Write a Novel: Tips on Getting Started







With the idea that August, that last sliver of summer before autumn (and responsibility sets in), is the perfect opportunity to perhaps take a little time for yourself and begin that novel that’s in your head, we asked some Chicago authors for their tips on how to take that first step. We will soon share advice from non-fiction, children’s books, and memoir writers.

Dr. Aaron Malavolti is writing The Patriarch Rising, a thriller based on exciting incidents involving his medieval ancestors who were a ruling family in Italy. Howard Hallengren causes you to stay up much too late, drawing you into an international heist in Reminiscences of an Accidental Embezzler. This year, Donna Cousins, has followed up Waiting for Bones with The Story of Bones, two of my favorite novels, both set in Africa.


Donna Cousins.

Donna Cousins: I start with a character or characters and get them in trouble right away. They need a problem or something to want. Then, I put up more roadblocks and let the characters figure out what to do. Their pursuit of a goal drives the story. After a while, they really do take over.

Aaron Malavolti: I began not because I wanted to be a writer but because I accidentally found something I thought would make an excellent book plot. 

My paternal ancestors were a ruling noble family in the Republic of Siena, during the medieval times of city-states on the Italian peninsula. Researching them and the city of Siena was a hobby of mine for a while before I made the connection to this potential book plot. Therefore, I had a decent amount of history in mind that I knew I could weave into my book. Even then, it was not easy to put the first words down.

Howard Hallengren: I try to come up with a good plot, something I know about. For my first novel, I knew all the details for a high finance intrigue. I am never sure where it is going with the characters—it was almost as if they developed it on their own.

A chief investment officer in private banking international for Chase in New York before moving to Chicago, Howard knew all about the world of high finance. He also served as chief investment officer for First National Bank of Chicago and, following his retirement from Chase, he formed an international real estate company.

With Chase, he traveled to the bank’s offices in 200 locations—from Lucerne to Rio—remembering the glamor of each place, which he would weave into his novel. He also observed an employee who would become his protagonist, Kurt Wenner, a mega-embezzler. His character really did drive away with $5,000,000 in gold coins in an escape caper worthy of a James Bond movie, but the rest was almost all fictitious: “I sent the book to his boss at Chase who liked it, and it was sent to all members of the Chase alumni association, given as door prizes at a formal dinner in New York, and was featured in their newsletter.”


Reminiscences of an Accidental Embezzler.

Donna Cousins, an Old Town resident and a master gardener, chooses environmental themes. Her first novel, Landscape, takes place in Los Angeles and is a gardening thriller. “I started as a journalist and found interesting work everywhere we have lived: Switzerland, Singapore, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago,” she shares.

A native of Rockford, Aaron is a chiropractor who has served the gold coast neighborhood for over a decade at his private practice, Core Solutions Chiropractic Center.

“There are no other writers in my family that I know of. There is, however, a book mentioned in my novel, one of the oldest history sources on Siena, a book titled Dell’historia di Siena written by an Orlando Malavolti in 1574. Does that count?

Like Howard, an incident fired the plot for Aaron:

“It wasn’t until I stumbled upon something regarding biblical history that I knew I needed to give this a go. After finding what I thought would surely make a good novel, I still wasn’t convinced I was understanding everything correctly and thought I needed to speak with an anthropological geneticist before I began to put hours of work in. On a whim, I emailed one who is very respected in the field but works at a university in Rome.

“In my then imaginary book, there was to be a character based on this professor. To my delight, he emailed me back and assured me the premise of my book was scientifically possible. He thought it was an exciting idea for a novel, and he wanted updates as I wrote. Then I had to get started!”


Dr. Aaron Malavoti.

How can you make time for writing?

Aaron: When I decided I was going to give this a try, I started setting my alarm an hour earlier each day. I start seeing patients at 7 am but have been getting in to my office around 5:30 am each weekday since this process started for me. This has worked wel as it gives me a quiet hour to work on it first thing in the morning. Honestly, a lot of those mornings I probably only spent fifteen minutes working on the book, but I made sure I did something each day.  

How do you fight writer’s block?

Donna: It helps to like at least one of the characters because you’re going to live with them for a long time. I was very fond of Bones. And I fell in love with Africa, where The Story of Bones takes place, on my first visit.

Howard: I love to write and don’t have a fixed schedule, sometimes ideas wake me up at night. If I am really working on something I wait for the ideas to come, for me the characters come alive. In one scene my character was arguing with his wife and became just furious, they built it on their own. I thought about it after I felt this and it was the only way it could have happened. I began to see that my lead character was always trying to justify himself as he led himself on a riskier path.

A: I can only speak from my experience, which is limited, but I found having a schedule where you are forced to work at it has helped a lot. There is a principal I have read regarding creative writing that says, ‘You don’t think to write, you write to think,’ and I believe that helps. 

If you can force yourself to write daily, even if you’re convinced you don’t have any good thoughts that day and the words surely won’t be used in your story, you may be surprised how things change when your fingers get moving. 

Often times, you need to write poorly before the correct thoughts present themselves. While I was crafting my rough draft, I made myself write something every weekday during my writing time. Some days it may of only been a paragraph.

Is doing dialogue difficult for you?

D: I read dialogue aloud and revise until the words sound natural. Overall, I probably spend more time revising than composing. When I change ‘a’ to ‘the’ and back again, I know it’s time to stop.

H: It is extraordinarily important. I did my Princeton thesis on Thomas Wolfe and love Henry James. I go back over and over. My lead character was a very callous person who was always trying to justify what he did. He was always trying to say that he wasn’t a crook, that he had a right to do what he did.


Howard Hallengren.

What about research?

A: As I mentioned, the book does involve a good deal of history from the middle ages in Tuscany. Beyond that, it tells a story that goes back much further in time and calls into question some of the major tenets of the bible story through the use of genetics and anthropology. The book is fiction and a thriller, but it does lay out a great deal of real history and, thanks to some of the science involved, a testable hypothesis surrounding the origins of the Abrahamic religions.  

In this information age, everything is at your fingertips. I am writing fiction, so this type of research suffices just fine.

What are you working on now?

H: I grew up in Chicago during the 1940s and ’50s and remember when I wrote the Milwaukee Avenue streetcar then another for three cents to Carl Schurz High School. I have boxes of old photos that would be fun to use. I will probably write another thriller—I just need to find the plot to fit with the times.

D: I’m mulling over ideas for the next book. A lot of work goes on before you write the first word. I’ll know when I’m ready.

Aaron has the last word:

“I would say that writing a novel is purely a struggle of will. If you make yourself work at it even when you are hating your project, and every thought you have regarding it, you will eventually come out the other side, satisfied that you created something. Setting a writing schedule helps and keeping a positive attitude during all the times you will feel discouraged or dumb.”