The Long and (Hopefully) Winding Road

When you write mysteries, you hope you to lead your readers down a winding path, complete with roots to trip over and rocks to climb, instead of a smooth, straight highway. Unlike TV, where the general rule is to introduce the murderer by act 2 in such a manner that the character is often painfully obvious, a mystery writer hopes to hide the identity of the person responsible, giving the detective (and the reader) an exciting and difficult puzzle to solve. If the journey is too easy, it’s simply not entertaining.

But at the same time, a certain amount of logic is required, especially when you write forensic crime. Clues revealed at the crime scene have to make sense in the denouement, and the trail of evidence has to rationally and realistically trace back to the murderer, while not being such a straight line as to point directly at him in Chapter Two. This requires a fair amount of planning before the writing begins.

For most of our past novels, I always wanted to have a detailed road map of where we were going. Charts, maps, bullet points, chapter tables, timelines… I wanted it all laid out in black and white. One of the reasons I never get writer’s block is because once I know where I’m going, it’s always smooth sailing. Put me in a position where I don’t know where my story is headed, and suddenly I’m a deer in the headlights. So, in the past we’ve always done a very detailed outline, with all the questions answered before we even started.

But when we started planning for DEAD, Ann made a request. She was concerned that having such a detailed plan before we even started was limiting us creatively. We couldn’t take the left fork in the path because we’d already planned the next step in the case down the right fork. So, instead of planning the whole manuscript out from start to finish, she suggested that we outline in detail the first half or so of the manuscript, leaving the back half only lightly planned, allowing us some wiggle room to see where the writing took us. Additionally, planning is also the most stressful time when we’re writing as we’re both jockeying to get our vision of the manuscript into place, so this would allow us a break in the process.

I admit it, I was sceptical. After writing four previous novels with detailed outlines, I really didn’t think it would work. What if we got half way in and then found that we needed to rewrite the beginning because of a change in direction halfway through? What if part way through we ran out of ideas? What if we got half way in and whole thing simply didn’t work? We’d lose months of time.

But she finally convinced me that it was the way to go. We planned out the non-negotiable issues that had to carry through into the last half of the book ― including the scientific details that had to line up right from the discovery of the first victim ― but we allowed ourselves some latitude on motive, later character development of our leads, and the Act III climactic scene. Then we started to write, with the plan to come back to plan when we hit the end of the detailed outline we already had in hand.

And you know what? We didn’t need to rewrite the beginning, we didn’t run out of ideas, and the story worked just fine. In fact, taking time to settle into these characters and this case ended up being a crucial issue that I didn’t foresee. The case developed naturally and it allowed us to freedom to be creative where the tight restrictions of a detailed outline might have hobbled us. When it was time, we stopped writing for a week to plan out the rest of the storyline, and then we continued on to the end of the manscript.

Lesson number one: I should always listen to Ann when she speaks because she’s usually got something important to say. Lesson number two: There isn’t just one way to write a novel. Yes, it was crucial that some aspects of the storyline were planned ahead of time but some of the best twists that made it into the story were later additions, only made once some of the more detailed case issues were already behind us.

Ann and I are in the ending stages right now of our initial planning for our work-in-progress. I’ve already written several scenes because I simply had to get them out of my head, however the real writing begins this week. But I’ve looked at planning with a very different eye this time around. I’m not worried that while the beginning of the story is already firmly fixed in my head, the end is not. I know in round terms where we’re going and experience has shown me that we’ll have all the ends neatly tied off when they need to be. It’s all good.

How about you? Are you an obsessive planner with bullet points and charts or a discovery writer? Or somewhere in between?

Photo credit: Jess Newton