I have been reading Maigret Goes to School recently and realised properly what a great writer Simenon is. Like Collette he loads his pages with precise, clean images, experiences, nice touches, but only enough to sustain the narrative, never too much. He always starts with atmosphere, and I wonder if that isn't always the best place to start along with a feeling of internal pressure, intensity. Here's a few interesting comments he made on his methods:
When asked about why American writers drink so much he said: "Americans must experience what they write about. French writers work within a tradition."
Unlike a traditionalist such as Anatole France, whose work is elegant and reassuring, Simenon writes from personal experience, is rarely elegant, and almost never reassuring. He writes about people, places, and weather he has known, beginning in the reverse order.
"I first find some atmosphere. Today there is a little sunshine here. I might remember such and such a spring, maybe in some small Italian town, or some place in the French provinces or in Arizona, and then, little by little, a small world will come into my mind, with a few characters."
And somewhere in every Simenon novel is a problem that has worried him personally. "I know that there are many men who have more or less the same problems I have, with more or less intensity, and who will be happy to read the book to find the answer — if the answer can be found."
Get the atmosphere, see what characters are suggested, use the novel to investigate some problem you have been personally concerned about. Great advice for any novel. I'm also very interested in the idea that finding a tradition to 'work within' liberates you from the chore (and it is a chore) of having to mine personal experience for everything you write.