clarification for Christoffer

Chris is back with some questions that follow from the long post on plotting which people should look at if they haven’t seen it yet.

Christoffer’s questions:

1. It seems as if the outline you mention at the beginning undergoes some fairly heavy changes as it evolves into a book (characters getting killed off, or not, as the case might be), which leads me to believe (perhaps wrongly) that you write the outline before getting down to the nitty-gritty of a, b, c and d?

Nope, no real outline to start with. Just some major plot points, and some idea of where I’m going to end up. However, as I get deeper into the book, I will sometimes pause between chapters and make notes to myself about what needs to happen next, who has got the upper hand and how power is going to be moved to the other side.

I keep track of  tension/power issues in a very concrete way as I write, which is as close as I come to an outline.

2. Also, wouldn’t you have to have the characters ready and waiting to jump into the plot if you work in this manner? Of course, in the Wilderness series you did just that (I gather), but what about minor characters? Do you just thread them in as you go along, or do you develop them first, in order to make them fit better into the pattern?

I don’t plan secondary characters in any conscious way ahead of time. Some characters just get threaded in as things go along, because they won’t be around long. They show up, we have a little conference and I make some decisions about how important they are going to be, and how much print space they need. This is where my love of Dickens shows the most, I think, in that I have a hard time dismissing secondary characters without at least a little attention. Readers who are put off by my long list of characters would probably run off in horror if I included all the secondary and teriary people who float in and out.

Characters who are going to be fairly pivotal, even for a short period of time, I will stop and think about in more detail. For example, there’s a trio of women in Queen of Swords, a middle aged daughter, her mother, her mother’s servant, who are going to be quite important to various plot developments. As I was thinking about them in relationship to each other and to the rest of the characters I realized I was going to have to stop and make notes, which I did. I constructed a brief backstory and timeline, which I’ll refer to now and then when they come into the story.


…are generally seen as tight-fisted, narrow-minded philistines only interested in the profit margin. But of course that’s not always true. Mine, for example, really likes to read, and she calls me now and then, as she did today, to say kind and encouraging things. It’s always a little strange to hear her voice on the phone. This is a very big name, and a very busy person, and here she is calling to tell me that she loved the first three chapters of Queen of Swords. When contracts are being negotiated I have nothing to do with her or the process — I am very happy to leave all that to my agent, because the idea of these two women head to head makes me want to go hide in a closet. On the other hand, the occasional phone call is very welcome.

research & imagination

The reason to go to New Orleans was, of course, the novel I’m writing, the fifth in the Wilderness series. I’m calling it Queen of Swords. Let’s hope I can hold onto that title in the long run.

I did a lot of research for the trip and made plans, and got pretty much everything in that I needed to do. The re-enactment of the Battle of New Orleans at Chalmette was high on the list, and that was indeed a good thing to see. People who spend so much time and energy doing reenactments are a wonderful resource. Who else knows what it’s like to wear woolen underwear all day long? And it’s one thing to see a uniform in a color plate, and another to see it on a man walking along the levee. Also, I always forget how loud the artillery fire is. I’m surprised anybody who fought in those battles had any hearing left.

Pitot HouseThe most instructive and interesting place was the Pitot House, (French Colonial/West Indies in style) built in 1799 on Bayou St. John. It’s been carefully restored and is maintained by the Louisiana Historical Society. We were fortunate to be the only people touring that morning, which meant I could ask all the questions I usually hold back for fear of slowing things down too much or boring less inquisitive types. Kathy Collins (our guide) was one of the best informed and most helpful people I have ever run across at a historic house. We got into such an interesting conversation that I took up a good hunk of her morning.

The house itself is the kind of place historical novelists are always looking for, with an atmosphere that is so strong that you can — for a few moments — get the sense that you are no longer in your own time. The furnishings, the way the light falls, the air itself — everything comes together in a very powerful way that allows the imagination to take over. I’m going to use the Pitot House as one of my settings in this novel. I will make some changes, of course, but then I will set my characters loose in its rooms. Kathy was kind enough to share the names of some of her ancestors with me, and I may well end up using them, as well: Jean Baptiste Baudreau dit Graveline is especially nice, but from Kathy I also found out more about the Pelican Girls (also called Cassette Girls).

In the early 1700s, the first families and young women came from France to the new French colony at what is now Mobile, Alabama. Many of the girls came from Parisian religious communities, and they were all approved first by the bishop (who made sure they were virtuous, but also hard workers). These young women — some no more than fifteen– married the French Marines who were already stationed at the colony. Prime material for a historical novel, if anybody’s looking.

one inch frame

Lamott’s Bird by Bird is a book I often read through when I’m feeling overwhelmed by the project at hand. As I am just now. Her “one inch frame” is a reminder that I’m supposed to be thinking about the character in front of me, and just her, and what she’s up to right now. Forget the War of 1812, the British Navy, the complicated politics, the fact that I’ve got characters waiting for me up there in Paradise and on l’ile de lamatins, too. Just concentrate on Giselle at her breakfast table looking at the ships in the harbor.

The problem is, Giselle is still a little put out at me for leaving her to her own devices.The last we saw her was about half a million words ago and now she’s being standoffish. However, she tolerates me as she would a portrait painter.

I wish her husband would come along so I could get a look at him, because I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that he’s somebody I’ve seen before.