For me, outlining is extremely important. Mainly because a large part of the action in my mysteries take place in the past and have so darn many details, I can’t rely on my pea-brain to remember it all. I begin with my “jump-start” outline. Now, what the heck is that, you ask. I made up the term so I can’t refer you to any book or manual. Since there are two separate story lines in my books – past and present – I actually have two “jump-start” outlines. But since both are very similar I combined them for today’s blog.Modern (and Past) Story Line
- Broad overview of story, ie: Digital photographer searches for missing Van Gogh painting after her best friend is murdered (my last book.) The Past story line will be a bit different since this is where the story begins.
Expand this to a paragraph if you like, but no more for now.
- Characters: Snapshots of main characters, both protagonists and antagonists, to include physical description (so you can visualize them,) their likes, dislikes, what’s important to them . . . or not, education, occupation, you know, general stuff. Add in personality traits: stingy, obsessive, lazy, kooky. Use bullet points. They’ll grow organically as you write.
- Setting: Where does most of the plot take place? In my last book, Washington, D.C. and Paris, France. Ooh la la. Get it right – go visit, don’t just look at pictures.
- Major conflicts, ie: Is the main character getting divorced, in love with a loser, always fighting with her boss, her mother, her sister? Are her relationships getting in the way of her job success? These may only come up occasionally and in usually in sub-plots.
- Ending: You may not always know this at the beginning, but at some point — early on –you do need to know what the ending will be. As a caveat, I will say that I had the ending for one of my books and my editor suggested a completely different one. I loved his idea, changed it and in doing so, ruined my follow-up book. (You’ll have to read it and see. Ha!)
With my “jump-start” outline I write a quick and dirty first draft. At this point, I have a better idea of what works and what doesn’t as far as plot, characters, etc. Now, I get into serious outlining. More detail on all the above, and even a chapter by chapter outline. What will happen next, next, next.
I better define the characters in terms of personality and interactions with each other. I refine their conflicts. I add details to the settings.
Then I start again. Read the new draft out loud, cringe and re-write. Test the chapters out in my critique group, cringe and re-write. I don’t usually re-outline unless the book isn’t working as a whole.
Hopefully, that first “jump-start” is all I need. Ideas welcome.
Here is a teaser for my next book, expected to premiere next summer.
New York City, 1902. Imagine what it would be like to be nineteen years old, accused of killing your family, and committed to a lunatic asylum in the middle of a colossal potter’s field for the rest of your life? That’s the fate of Ruby Hunt in my next book, Hart of Madness.
The book opens with:
Hart Island is a small island located in the Long Island Sound,
off the coast of the Bronx, in New York City.
It has been a public mass burial ground,
a “potter’s field” for a million souls since 1869.
The crumbling remains of its buildings once served as:
a Union Civil War prison camp,
a tuberculosis sanatorium,
a boys’ reformatory and…
a woman’s lunatic asylum.
Publication details as they unfold.
Years ago I saw a terrific IMAX film called To The Limit. In it was a scene I never forgot. A champion downhill skier was sitting on top of a mountain, skis and poles by her side. Her eyes were closed and she was moving her arms and upper body as if she were skiing downhill. She was picturing the course with its turns and moguls as she traveled down the mountain in her mind. She forced her brain to prepare for those turns and bumps by visualizing the course over and over. Something similar to muscle memory ie: when you play an instrument and your fingers seem to move on their own almost apart from your brain.
This visualization technique can be very useful in writing. Close your eyes. Picture the scene you’re about to compose. A family about to sit down for dinner. What does it look like? How many people are there, who are they? Two adults, two children. What are the ages, sex, and ethnicity of the individuals? What are they wearing? What is the room like? Who sits where?
Sounds totally boring. But the way you set the scene visually, has a huge impact on your story. Close your eyes again. You’re in a kitchen, white crooked cabinets, dirty fingerprints on the doors, dishes in the sink. No windows. Floor is black and white tiles, heavily scuffed and greasy. The table has no cloth, just bare, scratched wood. Chairs do not match. Refrigerator has one child’s drawing stuck on it with magnet.
The adults are about forty, the man is black, the woman white. Mom is wearing tank top, shorts. Dad is in a spotty tee and jeans. The kids are a boy, nine and a girl, twelve, both with latte skin. The girl is wearing torn jeans, t-shirt falling off one shoulder and her face is in a perpetual sneer. The boy is chubby and his forehead and upper lip are sweaty. On the table is a platter of suspicious looking meat, kind of pink and gray. Rap music pounds in the background. Both parents and daughter text and surf on their smart phones.
No one seems to be interested in eating except the boy. He stabs at the meat and brings a piece to his plate. His nose curls up and he pushes plate aside, leaves the room. A huge gray cat jumps onto his chair, then onto the table. He begins licking the piece of meat on the boy’s plate. No one shoos him away.
If you painted this family portrait, you already had a definite image in mind. As a reader, however, you provided us with copious amounts of useful information. We know it’s warm, maybe it’s the summer in the south. We know quite a bit about the parents and the kids, in terms of attitudes and interests. We know something about their home life (at least at the dinner table.) We know a lot about their attitudes, toward themselves and each other. We see the interest they show their smart phones but the lack of interest, respect and caring for each other.
We also know the food was spoiled, but the cat didn’t mind. And I could picture the house (more likely apartment), the heat, the jarring sound of rap music, and the sad plight of the boy.
Visualization is more than just “description.” It’s not just a brown leather couch sitting atop a Persian rug in front of a teak coffee table. It’s not just a blond wearing high heels and red lipstick or a wet dog shaking after his bath. It’s about emotions, attitudes, the idiosyncrasies of the characters.
When my cop, Mead is feeling the acid rise into his throat, he doesn’t complain about it. He just pops a few Tums. When my character, Maggie, is anxious, she doesn’t whine. She paces the room, throws her arms around, babbles a mile a minute.
Your character might chew her nails to the quick and always be embarrassed about them. Or maybe she throws mugs against the wall (very satisfying as long as they’re not too expensive to replace.)
Visualize a woman. She’s not just a blond in a blue dress, wearing high heels and red lipstick. She’s a woman, teetering outside a motel room, black roots showing through the teased mass, blue dress torn at her hem, lipstick smeared like a clown. Picture her. There . . . there she is. You can see her clearly. You know her.
Write your scenes as if they were movies. Let us see what’s happening through your words. You’re the director.
A year ago I received this sweet poem in a Christmas card but am having trouble finding the poet. The closest I can come is a similar poem by Helen Steiner Rice. Both poems are lovely but if anyone knows who wrote the one below, please let me know. Thanks and have a wonderful holiday!
My Christmas Card List
*There is a list of folks I know
All written in a book,
And every year at Christmas time
I go and take a look.
And this is when I realizedf
Those names are all a part,
Not of the book they’re written in
But deep inside my heart
*For each name stands for someone
Who has touched my life sometime,
And in that meeting they’ve become
A special friend of mine.
I really feel that we’re composed
Of each remembered name,
And my life is so much better
Than it was before they came.
*Once you’ve known that “someone”
All the years cannot erase,
The memory of a pleasant word
Or of a friendly face.
So never think my Christmas cards are just a mere routine,
Of names upon a list that are
Forgotten in between.
*For when I send a Christmas card
That is addressed to you,
It is because you’re on the list
Of folks I’m indebted to.
And whether I have known you
For many years or few,
The greatest gift that life can give
Is having friends like you.
I had a surprising experience recently when I received the following review on my book, Pure Lies: “False Deception – I thought it was historical fiction. It’s just a sex thriller. I stopped after the first chapter. No thank you!”
I actually had to go back and read the prologue (not the first chapter) to see what the reviewer meant. Sex thriller? Did I actually write a sex thriller? For those of you unfamiliar with this mystery, it is about greed and depravity as underlying motivation for the Salem witch trials. And, as in all my novels, it is unraveled by modern technology years or, in this case, centuries later.
The last two paragraphs of the prologue depict a church deacon and a young woman committing a “sin” but it is wholly in the context of the story and lays the foundation for one of the villains in the story to show their true character. Or so I thought.
Pure Lies was the winner of the San Diego Book Awards for Best Published Mystery, Sisters in Crime in 2014 and has excellent reviews. It is historical fiction on one hand, and modern crime-solving on the other. Is it a cozy? No. But a sex thriller?
Naturally, every reader is entitled to their opinion. I’ve read “real” sex thrillers, and this review seemed far off the mark. But then I’m biased.
As a writer, it reminds me how important those first few pages are . . . to each individual reader. We need to consider our readers, but we have to be true to our writing. Would this opening scene to my book have been better without the “sin?” I think not.
Your ideas are welcome.