The Writer’s Best Laid Plans

I thought I’d share some insights into the writing process for people who enjoy my novels as well as for my writer friends who might find some useful ideas.

I’m at work on my sixth novel. It will be another thriller based on an exciting what if proposition: What if the son of the president-elect has evidence his father is an agent for a foreign power?

Initially, I set the story to begin right after the 2024 election, but after completing more than twenty chapters, or approximately 60 percent of the anticipated story, I realized it needs to take place in 2028, not 2024.

Simple, you might say, but actually. . . not so much. For example, in 2028, Thanksgiving takes place on the 23rd––fairly early for possible Thanksgiving dates, whereas in 2024, it doesn’t take place until the 28th.

That change of five days forced me to re-organize and re-write half a dozen chapters.

In the original version, I had the protagonist, a U.S. Secret Service agent by the name of Tucker Daniels, accompany the incumbent president as he tossed the coin at the Thanksgiving Day football game between the Washington Commanders (formerly Redskins) and Dallas Cowboys. That won’t work in the revised version because there were not enough days for necessary events to occur before November 23, 2028. Now the football game has to take place a week after Thanksgiving in order for those events to occur first.

That kind of problem arises because I set my stories in real calendar years. The calendar gives a writer a foundation on which to hang events. In some thrillers days are strung together without a weekend ever arriving since story-telling is easier when you don’t have to consider whether offices are open or whether people are at work or home with their families. The calendar can present other problems, such as when a significant other or parent expects the protagonist to be home on Thanksgiving, not gallivanting about looking for bad guys.

Given that I use real calendars to frame my stories, the year I pick makes a difference. House Divided, for example, takes place in 2018, in part because the date when Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) occurs in relation to September 11th fit well with my story flow.

My mistake with novel number six, whose title I haven’t yet chosen, was not doing enough research upfront on the primary global issue that serves as the context for the story. I thought 2024 would work, but it turned out I was wrong.

In addition to the year, the time of year is important. Events taking place in Maine in the winter require factoring in different considerations than if they take place in the summer. Deciding the season gives the writer an opportunity to show the protagonist tackling the elements, or not.

Then there is location. Location represents an opportunity for the author to ground the story for the reader by referencing well-known landmarks. Daniel Silva, author of the Gabriel Allon novels, is an expert at this technique.

Location is even more important in fantasy fiction because the author has to know among other things the geography, climate, population density, and political boundaries of his make-believe world. That’s why you see so many maps in the front of fantasy fiction stories. Because you won’t be familiar with the fact that Moon City is three weeks away by horseback from River Town, including a map helps readers stay connected to story.

What else needs to be forged up front? Certainly, I want to know a lot about my major characters before I start writing. I may discover after I start writing some aspects of their personalities or some important event in their past, but before I start I want to know how old they are, general height and weight, where they grew up, whether they attended college, served in the military, their marital status, etc. The more I know about my characters early on, the more likely their uniqueness will come through. Some of that can be fixed later on, but deciding the protagonist in House Divided was confined to a wheelchair was a key decision, one that affected the story in countless ways. I hope readers caught on that there would be a heavier personal cost to his decision to get involved in the domestic terrorism situation than someone not so confined.

Some writers don’t plot out their stories, but I assume what they mean is that they don’t set in stone their where, when, and who decisions before they start writing––not that they don’t have some idea when they start writing about those key story elements.

Any writer who says they don’t know before they put fingers to keyboard whether their story takes place in the present, past or future, and whether it takes place on planet Earth or some make-believe world, is fudging the definition of plotting.

Plotting is not just who does what to whom when; it includes the framework of the story and the more a writer knows about that framework, the easier the writing will be––even if he has to change it midway through the story.

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