Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Outline a Novel?

Joseph Heller's Outline for Catch 22

How much planning should there be for a novel? Should there be an outline? Should you compose character sketches? How much research after the first draft?

My answer to all of these questions is that it depends.

Tempest at Dawn is a novelization of the constitutional convention. Prior to writing the first draft, I had visited Philadelphia twice, complied biographical information for the primary delegates, built a small library about the convention and eighteenth century lifestyle, created a highly detailed convention timeline, extensively marked-up Madison notes, acquired an 1787 map of Philadelphia, and secured architectural layouts for the State House. I knew the content of every chapter well before I started writing.

The Shopkeeper is the first in the Steve Dancy western series. I did zero research prior to the first draft, nor did I have an outline. Although I had nothing on paper, I mentally knew the beginning and end of the story, but how I would get from one point to the other was vague.  I also knew my main character and his sidekick, but the other characters evolved as the story progressed. After I finished the first draft, I collected some friends and did a road trip through Nevada to explore locales for the story. In fact, I asked my ghost town enthusiast friend to find me a mining camp within a few days horse-ride of Carson City. She did, and that is how the story opened in Pickhandle Gulch. After I did the Nevada research and investigated mining in the state, I rewrote the book from beginning to end.

These are two preparation extremes. Why the difference from the same author? Tempest at Dawn was a dramatization of arguably the most important event in the founding of the United States. Accuracy was paramount. It had to survive the scrutiny of professional historians, which it did with flying colors. The Shopkeeper was pure fiction with historical detail limited to locale and nineteenth century lifestyle.  The story was paramount. I wanted to get the story and the characters down on paper before interweaving detail that would make the novel feel right for the Nevada frontier.

The bottom line is that I do what feels right for the project. I don’t believe there is a right and wrong way. There is good advice out there from successful writers, but I believe good writers do what is natural for them. So … my advice is to go with your instincts.

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