As an author, I’ve tried both pantsing and planning when getting ready to start a new novel.
I’ve figured out that pantsing—author-speak for flying by the seat of your pants—doesn’t work for me. If I don’t have any firm direction to go, things spin out of control fast. I get backed into corners, or I find myself in the midst of a saggy middle, or I run out of ideas for the plot. Believe me, sitting at my keyboard, floundering, is not a fun way to pass the time.
Yet intense outlining doesn’t work for me, either. I met a New York Times best-selling author who was so anal to the nth degree that she wrote 40-50 page outlines for her books. Sure, after all of that detail was done, it made her writing job a breeze—but part of what I enjoy is the spontaneity that comes with creating characters and seeing how they’ll maneuver around whatever I throw at them. I feel like outlining in that amount of detail takes out all the joy for me when I write.
So I’ve hit on a cross between these two methods. I always do character sketches for my hero & heroine (and sometimes the antagonist). I come up with their back story, their physical description, and their personalities. I think about their internal and external conflicts and directions to go with both of these. I really put quite a bit of thought into these creations, and I know my people very well by the time I begin writing their love story.
And the plot? Well, I do outline—in very broad terms. I have anywhere from half a page to a page on a single yellow legal pad sheet. I list some of the events that I want to occur in the novel. That way, I have an idea of the direction, but it leaves plenty of room for creativity to blossom and events to change along the way. I start my characters hustling down the interstate to the finish line, but many times (okay—every single time) they get off at the state highways or farm-to-market roads. They do whatever they need to do there. I let them get it out of their systems. Then they meander back and return to my master plan.
I don’t mind them doing this. When I travel I enjoy the speed of an interstate highway, but I have taken time every now and then to slow down and get off the super highway. I might eat at a tiny diner with amazing pies or find a cool antique shop to peruse or see some breathtaking scenery that way. I always make my way back to the interstate and reach my destination, so all is well in the long run.
In my latest western historical romance, Written in the Cards, I decided to have dime novels play a part in the story. With public education growing by leaps and bounds and the literacy rate rising in the US, many people were hungering to get their hands on anything to read. Dime novels were fun, quick reads and very inexpensive.
I decided my hero Ben Morgan would be the popular author of a dime novel series, and he would somehow anger a gunslinger and have to make a run for it. But before I could begin, my heroine Maggie Rutherford totally objected to those plans. She was a bit of a tomboy from a wealthy New York publishing family. She told me—no, actually demanded—that she be the dime novel author. She believed a woman could be just as good a writer as a man.
So here I hadn’t even put my couple on their road to romance, and the heroine was already balking at my plans!
But do you know what? Maggie was absolutely right. She’s smart and creative, and it added a great twist having a female be the author of these exciting adventure tales. First, I could bring into the story information about how many women wrote under male pen names in this era. Also, Maggie’s family owns a publishing house. I have her submit her manuscript under a male name to Rutherford House, and they choose to publish her. So it’s her big secret that she’s one of their authors, and they have no idea! More importantly, it’s the catalyst that gets Maggie to the West. She decides she needs to visit the places she writes about and experience them in person.
And Ben? Oh, he became a gambler who calls out a man who’s cheating at cards. When the man whips out a gun to kill him, Ben shoots him in self-defense—and then Ben discovers the cheater is the brother of the meanest gunslinger in Texas. Black Tex Lonnegan swears revenge on his brother’s killer, so Ben still gets to go on the run from the killer. Problem solved!
In the long run, I’m glad I listened to my character. She knew best, and it made for a fun story to write!