Alison Joseph raids her kitchen drawers to demonstrate how to knock up a bestseller in 60 minutes…

The heading of this blog is taken from a writing workshop I run, called exactly that. Write a novel in an hour. So, can you? people ask. Obviously, the short answer is, no – given that a novel is about eighty thousand words. Even people famous for producing a crime book in a week couldn’t type that fast. But, the long answer is that it’s about story structure. And actually, by the end of an hour’s workshop, we arrive at a pretty convincing crime novel structure.

So, how does it work?

The point of the workshop is about unleashing the creative voice, the non-judgmental voice that allows the story to happen. And I reckon it could work just as well for an individual sitting on their own with a blank screen as it does for a group.

To give my workshop its full title, it’s called ‘How to Write a Novel with a Pack of Cards, a Kitchen Timer and a Piece of String’.

So, let’s start with the cards. The cards create character. Cards are picked randomly from the Kings, Queens and Jacks, and whichever three first come up, these are the starting point for the first three characters. People call out names, ages, occupations. The element of chance opens up all sorts of possibilities, that sense of listening to the characters, getting to know the people who are going to drive our story.

Having established the first three characters, we get to work on them, perhaps adding a detective character, too. I use the number cards to give motivations. Basic human drives work really well in a crime story – greed, vengeance, thwarted love. Then, about half way through I’ll use the cards to introduce another two characters, connected in some way to the three we’ve already got to know – partners, siblings, business associates.

And the string? A piece of string is a straight line. Like the story, it has a beginning, a middle and an end. A well-plotted crime story has a strong, sturdy shape; the line of the string allows you to see where scenes fall. So, we make a mark at a quarter in, halfway through, three quarters through, the final twist; four key points to structure the story.

The liberation of this is that you don’t have to just start at the beginning and plough on regardless. If you have a sense of a particular scene, anywhere in the story, you can write that bit. It’s all about waking up what we already know – prodding our subconscious to take that step, explore that character, see what happens – that leap of faith.

The kitchen timer is to mark the time. I give each scene fifteen minutes of discussion. And an hour later, there it is: a fully fleshed-out crime story. Our characters have acted out their destiny; the detective, we hope, has unmasked the killer. The structure is there, all in place. Now you’ve just got to find the words.



Alison Joseph writes the Sister Agnes series of crime novels, as well as the standalone Dying to Know. Her latest novel, Hidden Sins features Agatha Christie as a detective.