Monday, April 3, 2017

On Plotting, Pantsing and Other Methods by Victoria Chatham

This month the Canadian Historical Bride authors have been invited to share how they approach their stories and keep track of the details. My writing has evolved to something of a system that I am happy with but freely admit that when I started writing seriously, as opposed to playing with words on a page or two, I had no clue what I was doing. I wanted to write romance so understood that I needed a hero, a heroine and a happy-ever-after.

Realizing that I needed some serious help, I started taking writing classes, courses and workshops. I went to a writers conference and came away with my head full of terms that made little sense to me, among them the nomenclatures 'plotter' and 'pantser'. I quickly discovered that I was a pantser, sitting down at my computer and starting my story on Page 1 and continuing until it was finished. Once my fingers were on the keyboard, nothing stopped me. My longest writing stint was 17 hours, not to be recommended at all but that was how deep I was in my story. 

Was it a good story? Absolutely not. Another thing I learned was that first drafts rarely are good, and that is why they are first drafts. They are about your story, warts and all. So much for the pantser in me. When I read my first draft, practically weeping with despair that I could have written such drivel (that's typical of a first draft, too), I then kind of, sort of, reverted to plotting. 

In the second draft I paid more attention to those lessons on story arc, and later the three act structure (thanks to Save the Cat). I became more particular about planning my story before I even began writing it, becoming more familiar with my characters and the situations I created for them and employing several 'what ifs' to further the conflict, both internal and external. Of course, that was the ideal. It was easy to become undone when one or other, often both, of my lead characters went in directions I had not even thought of.

Depending on what publishing line I was targeting, word count became important. I'd decide on the word count, divide that into words per chapter (approximately). I would then jot down what I wanted to happen in each chapter on a post-it-note which then got stuck on the white board above my desk. There was a real sense of achievement as I removed each yellow post-it sticker. 

But as I progressed to writing historical romance, things were not quite so simple. Now I had to delve into research. After all, were there any paved roads at all in 18th century England? How many candles did it take to light a house and how much did they cost? Beeswax candles burnt better than tallow but were more expensive. How was laundry done? How much did it cost to keep a horse, or a team of horses in London?

I'm easily led when it comes to research, so I had to be really strict with myself to prevent going down the proverbial rabbit hole. I'm also a very simple soul, so if I wanted information to do with saddles or stirrups, it went into the S file. Whatever the information was, I also recorded the website or link where I found it or the name of the book which I had read.

My first Regency title, His Dark Enchantress, is the first book in my Berkeley Square series for which I have started a Bible. I had no intention of turning this title into a series, but with characters too full of life to stay on the pages where I had inscribed them, I started keeping track of who was who, how they were related, where they lived and many more details. Much to my surprise Juliana, a secondary character in His Dark Enchantress, became the heroine in the second book in the series. Not only that, it turned out that she was the great-great-grandmother of Lady Serena Buxton from my Buxton Chronicles trilogy. As Lady Serena's story was written before I started the Regency series, I'm not sure exactly how that happened.

Now, as it turns out, I am not only a combination of pantser and plotter, but quilter, too. This is when, as so many of us do, I wake up in the night or early in the morning with the perfect scene, setting, calamity, whatever it is and write it down immediately. There's no use thinking that, because it is so good, I'll remember it later. I never do. It has to go down on paper, or straight onto the computer and then get incorporated into the main text at some point. 

For Brides of Banff Springs, I read many books on Banff and its environs. I visited the hotel on numerous occasions and corresponded with the current historian. The information I gleaned I wrote down as journal entries, recording the dates and names. If you are including facts in your novels you'd better make darn sure that they are correct, or as correct as can be given the passage of time. The only fact I have ever had questioned was in my first published work, where I had referenced a flashlight in 1907. Yes, a lantern might have been more familiar but flashlights were, in fact, around since the late 1890s. (Filed under F for flashlight. Hey, it works for me!)

All my writing experience has been a progression of one learning experience to another. What works for me probably won't work for you. That's what I like about writing. Apart from grammar, the rules of which are finite, there are no rules as to how anyone writes - which is good because I am not a fan of rules. So there it is, I am not a pantser or a plotter per se, but something of a hybrid which, I suspect, many fellow authors are. 


  1. I had no idea flashlights were that old!

    A really fun, insightful piece, Victoria. I love the idea behind this series as well.

  2. I, too, love the idea of an 'all Canadian Brides' series. I loved book one and I'm off to purchase book two in the series. Looking forward to reading all of them!

  3. I'm more of a pantser. But I envy the planners. Great post.

  4. As far as the plotter or pantser thing goes, I expect that we are all on a continuum somewhere between the extremes. I love reading about how different authors figure out their Story. And I am looking forward to reading the Canadian Brides series!

  5. I'm a plotter and punster all in one. I tell myself a story, writing it down - not a short story but just telling what's going to happen. This is done chapter for chapter but it's sketchy and things like there's a fight, they kiss appear and will be expanded later. Then I do a rough draft and then more drafts as needed, each one looking at things like character, setting, characters, plot and language.