Chris took me up on my offer to address specific topics, wanting to know “how you go about plotting your stories. Do you work backwards, do you use mind-mapping, do you write bits and pieces and then thread them together..”

First, for every novel I’ve written so far I have had to provide my publisher with an outline. Which means that whether I want to or not, I have to do some plotting ahead of time. Now, I’m not obliged to stick to that outline, and I never really have. So why ask for it? I think they just feel better knowing that I can put a series of ideas together before they hand over an advance. Nobody has ever said to me, once the manuscript is handed in, hey! you said that Mr. X was going to kill Mr. Y, and he didn’t.

The outline aside, I usually start by writing down lots of stuff long hand. I’m very visually oriented so I get out maps and big pieces of paper. I sit down and think through

(a) where my characters are at a given point (I’m talking about plotting the Wilderness novels, of course, which come along with a complicated backstory);
(b) where they want to be (what their individual goals are);
(c) where I’d like them to be by the end of the novel;
(d) what’s standing in the way of (b) and (c).

Which is to say, I set up goals and complications. I make lists and spider charts and draw lots of lines to connect people and ideas. While doing this, things jump out at me, usually big questions. Like: what in the heck are these people doing in New Orleans in the first place? I write that in big red letters, and then I think about that for a while. Someplace on the main piece of paper I write a couple of things I have to keep reminding myself about:

— happy people leading easy, uncomplicated lives do not make a good story, or: bad things must happen to good characters;
— bad guys have to be interesting if they can’t be likable;
— one step at a time

By the time this part of the process is done, I have a lot of scribbled notes and odd drawings that don’t make sense to anybody else. I try to distill those down to some major plots points, of two types:

(A) actual historical events I can’t skip, or don’t want to;

(B) the pivotal character-specific events or scenes I know will have to happen someplace in the course in the novel.

Under (B) there might be (and these aren’t real):

(1) character X has been lying about something important in order to get Y and Z to go with her to Timbuktu, and she’s going to have to come clean at some point, which means a confrontation;
(2) He and She have been dancing around each other and are finally getting to the point where the relationship has to be acknowledged, that will be a series of scenes, and a lot of dialog
(3) Character Y is going to come down with (pick one) malaria, cancer, blood poisoning.

Then I make notes and diagrams about how (A) and (B) might intersect.

Are you still with me?

With all this material, notes, research materials, drawings, ideas, questions, I then spend a lot of time thinking about the opening paragraph and scene, which will set the tone for the whole novel. The first paragraph takes a long time to get right, the first scene even longer. I probably rewrite these few pages more than any other part of the whole novel, because I can’t really take off until I get them down to near perfection. Once I move beyond that point, I almost never go back and change anything substantive in them.

Still awake?

At this point, I feel my way, very slowly. The first scene/chapters have set up the primary conflicts, if I’ve done my work. I move forward from there, in order. I don’t write bits and pieces and then rearrange them and string them together. I know some people can work like that, but I depend on a sense of building something very measured and balanced, one piece on top of the next. Very rarely I’ll skip over a part of a scene because of technical or research questions and move on fast because the rest of the bit is right there, waiting to be spat onto the paper. But that’s pretty rare.

If I come to a dead standstill, it’s because I’ve forced the narrative in the wrong direction, and I never get very far. Usually my subconscious stops me right at that point, and won’t let me go on until I fix it.

So I proceed this way, chapter by chapter, stopping after every one to re-read, figure out where I am, and where the characters are going next. Often I get the sense that one character or another needs to be heard, and I’ll switch to that POV, which is a little bit like filling the tank and changing the oil and cleaning the windshields to roar off, full of energy, on a new morning of a very long road trip.

I think this pretty much covers my plotting methods for the Wilderness books. I can talk about the contemporary, stand alone I’m working on, too, if you’re interested in that.