Write Wow!

Writing tips and techniques from the publisher of Swimming Kangaroo Books. Send your 3-page writing sample to be critiqued to dindy@swimmingkangaroo.com with the word "critique" in the subject heading. Your submission will be critiqued on the blog, but your name will not be used unless you give permission.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Plotting Your Novel (Part 2)



When Bill and I set out to write The Dead Detective, we knew where we wanted to start-- with our main character, Budge, becoming a ghost by being murdered. We kind of figured that we wanted to end it by having Budge find out who his murderer was, but the stuff in between was still very nebulous.

First we had to determine who our characters were. We knew we wanted a female protagonist to go along with Budge, but other than that, we were clueless. Budge didn't even start out being Budge. He started out being called "Woody." Bill and I knew that we wanted our hero to actually be kind of an anti-hero-- or rather to be totally unlike the normal hero in mystery novels. There actually tend to be three types of mystery novel heroes: The tall, strong, masculine, sexy, hard-boiled type of guy (who almost always likes jazz music) and who generally has relationships with many women; the good looking, sensitive, caring, psychologist type who is often a family guy or is at least in a committed relationship (This guy is often the best friend of a detective who frequently consults with him for psychological insight); or the slob-- overweight, junk food addicted, surly, uncouth guy who is not particularly likable but has very close friends who work with him on investigations.

We wanted Budge to be totally different from any of these stereotypes. We already knew he wasn't going to have any type of relationship to law enforcement. At that time, Bill and I routinely spent weekends shopping at pawnshops because they were a great place for parents of school-aged children to buy inexpensive musical instruments, graphing calculators or DVD players. We also bought a replacement wedding band at a pawn shop one time after one of my daughters lost mine in the swimming pool. "Let's make him a pawnbroker!" I said excitedly one day when we returned home with a "new" flute for our younger daughter. Bill liked that idea, so there we were. We had a pawnbroker named Woody as our dead guy.

We really liked the idea of having Woody go against all the stereotypes so we decided to make him a real flake. Don't get me wrong; he's a nice guy as everyone who knows him tells CJ when she is investigating his murder. But he's not a real critical thinker. He believes in horoscopes, I Ching, ESP, and whatever other types of pseudoscience that are out there. People tend to discount him because of that, but he's smarter than they give him credit for. He's a chess player-- but more of an intuitive, Captain Kirk type of chess player than an analytical Spock type of player. And he's, how should I put this, physically unprepossessing. He's scrawny. The kind of guy that in high school walked around with a pocket protector. He wears thick glasses, has no muscles to speak of, and is very physically awkward. He's shy and nervous around women, but they don't notice him anyway because he is simply so unprepossessing.

So, we had our hero. Geeky, scrawny little Woody, who worked at a profession that many people consider to be somewhat seedy. Now we had to come up with our female protagonist. This was more difficult because we needed someone who was a counterpart to Budge. We decided, first of all, that she needed to be very rational and logical. She not only doesn't believe in ghosts; she doesn't believe in anything at all that is supernatural. No horoscopes, no pyramid power and definitely no ghosts. That makes it all the more fun when Budge realizes that she is the only living person who can hear him, for whatever reason.

We decided to make her a computer geek to give her a reason to be at a pawnshop after hours. We also decided to make her a junk food junkie in homage to all the slobby male detectives that are out there. However, we decided to throw a slight twist in things. At first we talked about having her be kind of unattractive, maybe overweight or with a really big nose or a receding chin or something, but then we thought it would be fun to make her a former beauty pageant queen- with a twist. CJ is a stunningly beautiful blonde (Nicole Kidman would be perfect for the role!) who absolutely does not care about her appearance. She hates her beauty queen past. i can't remember where we came up with the name CJ, but her real name is Crystal Janine and she hates that as being too frou frou.

At this point we had our two protagonists, and we were ready to start plotting-- but I'll save the details of that for the next blog, which hopefully will come along sooner than this one did.

Oh, and in case you are wondering how Woody became Budge-- we realized that there is an actual pawnshop in Arlington called "Woody's Pawnshop" so we had to change it. We had already decided his full name was Cecil Eugene Dirkwood, which we decided sounded sufficiently nerdy, but coming up with his nickname was a problem. Cecil? Eugene? None of those just seemed to fit. Then one day we were talking about one of our daughters and how difficult it was to budge her once she had made up her mind and Bill said, "That's it! We'll call him Budge because he's so stubborn!"

It was absolutely perfect, and Budge and CJ sprang into being.

Now you might wonder what all this has to do with plot development-- which is supposed to be the topic of this blog, however you've got to have strong, well developed characters before you can plot your novel. Many of the plot points we put in there came from the fact that Budge and CJ are who they are. In my first blog on this topic I said that writing a novel is like planning a trip. The characters in your novel are akin to your companions on your trip-- the route you take and your mode of travel will depend on the type of companions you choose. When my husband and I moved from New York to Texas, we went separately. I took our two small daughters and traveled by bus to Florida to visit a childhood friend for a few days. I then went the rest of the way to Texas by plane. My husband, on the other hand, drove across country with our cat and our guinea pig in the back of the car. We both ended up at the same place but we both had vastly different journeys. He couldn't go to Florida with me and the girls because of the cat and the guinea pig, and the girls and I did not want to go with him and spend three days or so driving across country in a tiny compact car with a 5-year-old, a 2-year-old, a cat and a guinea pig. Do I really need to tell you why?

So developing strong characters is a very important part of plotting your novel. In my next blog I'll tell more about how Bill and I developed our plot.

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