Saturday, April 19, 2008

Seeking My Plot

Most successful writers I know have no dearth of story ideas. The majority tend to have so many ideas that they often have to sort through them to decide which book to write first.

There was a time when that described me, too. I had plot ideas swimming in my head all the time, and I have several unpublished manuscripts to attest to that. I worked on them before and shortly after the time that I wrote House on the Hill.

For years I had felt compelled to write something about the Logan temple. I'd had a love of Cache Valley and the temple there for a long time and knew that there was a story I had to write about it. At the time, I had no plans for sticking with the historical fiction genre or for writing more books about temples.

In fact, the next book I wrote was a murder mystery, a sort of sequel for Lost without You, my first book, that takes place ten years later when the daughter, Angela, is a high school senior. I had a ball writing that one (it was totally awesome when my cop brother didn't guess the bad guy).

And then House on the Hill sold. Really well. And readers were suddenly clamoring for more. That's when I got a call from my publisher that boiled down to, "Hey, let's do more of that."

When I went back to the drawing board, I realized that I really loved doing historical fiction. In a lot of ways, writing it came more naturally than some of my other, contemporary, work had. The problem was that my writing mind had left the historical arena. I had that murder mystery plus two other contemporary novels I was working on.

The question loomed large: What should I write next that would be historical?

I decided pretty quickly to write a follow-up to House on the Hill, because the number one question I was getting from readers was, "What happens to Abe?"

Well, I'll find out, I thought.

When talking it out with my husband, he suggested writing about another temple. And then doing a whole series of temple books. I loved the idea and jumped all over it.

That was a few years ago. Now I've got three temple books in print, a fourth written and awaiting acceptance, and a fifth in the research phase. It's great, and I'm loving the experience. I've learned so much Church history, things we don't generally hear about, and I've come to appreciate and respect the early Saints so much more.

The trick, though, is that I no longer have the luxury of thinking about plots ahead of time. I have no inkling of what storyline my temple books will have until I start digging into the research.

How in the world could I decide what would happen in At the Journey's End until after I read up on the types of events that really occurred on the Honeymoon Trail? I couldn't.

For me, the location and its history become a secondary character to the book, the backdrop to the main story. I still maintain that I don't want the history to become the point of any of my books. The history is and always will be the backdrop for the plot and characters. The stage, if you will. You won't find a history textbook, with gobs of things that are "good for you" shoved down your throat. Ick.

The bottom line for me is I can't come up with a viable storyline until I know what constitutes the stage: what was going on in a particular area at a certain period in time, what the "personality" of the place was.

I thought I was an anomaly in my method, but in the most recent Writer's Digest, I came across a quote in an interview with Sara Gruen, author of the best-selling novel Water for Elephants. I don't have any delusions about being the next Sara Gruen, but something she said made me think that maybe I'm not entirely loopy for working the way I do. Talking about her latest book, she said:

"I didn't think about story until I'd done a fair amount of research into the backdrops, but then it was clear."

Yes! I wanted to shout from the rooftops. That's how it is for me, too! Someone else writes this way!

Maddie from At the Journey's End popped into my head fully formed after about two weeks of research. Tabitha from my upcoming Manti book trotted "on stage" one day with her name, a great line of dialogue, and her back story after I'd been reading up on Manti for several weeks (and starting to worry that I'd never have story to tell about it).

This is the point I'm at right now. For drafting purposes, it's getting a bit late in the year for me to not have a story in mind if I hope to turn in a manuscript by the end of the year, like I usually do. There's a bit of pressure growing, that same bit of worry I've felt before.

You've been reading about that place off and on for weeks now, it says. You have no story. It won't come this time. Who are you kidding?

As much as I talk myself out of the worries, the calendar ticks away one day at a time, and I do get a bit anxious. But then yesterday I was (yes!) smacked in the face with my heroine's first name. I don't know who she is yet; I'll have to spend some time getting acquainted with her and her family. I do know she has a brother she's very close to who will play a big part. Beyond that, it's very sketchy.

But it's coming.

This morning I opened up one of my research books that I've been putting off, and I read thirty pages. It's a sign that I'm getting stoked again. The characters will show up when they're ready, and the story will, too.

I can't wait to meet them.


Jenna said...

This was fascinating, Annette. I love to hear how writers' minds work. Thanks for the peek inside!

Karlene said...

That's cool. I like hearing how other writers write too--it gives me something new to try when I get stuck.

Stephanie Humphreys said...

There are enough temples you would never run out of stories. I'm still waiting for one about the Alberta temple.

Luisa Perkins said...

Oh, hurray! It's so nice to find another mind that works like one's own.

Excited for you!

Julie Wright said...

You are simply awesome. I am one of those authors with tons of ideas kicking around in my head . . . the problem? none of them MATCH. This is something editors do not love about me. It's hard to build up a fan base when all of my books fall into different genres and age groups. I envy you for finding a niche that is so completely awesome. Your writing reflects your ability to do your research and make it alive without making it look like hard work. You are simply awesome. Did I already say that? Oh yeah . . . well it's true.

Kimberly Vanderhorst said...

It's so fascinating to learn more about the writing process through your individual experience. I feel so inspired when I visit your blog.

Crystal Liechty said...

Wow, Annette, what a cool way to come up with stories. It's so romantic how the idea's just come to you. I get most of my best ideas by listening to really good songs and wondering what inspired them.

Unknown said...

hi annette -- simply fascinating post. i like how you really don't know what's going to happen yet. and very cool to say i can't wait to meet them.

i answered your interview questions on my blog post tonight if ya want to see. i had fun with your silly questions. thanks.

best to ya on the current book project, kathleen :)


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