Selecting the Right Subject and Location for Your First Novel
One of the many challenges facing the debut novelist is to select the appropriate subject matter and the optimal setting. Your mind may already contain vivid snapshots of your characters and exciting fragments of your plot, but you may not yet have explored fully the overarching themes and underlying topography that will form the “stage” upon which your characters will play out their story. Selecting a subject that is inherently interesting is an obvious advantage for gaining the interest of readers. Finding the right locations and portraying them vibrantly to your readers may add to that allure.
When I first thought seriously about writing a novel, I knew I wanted to tell a story that arose from historical events that had transformed my generation in some powerful way. One of my top candidates was the attack on September 11, 2001, and its aftermath. No other subject during my lifetime has stirred such a variety of strong emotions among so many people: feelings of loss, anger, fear, patriotism, suspicion, disillusionment and many other emotions. Reading extensively about those events over a period of many months flooded me with ideas that eventually informed my story.
My first novel Missions is an offbeat political thriller thattakes place during the first year following the 9/11 attacks, when the feelings are still raw and the transformations of our society are still underway. An explosion in the heart of Paris launches an international investigation that propels Doyle O’Gara, a computer scientist at a technology supplier to the CIA, from the periphery of the new war into its moral nerve center. One of the novel’s main subjects is the resurgence of Islamic jihad. The same theme has inspired several best-selling thrillers, but in Missions I wanted to delve more deeply into the dark recesses of the human spirit that permit a select few to murder in the name of God or politics. I sought to portray these new enemies not as cardboard background villains but rather as complex personalities fighting for causes they believe justify their crimes.
The corrosive effects such crimes may have on the liberal values of a free society is another major subject I selected for Missions. As the investigation leaps from one clue to the next, Doyle O’Gara finds himself hurtling toward a disastrous miscalculation and a dilemma of conscience that define him and the country he serves.
As for the selection of locations, it is a big advantage to write about places one knows. Having lived in Paris for eight years, I can envision in some detail the scenes inhabited by Christine Dupont, the lead French investigator, as she pursues the urban jihadists. I have also spent considerable time in the other places featured in the novel: Washington, D.C., Marseille, Berlin, Istanbul and London. Following the characters into familiar environments helped me imagine what they are seeing and hearing, such as the experience of Mohammed Jamal and Sheik Musawi, two of the Paris plotters, meeting late at night on Austerlitz bridge over the Seine.
I hope the foregoing thoughts on subject matter and location may be of help to other debut novelists and I wish them every success with their own creative endeavors.
Marc McGuire is an American-born international business lawyer who has lived much of his career in Europe, first in Zurich, Switzerland, and later in Paris, France. He received his J.D. from UCLA School of Law, and he currently resides in California. His debut novel, “Missions,” (Black Rose Writing) is available everywhere April 16, 2020.