A Pantser Through and Through
I’ve tried everything: outlining, making scene cards and arranging them on a bulletin board, using a beat sheet that’s supposed to organize my hazy ideas into manageable sections with specific goals. But each time my wayward imagination resists these efforts to impose discipline on it. So, I’m back to my pantser or “seat of the pants” approach to writing.
Of course, I can’t start until I have some idea of how the story will begin, and a vague idea of how it will end, but as for how it’s going to play out from scene to scene until the end, I don’t have a clue. As E.L. Doctorow famously said, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
He’s right in saying you can make the whole trip that way, but, as I well know, the journey is not without its pitfalls. What if you arrive at a crossroads, and aren’t sure which road to take? You take a deep breath, pick one road, and follow it until you’re confident you made the right choice. But if you decide you’ve made the wrong choice, you must turn around, go back, and get on the other road—all of which takes time you can ill-afford to waste if you have a tight deadline.
Even worse, what if you arrive at a roadblock and your story comes to a crashing halt? That’s when I leave the car and go for a stroll. I think about where I’ve been, and where I want to go. I may even jot down a few notes about the journey so far, or heaven forbid, draw a rough map. (If I’m going to outline at all, it usually happens around the hundred-page mark.) Then I clear my mind and focus on other things. Maybe I’ll do some stretching exercises, maybe I’ll eat a snack I’ve brought along, and when I’m finished, I’ll take a nap. When I wake up, the roadblock has miraculously disappeared. Or if it hasn’t, I’ll go through these motions until it does.
Then, too, there are those pesky people you meet along the way. These range from false flatterers who heap praise on your work when they actually hate it, to critics who pick it apart until the meat is gone and all that’s left is a pile of bones. How do you deal with folks like this? Remember Doctorow’s headlights? Keep your eyes trained on the illuminated stretch of the road ahead. In other words, follow your own lights, because it’s your story, after all.
There are, however, some people along the way you shouldn’t totally ignore. They’re characters who want to hitch a ride onto your story. Listen to them. And if they offer good reasons for joining you on the journey, let them ride with you while you make up your mind. If they seem like a good fit, keep them on board, even if they’ve joined late, and you have to go back and add them to the beginning. Which, of course, will consume more precious time.
But is it really worthwhile to embark on a trip where you have limited visibility, risk making wrong turns, running into roadblocks, and meeting pesky people who’ll try to lead you astray, along with others who’ll make more work for you if you let them sign on as characters? My answer is a resounding yes! For me, writing is about discovery, and that’s the fun and adventure of it. If I knew where I was going every step of the way, I’d be bored and my writing would suffer.
ABOUT THE BOOK
Date Published: 2/16/18
Publisher: Encircle Publications
It’s November in the Berkshires, a dreary time of dwindling light when the tourists have fled along with the last gasp of fall foliage. So when a stranger shows up in the sleepy hilltown of New Nottingham and starts asking questions, the locals don’t exactly roll out the welcome wagon.
Bostonian Kathryn Stinson is on a deeply personal quest to solve a family mystery: the identity of a nameless beauty in an old photograph an ancestor brought with him to California over a century ago. But, as Kathryn quickly discovers, the hills possess a host of dark secrets – both ancient and new – that can only be revealed at the price of danger and even death.
Her suspicious neighbors on Rattlesnake Hill become openly hostile when Kathryn starts seeking answers to a more recent mystery: the murder of Diana Farley, who once occupied the house Kathryn is now renting. Was it Diana’s husband, who killed her to keep her from divorcing him, or her lover, Earl Barker, a backwoods charmer and leading member of a wild clan known for their violent tempers?
When Kathryn plunges into a passionate affair with Earl, she puts herself on a collision course with past and present. She must find out if Earl killed Diana, or risk becoming a victim herself.
Brandy coughed. “A family had it for the summer and through the leaf-peeping season. But once the foliage was gone, they split. As for skiers, forget it. Gordon Farley—he’s the owner—won’t rent to them.”
“Tenants-from-hell. Come in droves, track snow onto lovely hardwood floors like these.” Brandy tapped a pegged oak floorboard with the stubbed toe of her high heel. “Party all night and nearly set the house on fire fiddling with that.” She jabbed a bitten-down nail at the white enameled Scandinavian wood stove that stood on a slate hearth in the living room. “Leave a ton of trash behind, too. Whereas someone like you,” her voice switched to a soft purr, “is an ideal tenant. Single but mature. No kids, no pets.”
“I . . . um . . . have a cat.”
“One little kitty won’t bother Gordon,” Brandy backpedaled. “Not with the menagerie he talked about having here. One week it was quail, the next, llamas, then buffalo.”
Kathryn smiled. “Sounds like a frustrated zookeeper.”
“More like a gentleman farmer with time on his hands and money to burn.”
A sour note crept into Brandy’s voice. Did it reflect the attitude of a struggling local toward a wealthy outsider? Kathryn had only spent a few hours with Brandy, yet already she sensed a grittiness born of adversity.
Brandy appeared to be several years older than Kathryn; late thirties or early forties. She might have been pretty once, but now her dirty blonde hair hung lank and lusterless, and fault-lines showed in her face despite a heavy coat of make-up. Her breath and clothes reeked of nicotine, the rank odor Kathryn associated with dirty dishes and despair.
“What’d you say you’re gonna do while you’re here?” Brandy asked.
“This have to do with your job?”
“Actually not. My ancestors lived in New Nottingham over a hundred years ago, and I want to find out more about them.”
About the Author
An award-winning author of books about American history and biographies, Leslie Wheeler has written three Miranda Lewis “living history” mysteries: Murder at Plimoth Plantation, Murder at Gettysburg, and Murder at Spouters Point. Her mystery short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies including Day of the Dark, Stories of Eclipse, and the Best New England Crime Stories series, published by Level Best Books, where she was a co-editor/publisher for six years. A member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime, she is Speakers Bureau Coordinator for the New England Chapter of SinC. Leslie divides her time between Cambridge, Massachusetts and the Berkshires, where she does much of her writing in a house overlooking a pond.
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