Some writers swear by approaching a novel with a detailed plot in place. They have it all worked out, all the twist and turns, the setbacks, the climax, the denouement, right down to the book’s final sentence.
If that works for you, great, but I need to begin with character: the character of my protagonist and the characters of a few key people around her. I have to get to know these people so well that they become intimate friends. I know the music they listen to, their favorite colors, their favorite foods. I know exactly what they would do in certain circumstances. Then I can start to construct a plot for them.
Brainstorming ideas for Safe Harbor, I asked myself, “What is one of the worst things that could happen to Pat Tierney?” The answer immediately popped into my mind: “Michael, something to do with Michael.” Since Michael, Pat’s late husband, is dead, something could only happen to her memories of him. Maybe Michael wasn’t the icon of the perfect husband she’d made him out to be. Michael…Michael had a child from another relationship during their marriage. Voila! I had the opening of Safe Harbor, the chapter that set the events of the novel into motion.
I could do this because I knew Pat very well. I’d already written another book about her called Last Date. It was shortlisted for the Crime Writers of Canada’s inaugural Best Unpublished First Crime Novel Award (a.k.a. The Unhanged Arthur) back in 2007. Now resting in my bottom desk drawer until I breathe life into it again, Last Date is where I first got to know Pat, her family and some of her friends.
Once I had an opening for Safe Harbor, I knew where the story would go. I didn’t know all the places it would go through or all the characters Pat would meet along the way, but I knew how it would end up.
Some would say I waste a lot of time by not plotting out the novel’s major developments beforehand. And I suppose I do. It takes me about two years to write a book, and some sections have to be thrown out as I meander my way to the climax. But I contend that nothing is wasted. Some of those flights of fancy, now relegated to that bottom drawer, may take on lives of their own one day. The time I spent working on them is time spent getting to know my characters.
I’m nearing the end of the (untitled) sequel to Safe Harbor. In order to get there (I know how it will end), a certain character has to do something and I’m not quite certain what that will be. So I’m coasting for a bit, trying to get to know this character better. I’m writing character sketches of him. During quiet moments, such as when I first wake up in the morning or when I’m taking a walk, I focus on him, then let my mind drift. If something doesn’t come to me…well, I won’t let myself think about that.
Maybe I’ll be able to sit down one day and hammer out the plot, and all the subplots, of a Pat Tierney book before I start the opening chapter. That could very well happen. But if it doesn’t, I’ll continue feeling my way along, frequently retracing my steps, slowly making the plot thicken.