Writing from an Outline

A friend asked me if I used an outline when I wrote story. Some writers work from an outline, and others don’t. I didn’t have outline when I wrote Purple Sunshine.


Several years ago, I heard Elmore Leonard, one of my favorite authors, at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books say that he never knew what his characters were going to do at the start of a story.  I didn’t believe him, but I do now because that’s mainly the way it worked for me.


I created characters – hopefully interesting ones – and they largely drove my story. Sure, I had some vague ideas about a plot, but for the most part, the characters determined what happened.


Doing it that way meant a lot of rewriting, and a lot of rearranging. The original beginning of the book got shoved back to the middle. I added an epilogue to tie up loose ends. I didn’t do the prologue until the story was almost done. It’s mainly there to make sure you know the main villain is truly evil.


I looked closely at books I liked and tried to figure out why I liked them. I love those Ken Follett novels like Eye of the Needle and The Key to Rebecca where he layers a love story and a spy story over a big historical event like D Day and El Alamein. I tried to do that with Vietnam and the Tet Offensive.


Vietnam was a media war, and I have worked in the media, so I already knew something about that aspect. In Vietnam, spies weren’t important, so I turned to crime. As in Leonard’s crime novels, there’s no mystery in Purple Sunshine. Police or other characters may be puzzled over who murdered someone, but not readers.


I liked Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the two sequels. It was encouraging because he was a journalist like had been and not a literary writer. In fact, some critics have panned his writing skills. But his Lizbeth Salander is one of the most compelling characters in recent fiction and I admire the fact that a male writer could make such a damaged and resourceful female character so realistic.


I had no idea that my unruly mob of characters would do all the things they did in Purple Sunshine. Sometimes I felt like a referee trying to keep control of a particularly nasty hockey game.  However, an author has far more power than a referee. You can always dispatch someone if he gets too out of hand, and only your imagination limits how bad their end will be. Ian Fleming smothered the infamous Dr. No under a huge mound of guano.


Bet it wasn’t in any outline.

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