On Structure…an approach

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.

2 Responses to On Structure…an approach

  1. You’ve got the winter caching just right. Almost everybody slows down in the winter. The activation energy required to just get up and out is sometimes too much. Bushwacking is less fun with snow involved…harder to be stealthy, too. And harder to find decent roadside parking, for that matter. Finally, the prospect of getting yourself to gz (ground zero…the approximate cache location) only to be thwarted by snow and ice is hard to bear.

    I have done it, however. Over New Year’s this year we were visiting family in Duluth MN. I went armed with coordinates from a particularly nasty puzzle cache. In puzzle caches, the owner doesn’t post the actual coordinates of the cache. Instead, a puzzle is posted which, when solved, yields the desired coords. I had had the coordinates in hand for over a year…this was my chance to make the find. Unfortunately, that involved about a snowshoe trek of about a mile-and-a-half in a misty, freezing rain. The snowshoeing itself wasn’t as bad as I expected until, that is, we stepped off the beaten path. Even with the snowshoes, we were sinking in over a foot…only about one third of the way through the snow on the ground, however. We settled on GZ and looked around. All the familiar clues and hints…downed logs, hollows at the bases of trees, big rocks…all of it was covered by two-three feet of snow. We had a camp shovel with us and poked and probed as best we could. We moved a lot of heavy wet snow before finally calling off the search. We were soaked from the rain and from the effort of the search and wanted to be back at the car before the sun went down.

    I hadn’t fully learned my lesson, however. A few days later, when I dropped my parents-in-law off at the airport at 4 AM (!) I thought I’d grab a few urban caches on the way back…maybe a guard rail or a skirt lifter…something “winter safe.” (Two common urban hides are a magnetic key holder on a guardrail or a small container under the skirt that covers the bolt ends at the base of many lampposts.) The only thing I could find near the airport was on a lamppost in the middle of an unplowed parking lot. I waded to gz in the sub-zero, pre-dawn chill only to find it skirt-less and, apparently, cacheless. I consulted the previous logs and realized this hide was going to be trickier than I had hoped. In the end, I didn’t get this one either. I think I may have actually been touching the cache–I believe it was a fake nut and bolt on the end of the existing bolt end. Unfortunately, it was frozen solid and within a few moments of trying to get it free, my hands were too.

    Perhaps the fact that everyone slows down in the winter is just proof of the nature of human risk assessment…we weigh the downside of a loss far greater than the upside of a gain. I’ll vouch for that: it takes many finds to wash away the sting of a dnf!


  2. My approach is a little different in that I allow whatever text I’ve put down to inform what comes next, almost like reading my own metaphors as if they were clues. It seems like every time I try to pre-plan or try to predict what scenes remain to be written, I’m wrong. I find more.

    Does that mean I’m completely unaware where I’m going? With the Darwin book, I knew what happened. So did everyone else. The question was not what, but how and why. But historical fiction is a little different, assuming the historical figure is the protagonist.

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