative juices. I understand that – but I’ll stick with my tried and tested method – no WB that way. Hope that helps!
Tom Bryson I’m revising a novel I wrote a while back titled BLOOD RED RABBIT. The story is about ordinary people who become extraordinary in the face of great traumas and life shattering experiences. Set in Northern Ireland, the story is about redemption and love across the sectarian divide in a post ‘Peace Agreement’ era when past grievances still haunt the present. I hope to finish it later this year. Please check out my website for details.
Thanks, Tom
Tom Bryson From news articles. To research IN IT FOR THE MONEY I set up Google alerts on match/spot fixing, cricket, football corruption. However, the sporting context is a backcloth to show relationships in a crime thriller.  Those who detest sport especially after a summer fest of World Cup and other events can rest assured – this book will not add to your misery but give you a good crime thriller read!

Newspapers B&W (2)
Newspapers B&W (2) (Photo credit: NS Newsflash)

Near Birmingham UK Sat April 12 – drop in and browse great books

Drop in and have a chat with me – be pleased to

see you on TJB BOOKS stand at the 

Birmingham Independent Book Fair (FREE)

at The Ikon Gallery, 1 Oozells Square, Brindley Place, Birmingham

April 12 @ 11:00 am – 5:00 pm


Browse, buy and discover new books, many of which are not available on the high street.

This day-long event will feature independent publishers from the West Midlands and beyond, offering you the chance to buy books directly from the publishers, who will be on hand to answer questions and introduce you to new writing. From poetry pamphlets to prose fiction, graphic novels to science fiction and fantasy, a wide range of forms and genres will be represented.

There will also be a programme of events running throughout the day.

The publishers involved are:

Twin Books 


Flarestack Poets 

William Gallagher 

Boo Books 

Pigeon Park Press 

Cinnamon Press 

Silhouette Press 

Cannon Poets 

Shadow Publishing 


Offa’s Press 

Black Pear Press 

The Alchemy Press 

Ellie Stevenson 

Nine Arches Press 

Gingernut Books 

Crowded Quarantine 

Foxwell Press 

Fair Acre Press 

Five Seasons Press 

The Birmingham Independent Book Fair is a project of the West Midlands Independent Publishers’ Network which is convened by Writing West Midlands.

The event is organised in collaboration with Ik0n.

Free event, drop in

Did you know?

Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948), political and ...
Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948), political and spiritual leader of India. Location unknown. Français : Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948), Guide politique et spirituel de l’Inde. Lieu inconnu. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)




(Nov 2013)

Even atheists will enjoy this great read!

Did you know?

  • That Hitler’s concept of a ‘pure Aryan Race’ was fatally flawed and based on inexact, prejudiced research.
  • That the Hindu caste system was abolished in 1949
  • You can join Hinduism even of you want to retain your atheism. (“All paths lead to God”).
  • There is no such thing as “Sin” or “Hell”.
  • And “much, much, much” more…

These fascinating insights, and a host of others, are contained in this excellent and accessible book about the beliefs, history, social and geographical origins and evolution of Hinduism. (I hesitate to call it a book about the Hindu “religion”, because Hinduism (and its “cousins” Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism are as much “philosophies” as “religions”).

The book’s title reflects the polytheistic belief systems in Hindu tradition, and yet can still accommodate monotheism –even atheism! Pragmatic and ever-evolving; Science and the Big Bang Theory are even accommodated in this all-embracing belief system. The sophisticated, elusive principle at the heart of Hinduism is “cosmic consciousness”. Is this eclecticism all too good to be true? Well, there are sub-divisions and traditionalists who reject ‘modernist’ tenets. Even Mahatma Gandhi was once refused permission to enter the great Hindu temple at Guruvayoor because he was accompanied by lower caste followers. An ancient temple in Kerala still has at the entrance, a sign that reads: “Non-Hindus not allowed”.

The book is written as a series of essays covering the Culture, Concepts and Controversies in Hinduism, and explores and explains complex ideas in simple, often conversational prose. Sprinkled with human stories, parables and personal views (and occasional “peeves”), the writing is always engaging and at times delightfully controversial. There were moments when I wanted to leap up and pump the air with a balled fist and shout “yes, yes, yes”; at other times shake my head and mutter “No, no, no”. This book is more than a primer; it would make an excellent debating resource and is an invitation to further reading and learning. You will get behind the myths and misunderstandings that prevail about reincarnation, many gods yet one god, yoga, etc.

The essay on ‘The Milk Miracle’ of 1995 strikes a balance between blind faith and scientific explanation, leavened with humour. In fact, a gentle irony runs through many of the essays.

‘Contrast and Compare’ type discussions are used to open up – and explain – differences and similarities with other mass religions like Islam, Christianity, Judaism.

Boxed quotes from historical and contemporary figures enrich and reflect the text e.g. after the essay on “The Search for Aryans”, Margaret Attwood is quoted: “I hope that people will finally come to realize that there is only one race – the human race – and that we are all members of it.”

Amen to that, I say.

In conclusion, I think the author, Swami Achutahnandu, takes the reader on a journey of understanding that embraces Hindu history, belief systems, nature, and geographical -even social – mobility. He does this like a friendly guide; sincere, knowledgeable and serious. Although he can get tetchy now and then (especially so in the case of academics obsessed with Freudian psychoanalysis) – you always feel there is a twinkle in his eyes and a sense of shared humanity. A first class read!


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