If you’re already a subscriber to the idea of writing without an actual plan (plot, backstory, synopsis etc), you won’t need me to tell you that it can be a little scary. However, embarking on an expedition to the Land of Not-Planning, doesn’t mean riding totally naked into the metaphorical wasteland, since there are several easy ways to keep a firm hold on the reins.
If you’re new to this type of adventure, here’s a few tips from a fully-fledged Un-Planner:
Once you’ve started writing you’ll obviously be creating scenes, characters, situations and such like, so it’s important to keep tabs on them. As soon as I’ve begun to gather a few characters, I keep a list of who they are, where they live and any other relevant details. Of course, this only goes as far as the story itself has progressed, since I don’t want to know where those characters will be at the end of the story (that would be tantamount to having an actual plot).
These can be a useful tool if you get a bit confused about who knows who and so on. Linking your characters to each other as you work through the story helps avoid copious re-writing later on, especially if your story takes place over several years. An example of this is in my children’s novel ‘TheArchitect’s Apprentice’ when I realised that time-traveller Tom couldn’t possibly know where he was ten years previously because he’d travelled there from the future (which hasn’t arrived yet).
No, I don’t mean descriptions of your characters, but rather actual drawings of them. Doesn’t matter if you’re not an artist since the important thing is to help you identify aspects of their dress, luggage, accessories etc that are important to the story. Again, in the above-mentioned novel, there was a point when I forgot that my hero Tom always carried his satchel around with him. (Another round of re-writing).
Of course, you can also use photos and other images to help you get a real feel for your characters, buildings and places.
‘The Architect’s Apprentice’ is set in London in 1630, so for several months I had a copy of Pieter Van den Keere’s 1593 map of the city on my desktop, using it to ensure my hero’s journeys around the city were actually possible. I also referred to Claes Janszoon Visscher’s panorama of London, which helped with architecture etc.
If you’re writing about a particular period in history, it’s useful to use artworks created around that period as a reference point not only for costume and architecture, but as a means of ‘decorating’ your characters’ story. For instance, one of my characters (the magistrate Jack Holt) collects French paintings, so it was important to me that my references were at least plausible.
British crime writer Agatha Christie famously used maps of her murder scenes in many of her books, presumably to assist the reader with her plots. I have occasionally drawn my own maps in order to be able to better describe the comings and goings of my heroes. In ‘The Devil’s Porridge Gang’ I got a bit confused about the layout of the town at one point, and the only way to make sense of it was to map the thing out.
Having said that, I wouldn’t want to include such illustrations in the books themselves, since I think an author should be able to describe everything clearly so the reader can picture it in their heads.
The one thing I do not do with any of these notes, sketches and so on, is to allow myself to get ahead of the game. Whatever happens, I want to (as far as possible) discover the plot as my characters discover it. After all, if I know what’s going to happen, there’s no point in writing about it.