Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Infinite Details Live Only In My Head

I'm much more on board with James this week on our topic about how we track the details of our series, fantasy worlds and what have you. I really don't track stuff per se. I'm very much a seat of the pants writer and I don't outline, keep a series spreadsheet or anything else of that nature. Yes, sometimes I do have to go look up a fact in an earlier book but for the most part, I keep it all in my head.

Since I was a kid, I've been blessed with a near-encyclopedic memory, apparently so I could write multiple books set in the same universe, remember all the zip codes I've ever lived in and ace tests that were based on pure memorization. I sure haven't put it to many other uses!

There are a few limited things I may do at some point when writing a new book. When I wrote Wreck of the Nebula Dream, my science fiction adventure loosely based on the sinking of Titanic, I had to stop at a certain point and draw the darn ship for myself. This was necessary (and WILDLY non-artistic, I assure you), so I could be consistent what feature of the ship was on which Deck as my characters raced around in their efforts to survive.

On other occasions I've had to stop and write out the timeline of the story, as in what events are happening on which Day. My stories tend to be pretty compact as far as the realtime duration and sometimes I'm just putting too many events on the same day. Or, with Ghost of the Nile, the main character has been granted exactly 30 days to be back in Egypt to solve his own murder, so I had to be sure I was utilizing his allotment of days effectively with all the plot elements I had.

Sometimes I'll scribble notes to myself on plot ideas, kind of "talking out loud" on paper....

I’ve also developed a method to my madness to help me at least consider alternatives when I reach a plot point that seems too obvious to me. Jump off the roof? Pfui, there must be a more dramatic way to escape the ravaging alien hordes!

In the previous day job, we had a root cause analysis tool called the “Five Whys”. Basically you ask yourself a series of questions about some issue or problem, until you’ve drilled down to the real cause. Our example in the classes we taught was the degradation of the stone in the Jefferson Memorial. Why did the stone degrade? It was washed too often. Why was it washed so often? Because there were so many spiderwebs. Why were there so many spiders? Because there were so many flying insects at night? Why so many insects? Because the Memorial is brightly lit at night. The solution? Turn on the lights later, after the other monuments in the area, to let the insects be attracted elsewhere. I’m not sure if that’s a real story or apocryphal, but it illustrates the principle. There are various root cause diagramming tools and techniques that go with this. The instructor who taught me always emphasized you stopped asking Why? as soon as you’d reached a reasonable level of root cause, rather than drill all the way down to the Big Bang beginning of the Universe.

I use a variation of that analysis to solve knotty little plot problems. I take my desired end result and then diagram the possible ways to achieve what I want to happen. In an upcoming SF romance there’s a need to escape from a facility. I listed the possibilities starting with duh the roof, and then forced myself to really sit and think about creative alternatives. For each choice, I drilled down a bit more, asking myself “if this/then what?” questions. I usually find that one leg of the diagram starts generating more questions than the others, leading me to get excited about the plot possibilities, and other decisions and events that might flow from the choice. That’s where I end up going in the book. 

Here's one of my adapted "What next and what next" charts from the current SFR WIP. You can tell the ideas were flowing along one of the legs and that's where the plot ultimately heads.
The other absolute key to all of this is that the paper is lavender!  (Sorry the color doesn't come through in the photos but it's late and the camera is cheap...) I just think better when confronted with a blank piece of purple paper.


  1. "I just think better when confronted with a blank piece of purple paper."

    ~ponders this~

    1. If I'm going to use paper at all! The keyboard is the best place but sometimes only pen and paper will do.