plotting & Lilith's bent spoon

Mostly when people ask me where I get my plot ideas from I give them the sassy answer (K-Mart) because the real answer is too odd and complex. But here it is.

I’ve been writing this series of historicals for ten years now, and in that process I’ve come to understand a little about how my mind works in terms of plotting. I start out with a mega-plot, a lot of which comes from historical fact — I can’t change the outcome of a war to suit my characters. Not that they don’t ask, on occasion.

So I have a general idea of major things that will happen in the course of the novel. I plonk the characters down and I wait for them to lead me off, and then I write the story in a line, no jumping around. That sounds straight forward enough, but in truth, there are two layers to this.

The obvious outer layer is the daily me who sits down in front of the computer, reads what I wrote yesterday, and tries to pick up the thread and carry on. Right now I have to get three characters from point A to point B, and so I’m listening to them each obsess about what’s going on, what they’re worried about, what they want. One of them has a big secret she hasn’t revealed yet and I can feel her getting ready to spill the beans. So she’s sitting at a table, and on that table is the notorious Bent Spoon.

A bent spoon is a flag from my subconscious, which I envision as a woman behind a door, very business-like, almost faceless, and she dresses better than I do. Call her Lilith. So Lilith has an agenda of her own. She’s behind that door puttering, working on something I won’t know about until the door opens up one day without warning and she shoves the finished idea out and onto the page. But I know something is cooking, because she whispers in my ear, and it’s usually something like this: there’s a bent spoon on that table, see? Or a letter in a pocket. Or a scar on a cheek. Some little detail that wants to be made clear on the page, but why? I have come to trust Lilith. All will be revealed in time.

The best way I can explain this is by example. The first time the full force of this process hit me was when I was writing ITW. I had Elizabeth walking around the corner in the dark, on her way to meet Nathaniel, lost in her worries and anger about her father. So imagine me writing this, concentrating on the night and her frame of mind, and then suddenly she looks up and Kitty is standing there. She’s clearly come out of the barn, and clearly, she wasn’t in there alone in the middle of the night.

I remember the feeling of surprise and even shock I felt at that moment. Kitty was sleeping with Elizabeth’s brother. It immediately made sense. Julian, immature, self-indulgent, isolated from all his usual self-destructive behaviors, and Kitty, a little simple minded, lonely, angry. Julian is a healthy young man of twenty-seven, one who has never before hesitated to get his itches scratched, and without delay. Of course. It made perfect sense, it moved the plot along in the right direction and provided a complication that I could work with. How long has this been going on? I demanded. Lilith answered: from the very beginning. Don’t you remember the ribbon? Of course. In an early scene Julian kept playing with the ribbon on Kitty’s hat, I remember him doing that and me saying, would you stop fidgeting? That was Lilith, setting me up with a Bent Spoon. Looking back, I saw the signs.

That’s the long answer to where my plot ideas come from: some are imposed on me by history, others come out of my reading, most of them arise from letting the characters interact, and once in a while, Lilith hands me a bent spoon.