Nest Building

We have a bird house hanging right outside our kitchen window. My husband built it with my son long ago and they hung it up with pride and expectation. Year after year, we've waited for a family of birds to discover it. But sadly, the lovely little home sat empty. . . until this spring!

Finally a family of house sparrows decided to take up residence. And now they are the lucky owners of the best bird house in town. Their home is snug in a corner, sheltered from wind and rain. And right outside their tiny door is a heated bird bath and half a dozen feeders. What more could a bird ask for?

For a few weeks we watched the momma and daddy sparrow squeeze dead grass and dried weeds into their doorway as they slowly crafted their nest. Then when all of the fluttering in and out finally stopped, we decided momma bird was probably sitting on her nest.

Not many days later when we opened our kitchen window, we heard a chorus of cheeps. The daddy flitted back and forth from the feeders to his home. Every time he reached the doorway, the newly hatched babies inside would chirp with excitement.

As we watched, we were amazed at the amount of work those babies required! The daddy and eventually the momma spent most of their time flying back and forth feeding and nurturing their babies. As the creatures grew, they would pop their heads out the door and open their beaks wide, clamoring for even more nourishment!

The whole experience reminded me of our writing. In some ways we writers are like a momma or daddy bird giving birth to our babies--our stories.

I'm at the nest building stage. I just started a new book. Like the momma and daddy birds, I spend hours and hours finding the bits and pieces of information, and then sticking them all together into a potential home for my story.

Each species of bird has a different way of building nests, and writers will have individual ways of preparing for the birth of their stories. However, I think we can all agree there are a few essential ingredients (especially for fiction writers) that go into weaving a nest strong enough for those precious stories we're about to birth.
  • Research: Since I write historical fiction, this is a HUGE part of my pre-writing work. I fill up a two inch binder with goggle research. I read biographies, autobiographies, and just about anything I can find to help immerse me into the setting and characters of my story.
  • Plotting: My plot notebook contains categories like: relationship conflicts, external plot points, internal/spiritual plot elements, set pieces, three act structure, inciting incident, timeline, and more.
  • Characterization: I developed a four page worksheet for my major characters and it has about 50 questions that I answer and analyze. Then I fill out a one page worksheet for each of my minor characters.
When we weave these elements together early on, then we'll be better prepared for the big day, the birth of our baby: our story. If we fail to weave the nest tightly, then when we start the actual writing, parts of our story may fall through the cracks.

How well do you build your nest before giving birth to your story? Have you ever started writing and realized you didn't prepare enough? Share your nest building tips. We'd love to hear them!

Join in on Wednesday when we'll talk about nuturing our babies.


  1. Wow - that's a lot of work that goes into creating your characters and your story! I'm a bit overwhelmed. Did you learn this technique or did it come natural to you?

    In my fiction writing I typically can "see" the character (almost like in a movie) so I have never written out the information about them. It might help me weave the story in a stronger fashion.

    Thanks for the tips.

  2. Hi Kathyrn,
    I've definitely worked my way up to this point of preparation. In my early writing years, my "nests" were pretty flimsy and I didn't do much to prepare. My stories reflected that. I've learned that the more I prepare, then my characters, my setting, and my plot are richer and deeper when I actually start the writing. The bonus is that I have less editing to do when I finish!

  3. I do not think I prepared enough for my first novel. But I plan to do a lot more plotting for the next one. I thought doing an outline would be enough, but I fear it was not.

    Where did you find all these work sheets? I am intrigued!

  4. LOL.

    My methods prepare very badly to your analogy.

    I just sit down, with a small germ of an idea, and write. I'm like the woman who has a baby and is like, "Honey, babies here, please go buy a crib!"

    Everyone is different, which is why we have planners and SOTP writers and some half and half.

    I am a FIRM SOTP writer. This new story I planned just a wee bit, I tried to get a very broad GMC in my head of my hero/heroine, and decided on their backstory. That was it. I knew the basis of their story, and of course that they would end up together.

    Everything else was a big ole ???

    I learn so much as I write. It makes for a lot of editing required at the end, and I do stop and do research while I write when I come to something I need info about (I wouldn't be able to do that obviously if I wrote historical...)

    I also characterize as I write. I find out so much about my characters by how they react to situations I throw at them. Then at the end, I DO map out their character, or well, maybe more towards the middle, and when I'm through, I go back and make sure I've been consistent and interweave my 'newfound' knowledge of them into the first part of the book.

    I'm about 16k into my newest book, and Maddie and Rueben are just starting to show their REAL colors to me. I've now picked out their 'picture' and probably here soon I'll be able to do my character sketch completely (I've already started on Maddies.)

    I guess you could also say I'm a "spontaneous" writer. LOL

  5. Since I write Bible studies instead of fiction, my prep is just a tiny bit different. But I do try really hard to spend a good amount of time researching the Scripture passages, doing word studies, reading commentaries, consulting verious versions, and imaagining what it was like to live in that particular time to face that particular situation. Yesterday I wrote one that I had well prepared for - but much too long ago. So now I'll have to do more revision work than normal, because it didn't flow well.

    My new plan (now that I've committed to writing a study a week for the next several Sunday afternoons) is to spend the week reading, re-reading, researching, etc., and then hopefully I'll be ready come Sunday!

  6. Jody, I'm sure that sounds like a lot of preparation to many, but I bet your stories are very tight. I'm in the process of doing something very similar.

    This reminds me of the prep work I do to paint a room in my house (which I am known to do from time to time). If I prepare the walls with spackle, tape around the moldings and ceiling, spread drop cloths over the entire floor and place all of my tools right where I need them, the actual job of painting is easy and quick. But I find painting trim kind of like editing a manuscript for missing or unneeded commas - tedious, but necessary.

  7. I'm much like you with research and outlining characters and plot. It allows me to more easily fill-in with the story if the structure is solidly in place first. Especially with research, which not only gives authenticity, but so many plot ideas can branch off the research, it's actually a tool to the writing.

  8. Marybeth: I developed my own character worksheets. I have four pages of questions for my MC's and one page for my minor. I can't quite remember where I got most of my ideas for the worksheets, but over the years I've added to them and tweaked them until I think I finally have what I like!

    Krista: Everyone is so TOTALLY different in how they approach the pre-writing phase. But at some point, like you mentioned, we need to define those important things our story needs or we'll have too many cracks.

    Bekah: Love the Pic! And sounds like you have a great plan for the Bible studies! I'm excited to see what takes shape! Keep me posted!

    Heather: You're right, my stories are usually pretty tight by the time I start writing. All of that prep work really helps to hone in where I want the story to go. Of course, it takes even more shape as I write and sometimes goes off in unexpected directions, but that's part of the fun of writing! And I love your analogy with the painting!

    Joanne: That's so true--I get so many plot ideas as I research! It's awesome! And when I can write with ease about all that I've learned, it does add authenticity! Great comment!

  9. I'm impressed by all the work you put into preparing to write your books! You should be teaching a class. If you did, I'd be first to sign up!

    My characters just drop in for a visit and begin to tell me their story and I follow along. I feel like the start of my story is like a movie trailer and then I fill in the blanks. Maybe because I mostly write short fiction stories it's easier to do it that way.

    But after writing my first novel, I found I had to write lots of notes, several outlines and do a lot of backtracking.

  10. Everybody has such awesome analogies on their blogs this morning. :)

    The next building phase of writing is SO important. For my first two books, I wrote myself into major corners, mainly because I either didn't do the research I needed to do, or I hadn't established my characters and they were getting awfully wobbly in the stories. No fun when that happens. :)

  11. Little sweet! Must be fun watching their progress.

    My research process is similar to yours, except without the historical research. I fill out in-depth character charts and know all the scenes and which viewpoint they will be told from.

    When I started out with less detail, I'd lose time in the middle of the book. Doing all the work up front has saved me a lot of frustration!
    Have a great day!

  12. Katie, I must be following you around cyberspace. You're right, there are great analogies this morning.

    I outline the major GMC for each character including their spiritual goal/lesson, and then use a plot board to flesh out the major plot points. After I have all those pretty post-its in place, I transcribe things into a chapter by chapter synopsis with scene goals clearly defined.

    Then, of course, while writing, I find all the holes in the plot, veer a little off course, scramble for a solution, and then wrap up the story. :)

  13. I know why you had a book accepted--you are so well-prepared and detailed! Can't believe you do that with your characters! WOW-maybe I need to be more disciplined!

  14. Great post and it fits in so well with what I'm working on now! I'm building my "next" for my story, too. I have a list of things I need to research, I'm doing character interviews, and writing down my plot points and my characters' GMC's. Those are MUST haves before I can even begin to think of writing chapter one!

  15. Hi Jody!

    Thanks for this post. I tend to do too much prep! I enjoy research so much that I will stay in step one for as long as possible before I actually put a toe in the water and write. I also compose a ton of backstory. Even if it doesn't make it in the book, it's good to know it's there and it gives me greater depth of knowlege for my characters.


  16. Wow, Jody, you are so prepared! It's wonderful that you've found a system that works for you.

    I don't do near the amount of research you do, but I don't write historical fiction. Often my stories require little to no research. I usually do what I can before but still end up looking for more information as the story progresses.

    I do a character sketch but not terrible in depth. This also progresses with the story.

    As far as an outline, I try to have most of the plot covered. I highlight the big twists and turns, major plot shifts. I almost always know how the story is going to end. Then I add in smaller details, sometimes even as small as conversations the characters have that help progress the plot.

    Even so, I do a different amount of planning for most of my novels and a lot of that is thought time.

    Thanks for sharing your strategy with us!

  17. Hey Jody, great post! You really should probably teach a course when you get famous! :)
    I did a character sketch for my 2 main characters and did a rough outline. I have learned, though, that for the next one, I need a WAY more indepth outline.
    I am sure I will learn what fits me best with each new manuscript I write.

  18. What a fun question!!!
    I'm all about my characters, making sure they feel extremely at home in their nest so I do most work on them. Honestly, my plot surprises me sometimes. I thought my last novel was going to end entirely different than it I wrote it.

    I view my first draft as a skeleton and I begin to put skin on it and dress it w/ each revision (adding to plot techniques, building tension, etc.)

    But those characters, baby...I'm feeding them worms daily.

    Can't wait for Wednesday's post!!!

    ~ Wendy

  19. Jody, this is essential. I must know the people I am writing about. If I notice a character is starting to evaporate I know instantly it's because i don't understand them too well. I love your post, your strategy is invaluable! God bless you on your journey!

  20. Donna: I'm sure short stories require way less prep! And thanks for your kind words!

    Katie: We can definitely write ourselves into corners when we don't prepare enough. Hopefully the more we learn and grow, the less our books will need to be edited when we finish.

    Jill: The upfront work saves me frustration. And those little birds are putting up quite a racket these days outside the window!

    Erica: My stories grow as I write them too and take unexpected turns. I think that's what's so fun about writing!

    Melissa: I think GMC's are a definite must before starting, or we'll have a lot of holes in our plots.

    Jennifer: I find it hard to know when to start writing too. I think it's usually when I have a firm grasp of my characters. I may not have everything else complete--because we never can, but I have the basics and when I really know my characters then I feel ready to start.

    Cindy: That's the beauty of writing and life: we all have such differences in how we approach building the "nests" the same way birds do!

    Sherrinda: I've definitely learned a lot with each book. In fact as I started this new one, I tweaked my character sheets again. I hope I can always be learning how to do this writing stuff better!

    Wendy: Great new picture! And I agree with the characters! I HAVE to know my characters before starting. They grow too as I write, but I have to really know them.

    T. Anne: That's true. When I don't have a firm grasp on a character, then tend to be pretty invisible.

  21. And Terri, I definitely think that all of my prep for my writing has helped me to grow as a writer! I know there talented writers who fly by the seat of their pants. I can't imagine how they keep everything straight and get the depth needed. But obviously it works for them! I know for me, planning out the essentials has helped focus my story tremendously!

  22. LOL Nest-building? What's that? Snort!
    I'm more of a research as I go type person. :-) I kind of just jump into manuscripts and figure out things later.
    You are so thorough though! That's awesome. If I sell my historical and need to write more, then I'll be borrowing some of your advice, and maybe bugging you, lol, since organization is not my thing when it comes to writing.

    How sweet that your hubby made that with your son! :-)

  23. *sigh* When my current ms was passed over by a target editor...I decided to take a huge leap and work on the historical I've always wanted to write. I've mostly gotten by in my previous mss with minimal research...mostly a rough synopsis where I interview my characters. But I'm definitely going to follow your lead this time and start a research notebook. I've just begun and already starting to feel overwhelmed by the amount of info I'm finding. Good luck, girl!!

  24. Wow, you do an incredible amount of research. Since I write contemporary, I eliminate a lot of that need.

    I create a one-sheet for each of my main characters. I put a picture of them on it and all the highlights of their characterization information on it. I also interview my characters and do the GMC charting. I did none of this with my initial stories and am so paying the price now with rewrites. It's so frustrating.

    Isn't starting a new story the absolute best feeling. Well, next to finishing one, at least.

  25. With my last novel, I gathered as I needed them. I flew by the seat of my pants on that one.

    With the novel I'm plotting out right now, I'm trying to do more research beforehand and know where the story is going. I haven't done as much as I should...but I'm still weeks from starting on the actual writing.

  26. That is a lot of work, but one I know makes your story even better.

    I love the research part. Whether it is contemporary or historical I find myself delving into whatever information is out there that will help me to make my story richer.

    And I love the birdhouse. What a neat thing to be watching with your kids!

  27. I love the bird house story.

  28. well, for this current WIP, i didn't build the nest appropriately because i didn't KNOW what i needed to know! yikes! but i'm currently working on reinforcing it right now. :)

  29. Oh, that reminds me of the bird feeder that I made my freshman year of college. Over ten years old now and my mother reports back to me every year that it is still hanging in my parent's backyard, and still being used by a new bird family every year.

    As for my own nest-building, I've already admitted that I am not a big fan of research:) I usually start with character and a rough idea of the story. This will take me into about the first 20K of the story, that's when I hit a wall and have to go back and do some serious work on plotting out the story. It's not my favorite part, but like you said, without it, parts of the story can fall through the cracks.

  30. Jody, I feel so honored to have discovered my blog on your blog list! Thanks for including me. I am still in awe over the process of writing a larger work, since I began this journey as a children's writer/author. All along, though, editors have been hinting that I'm more of a novelist at heart, but it's like when I went from being a sprinter to a middle-distance runner years ago. It took me a while to find my legs. I've definitely made progress through writing a memoir -- I broke new ground and it was exciting. But the idea of writing a novel is still intimidating. I look forward to following you and reading more of your progress and process. Blessings!


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