method and madness

One of the things I’m coming to realize about myself as a writer is that I tend to jump in feet first and then realize once I’m treading water that I should have had a better plan. So, usually I’ll start off with an idea, then I’ll write a couple of chapters, then I’ll go back and write an outline.

I’m working on a murder mystery right now. I started writing it with only one idea in my head: wouldn’t it be funny if a bestselling crime-fiction writer got tangled up in an actual crime? I had a vague notion of who the bad guys and suspects would be, but I didn’t really sit down and fathom out the crimes themselves until yesterday. Which is a problem, because all the best mystery writing has clues dropped from page one. I find that the mysteries I enjoy the most are the ones with the endings that surprise you, but that have dropped clues all along that you find when you go back and reread. As a writer, it’s tough to insert those clues if you don’t have all the evidence gathered.

So I drew a map. I find that drawing can help me visualize something, especially something as convoluted as a mystery plot. (I also draw maps when I set novels in fictional towns, and I’ve been known to draw family trees when I’m writing about big families, and other things in a similar vein.) So I took a fuzzy picture of the map I drew yesterday. You get fuzzy, because it contains spoilers; the book’s not even done, but should I someday finish it and publish it, I’d hate to ruin it far in advance. 😀

So there’s a little taste of what I’m working on. A complicated mystery with a little bit of a twist in the ending. So now I have to go back and edit to put in more clues. And also fact check my police procedure. And also make sure the pacing on the romance subplot(s) works. So much to do!

the song remains the same

I do all my best thinking when I’m nowhere near a computer. Sometimes this is a problem; if I don’t write down an idea right away, it doesn’t always stay in my head. Most of the time, I view it as an asset.

I walk a lot. I live a little over a mile from my day job and I don’t own a car, so I walk to and from the office every day. Or, sometimes I just walk around the neighborhood when the ideas aren’t coming so easily.

And, because I’m also easily bored, I always have my iPod with me. The best strategy I’ve come up with to overcome writer’s block is to make playlists for each of my novels. If I’m stuck on a story, I’ll put on the playlist for that story and take a walk, and I can usually work out my problem. I started doing this for a novel I wrote in college: I made a soundtrack. It’s helpful sometimes to think of your novel in cinematic terms. Who would play this character in the movie? What song is playing in the background of this scene?

My musical tastes are varied and eclectic. I like everything from country to folk to opera to classic rock. Among other things, I’m a classically trained musician, and I’m a sucker for a good pop song that uses strings. (Real strings, not the synthesized ones; I can tell!) Sometimes I make playlists that are just a hodgepodge of songs that I think apply to specific scenes. It means that one soundtrack can have a folk song, a rap song, and maybe a piece of classical music. If I write a novel with a violinist character, the soundtrack might include a piece of music she plays in the novel. If I hear a song that I think is particularly evocative, that’s probably going to get added to a soundtrack. Sometimes I just pick a bunch of songs in one particular genre to set a mood for the whole piece. I have a work in progress about Wyoming ranchers, and I made a playlist that is entirely country music, for example (and all songs about wide open spaces, for the most part, or specific emotions, nothing that’s location specific to areas of the US I’m not writing about.)

So, I’m participating in NaNoWriMo this year, and the novel I have planned is, in part, “historical,” in that there’s a storyline that spans from 1945 until 2001 or so. The character who lives through all this is a lifelong New Yorker, so I’m trying to pick out some songs for his part of the novel’s soundtrack. So far I’ve got things like Bob Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street” and James Brown’s “Down and Out in New York City” and a whole lot of Simon & Garfunkel. If anyone has further songs, songs that are evocative of a particular era, or of New York City (especially in the 60s ad 70s), I’m open to suggestion, too.

PS — I haven’t officially announced it here, but my first novel is coming out in February, if all goes to plan. This novel’s got a soundtrack, too, sort of, in that I was listening to a lot of whiny emo rock at the time.