Rethinking Plots

Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here, thinking about plotting, and how it is a rare writer who can plan the entire novel in advance and stick to that plan from start to finish. If you are one of those lucky few, more power to you. Me? I’m stuck with a lot of rewriting and revising. On the bright side, every time I read through and make changes to a manuscript, it gets better.

Whatever doesn’t work in the rough draft of a novel, I can fix in revision. I can change the order of scenes. I can even change the point of view they are written in. I can add subplots and/or characters or delete them. I can heighten suspense. I can even change my mind about the identity of the villain. I’ve done this once or twice already.

fatalcoverI wrote an entire draft of my second Diana Spaulding 1888 mystery, Fatal as a Fallen Woman, thinking one person was the killer, reached what was supposed to be the climax of the story, and realized that although that person was guilty of several other things that happened in the novel, the murder was not one of them. It was just not believable that my first choice for a villain would have killed this particular victim. Fortunately, when I went back to the beginning and reread the first three chapters, I realized that I’d already given an excellent motive to another character—a person Diana never even thinks to suspect in the first draft.

Neither did I, but I guess my subconscious must have been working on the problem all along. Anyway, with this new villain in mind, it was remarkably easy to find places to plant clues. With the addition of one more chapter after what I’d originally planned would be the end of the book, I ended up with a much better (and more believable) novel.

Since I am incapable of making a detailed synopsis before I start to write (I do keep a chapter outline, much revised, as I go along) my rough drafts are always ragged and full of notes to myself like “add humor here” and “Liss discovers a clue.” Usually, I have no idea what that clue is. Despite that shortcoming, somehow, inspiration eventually strikes.

vbts(small)Vampires, Bones, and Treacle Scones, just out this week in mass market paperback (it came out last fall in hardcover and ebook formats) is a mystery novel that was definitely improved by some rethinking when it came to the plot and, in this case, one particular character. When I started writing, I threw in a random teenaged boy. He was intended partly as comic relief and partly as a complication for Liss, who was trying to involve Moosetookalook’s young people in planning the village’s Halloween festival. I made him a member of the Snipes family, first seen in The Corpse Wore Tartan, a clan of ne’er-do-wells with no redeeming characteristics whatsoever.

This kid, “Boxer” Snipes by name, had his own ideas about that. He came in cracking wise and irritating everyone in sight but there was just something about him . . . . It took me awhile to figure out what it was. At first I thought it was just his resemblance to a boy in one of my classes during a brief, unsuccessful stint as a teacher of seventh grade language arts. That did play into developing Boxer’s character—the kid who seems doomed to failure because everyone, past teachers included, assumes he’s as useless as the rest of his family. I always hoped this “bad” kid could be saved. In real life, he wasn’t. In fiction, he had a chance of success.

thinking-girlThat alone would have worked as a subplot, but once again Boxer had his own ideas. To begin with, I had no idea who he really was, or how important he was going to be to the climax of the novel. Picture the proverbial light bulb going on over my head. Once I realized that Boxer was destined to play a bigger role in the story, I also knew who would be falsely accused of murder and why Liss would get involved in finding the real killer, even after swearing she was done with amateur sleuthing. I can’t say any more without spoilers, but the upshot was that, once again, rethinking led to a better, more complex novel.

Murder in the Queen's Wardrobe coverFor Murder in the Queen’s Wardrobe, I’d had the general plot in mind for a couple of years, since it is based on a real event, the request by Ivan the Terrible of Russia (then called Muscovy) for an English “princess” as his bride. Queen Elizabeth’s cousin, Lady Mary Hastings, was singled out for this dubious honor. Originally, this storyline was proposed for the series of non-mystery historical novels I wrote as Kate Emerson, but the editor wanted to stick with the court of Henry VIII. I still liked the premise, so it went into my “ideas” file and re-emerged last year to become the first in a new mystery series featuring Mistress Rosamond Jaffrey, a young Elizabethan gentlewoman, as the series detective.

There were still quite a few things I didn’t know when I started writing. I didn’t know who the murderer was or why that person would try to disrupt a marriage treaty between England and Muscovy. I didn’t have any idea, either, how I was going to wrap up the subplot, which involves my spy/sleuth, Rosamond (in England), and her estranged husband, Rob Jaffrey (in Muscovy). Get Rosamond to Russia? Bring Rob home? Kill Rob off? My biggest advantage was that I didn’t have a deadline. I wrote this novel “on spec”—without a contract. That also meant I didn’t have to come with a synopsis in advance, a major plus from my point of view.

Eventually, it all began came together. After some major rethinking and revision the pieces fell into place. Did I figure out the best way to deal with everything? That’s something readers will have to tell me when the book comes out in March of 2015.

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