Have I been out to start the primary research of hunting caches yet? Okay, I’m a wimp. The ground is snow-covered, temperatures frigid. Yes, my chocolate Lab, Hannah, gets a daily hike in the woods. But geocaching involves moving more slowly than she and I do, backtracking, stopping to check waypoints on the GPS, and presently it would involve burrowing through snow and ice to caches that are likely well-cemented to the ground. Does weather stop our caching addict Mark Fischer? Maybe he carries a shovel and salt with him (wouldn’t surprise me!) or he’s haunting cityscapes, searching out “microcaches” stuck by magnets to buildings and under benches. (No trading items in those—just tiny log rolls to sign.) Maybe we can find out.
Hannah’s and my walks have been truncated, my mittened hands crammed in my pockets. Head down against the wind that penetrates the forest as it does the little leaky spots in our house, Hannah and I hurry along under low-slung clouds stuffed with yet more snow. I know I’m missing the rare loveliness of ice patterns on the creek, deer tracks across, and lace tatting where the water runs fast enough to rise up and sing against its own brittle edge. It’s the opposite of paying attention. Look! I remind myself. Too damn cold, another part of me grumbles.
So what happens in a writer’s life when she’s starting a novel and field research gets postponed? I use the time to start playing architect. I have a basic story line in mind, and some primary characters. That much has been filled in by my conscious and subconscious mind just by letting the original idea smolder, as it has for months. Now, working on a large piece of paper, with a pencil and a good eraser, I make a literal sketch—filling in the diagram with words—of one way to structure the novel. (I say one way because this isn’t the time to lock in anything. While I rarely completely depart from a planned structure, I am always open to evolution. What’s planned on paper sometimes ‘wants’ to go a different road when I’m writing it and is much better than the original notes! It’s my fiction writer’s internal GPS saying “Recalculating,” as it sometimes heads me toward my destination via a different route than I’ve mapped.)
While my fiction is character-driven, I have a strong sense of what my theme(s) are and what kind of people I’ll need to enact the story believably and well. The plots I devise grow from the human questions I raise with my readers: why people do what they do, how they affect others, mistakes made in the context of love and disappointment, and how people redeem themselves, are issues about which I frequently write.
With all this in the background, I use vertical lines on big, wide paper, to fool with large concepts. I look at my imagined plot arc and see how it falls under bracket-reminders I pencil in at the top: opening, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement. Is any part of the arc weak? I may have to write myself into it, but I need to be aware of areas that need more thinking or research time. Then I look to see if the novel might fall naturally into divisions, something like “Book I” and “Book II.” If I don’t see larger divisions that’s okay. I might later, or never. Either way, I’ll use chapters. My experience is that readers like stopping points, and that chapters help with unifying ideas, scene creation, and the advancement of time.
The next step is more complicated and I might try drafting the opening (which will doubtless be revised many times) because the answer is critical to how I’ll structure: who’s going to tell the story? Preliminary decisions are helpful to me with this novel. First, I prefer not to use a third person omniscient narrator. I also know this novel can’t be narrated from a single character’s point of view because two or more people will have exclusive knowledge of parts of a long-held secret. Now to be considered: will points of view be mingled within a chapter using simple white space scene breaks between them? Or will they be in discreet chapters? If single point of view chapters are chosen, will they appear consecutively (for example in a grouped section named for that character), or will the character who most strongly grabs the storyline get the next chapter in his/her point of view?
Once trial decisions have been made about how the story is going to be told, I work by penciling in my “storyboard.” Under each chapter number I note what character’s point of view is in effect, what has to happen within and/or between characters to reveal human dynamics or advance the plot.
When I have the basic answers to these questions for each chapter in a section (such as opening, or rising action) and research required for that section is done, I’ll feel ready to start writing the section. Once again, I’ll note it: characters surprise me all the time. But that means they’ve come alive and I’d better let them breathe.
So presently I’m working on my storyboard and making notes about character dynamics and descriptions on another sheet. One of the things I love about literary fiction is its complexity, its lack of black and white villains and heroes. Not that people don’t do horrific things or rise to astounding bravery and love, but I want to see and portray them in their full range of tones and color, shadow and light. I’m thinking about how to put them in action against the precise, clearly defined world of geocaching, those exact GPS coordinates representing something knowable which may be found. Thanks in advance for any thoughts you contribute.