Method and process, part 1

Lately I have had several people ask about my outlining process, so I thought I’d jot a quick post about it. First, the caveat: Anything I say about process is what works for me. NEVER assume it will work–or should work–for you. Process is highly idiosyncratic; ask a hundred writers how they write, get a hundred different answers. The only reason it’s ever useful to even ask us is because you might find a nugget of something you can apply to your own way of working. If you don’t, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with you. (I know this sounds very governessy, but I’ve been on too many panels and watched too many people flinch when they listen to how the rest of us do it. I’ve seen the frantic scribbling into notebooks and the abject look of horror which means, “OH, GOD I DON’T DO IT THAT WAY. AM I WRONG?” And if you think I’m projecting, that’s literally what I’ve been asked. I hate the idea that anyone would put themselves through it, so I’m going to keep hollering. YOU DO YOU.)

There are two kinds of outlining for me. First, there’s the overview of a book when I’m first conceiving it in order to write a synopsis. I’d never do a formal synopsis, but they don’t pay me without one. Publishers like a general idea of what you’re going to do–and you usually have a LOT of freedom to deviate during the actual writing–but it needs to be on paper. Fine. I churn out a 5-7 page outline against my will and once it’s approved, I start writing the book.

At some point, possibly during the writing but most likely during revision, something will stop working. Now, mystery structure is, IMO, the easiest because it’s very logical. You have an end result, so you work backwards. How was this murderer exposed? Well, this clue must have been unearthed. How was it found and by whom? Why were they looking? Each of these is a step backwards. At the same time, you know where you began and how you had to proceed during the set up. (These characters must be brought together. How does that happen? How is the crime revealed? What is driving the investigation?) So, you’re walking backwards from Z-Y-X at the same time you’re walking forwards from A-B-C. Eventually, you meet in the middle. That’s the sweet spot when you realize it’s all hanging together.

But sometimes it takes work to make that middle happen. This is where the outlining comes in. I have two methods for brainstorming the outline. The first is rough and deliberately casual. I use huge pads of newsprint and felt-tip markers to make mind  maps. (Not Sharpies here because they bleed through newsprint. I use bright packs of skinny markers and I throw out the colors I don’t like.) I may put the victim in the middle and map out everyone else’s relationship to this character. Or, I might use the sleuth as the spoke in the wheel. Recently, I used the instigator of the investigation because I was trying to get clear on his relationship with the suspects. Whichever area is murky is the area you need to explore through the map.

I should probably mention here that one of my worst habits is realizing I have a missing piece of the puzzle–backstory, motivation, etc.–and then waving an airy hand and saying, “Oh, I’m sure it’s fine.” IT IS NEVER FINE. That realization is the poky pointy finger urging me to dive deep and FIX THIS. Sometimes I do, sometimes I wait until my editor makes me because I’m too busy fixing everything else and this particular issue slides by. But at some point, that murky area will become the focus of a map and I will have to work it out.

Part 2 next Wednesday!

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Not quite a spoonful of sugar, but almost as good…

So lately I’ve been doing a heap of traveling–yay!–and schlepping my bag–boo. For the book tour, there was no way around using a proper, albeit small, suitcase. There was a 70-degree temperature fluctuation from Phoenix to Nashville, and I needed lots of layers and a parka in order to stay comfortable. I did my level best to streamline what I packed, and I was quite pleased with myself.

Until I met up with Lauren Willig straight off her flight and she was carrying nothing more than a tote bag. It was like Mary Poppins herself had appeared in front of me. Lauren was conjuring everything she needed from that single small bag. Granted, she was traveling for a single night, but it was LIFE-CHANGING. I immediately started to brainstorm how I could work this magic in my own travel life, and this past weekend, I made it happen. Here’s how:

1. Get a uniform. It doesn’t matter what your uniform is. Lauren always wears dresses and I have opted for black skinny jeans, black t-shirt, and black jacket. This means you don’t have to pack CHOICES.

2. REALLY think about what you’re packing and leave off anything the hotel can reasonably accommodate. I checked the hotel website and discovered Frette robes in every room. Good enough! A comparable hotel is also going to have everything from body lotion to Q-tips. Chuck those out of your bag and don’t look back.

3. Plan to rewear what you can reasonably repeat. In my case, it’s jeans and jacket. The t-shirt and underthings need to be fresh, so that’s what I packed. I folded them into teeny piles and put them into a gallon ziploc bag. I threw in a handkerchief sprayed with my perfume so they wouldn’t smell “plasticky”.

4. Make kits. I have small zippered bags for each of the following: cosmetics, chargers and earbuds, miscellaneous, food. A clear quart bag holds my liquids. And this is where it gets really good. Everything that I usually pack into travel containers? I downsized into sample containers. Enough for 2-4 uses which is perfect for an overnight trip, even if you get stuck on a layover. The miscellaneous bag holds emergency goodies that I’d have to find a drugstore or call housekeeping to replace: stain wipe, tiny lint roller (black clothes, y’all), orange stick, floss sticks, the tiniest nail file imaginable, two safety pins, two pieces of Hollywood tape, band-aids. They pack down to almost nothing but can really make a difference if you have need of them. The food bag holds a protein bar, some chocolate, a small bag of mixed nuts. These are for STUCK ON THE TARMAC FOR NINE HOURS-type emergencies. Or if I check into a hotel and somehow miss out on room service, which has happened twice in the last few months.

5. Find garments that do double duty. My favorite jacket is a black Cynthia Rowley waffle-weave blazer that has a zip-in grey sweatshirt hood. When this is in place it looks like I’m wearing a hoodie under the jacket, casual and warm. When I zip it out–which takes about two seconds–polished professional. It is GENIUS. I will sob when it wears out. If I’m going anywhere that might be below 50 degrees, this is the jacket because that hood is WARM. Otherwise, I have a few other black blazers in various weights, including unlined. If the temperatures will fluctuate, I also pack a long, wide Indian wool scarf. It’s scarlet and appliqued with green and black and turquoise paisleys, so it goes beautifully with the all-black travel outfit and it is perfect to use as a wrap, neck scarf, or lap robe.

6. Go digital. Okay, this one was hard. But I didn’t bring a physical book. (I know. GASP.) I packed my mini-tablet which is the best for reading or streaming movies, and my back-up in case of disaster is my phone. I also knew I’d be traveling through airports with bookstores if the worst happened. All it required was one extra cord–the plug is the same I use for the phoned–so it was much lighter than bringing a book.

7. Bring a “statement” accessory or two. I put that in quotation marks so you’d know I was speaking with tongue firmly in cheek because it sounds pretentious to speak of STATEMENT JEWELRY. (What does it say, one wonders?) In my case, this means large silver bib necklaces. I have five. I rotate them when I travel, and my one bit of excess is packing an extra one in my cosmetic bag just in case one breaks. (I bring the lightest one as a back-up and since I did have a heavy one break a few weeks ago, it makes sense to me to carry along a spare of the one element that really brings the outfit together.) My other distinctive item? Footwear. Throughout the winter travel, I’ve worn my purple motorcycle boots and they are perfection. Comfortable, a little edgy, the perfect pop against the black outfit. The only other color is the red lipstick I always wear to events. (Red brightens your face and counteracts the effects of jet lag like nothing else.)

8. Bring products that can pull a double shift. L’Oreal makes a mascara with the primer built into the other end, and petroleum jelly (I know. Gross.) will take off your eye makeup and work as a lip balm.

With a little planning, my own Mary Poppins bag worked like a charm, and I am a convert. I could never make it for more than two nights traveling like this, but for short trips, it is the very greatest thing. And if you REALLY want to feel like a queen, sit serenely on the flight during boarding when everyone around you is going full Thunderdome for the last overhead bin…

I’ll be bringing my Mary Poppins bag to Myrtle Beach this week! Don’t miss the Moveable Feast event on Friday courtesy of Litchfield Books, details on the Appearances page. See you there!

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Reminders and book recs!

If you’re in the greater Atlanta area, don’t forget to come see me–and Lauren Willig!–at our events this weekend. Friday we’re at the Mountain View Public Library, and on Saturday we’ll be at Books For Less in Buford courtesy of the Gwinnett County Public Library. Details on the Appearances page. We’ll be speaking and signing–I’ll have A TREACHEROUS CURSE and Lauren will have THE ENGLISH WIFE, so don’t miss out!

Too far from Atlanta to make it? Already read A TREACHEROUS CURSE and THE ENGLISH WIFE? I got you. Here are a few books I’ve just read and thoroughly enjoyed:

*HIS MAJESTY’S DRAGON. Naomi Novik. First in a series, imagine Napoleonic Wars but with DRAGONS.

*THE BEAST IS AN ANIMAL. Peternelle van Arsdale. Spooky, atmospheric, and very Grimm. This YA will be coming out soon in paperback, so if you want the hardcover, you’d better hop!

*THE GRAVE’S A FINE AND PRIVATE PLACE. Alan Bradley. Ah, Flavia de Luce, it’s been too long! This is the latest installment in Bradley’s acclaimed series which features a 12-year-old chemistry prodigy as an irrepressible sleuth.

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HUGE thanks!

Popping in to say a heartfelt THANK YOU to all of you who made A TREACHEROUS CURSE a USA TODAY bestseller! We’ve been popping champagne at our house, and we’re lifting a glass to all of the readers, booksellers, librarians, and reviewers who have made this happen. Cheers!

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Round-ups and reminders!

The countdown is on–A TREACHEROUS CURSE, the third Veronica Speedwell adventure, drops on Tuesday, 1/16–and I can’t wait to share this one with you! Here’s everything you need to know:

*You can still secure your digital gift pack for pre-ordering! Get all the details here and claim your goodies.

*Be sure to check the Appearances page for all the book tour information. I’ll be seeing readers in Phoenix, Nashville, Houston, Richmond, Myrtle Beach, and more! Can’t make it to a signing? No problem. Any of the bookstores I’m visiting will be more than happy to take your request over the phone and I can personalize it for you while I’m there. Give them a call now to reserve your copy.

*Want a signed Veronica Speedwell bookplate? My publisher sent me a box full of gorgeous blue plates and I’ve signed them all! Send a SASE to me at P.O. Box 927 Williamsburg VA 23187 and we will hook you up.

*Grab your Veronica gear at the Redbubble shop! Totes, t-shirts, and more, all featuring the butterfly logo with the motto of the Hippolyta Club, “She flies with her own wings.”

For all of you who have pre-ordered, reviewed, tweeted, Instagrammed, blogged, and buzzed about A TREACHEROUS CURSE, THANK YOU–it has starred reviews from Booklist and Library Journal and is Library Journal Pick of the Month, so we are off to a great start! I’m packing up to head off on tour, and I am so happy I’ll get to see so many of you there. Cheers!


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We have merchandise!

Happy 2018, y’all! This month will see the release of A TREACHEROUS CURSE, Veronica Speedwell’s third adventure, and to celebrate, we’ve opened a Redbubble shop so you can get your very own Veronica gear. Every item features an exclusive butterfly graphic of the Hippolyta Club’s motto–“She flies with her own wings.” Come check it out!

And don’t forget to check the Appearances page for book tour information. The tour starts in TEN DAYS, and we have a new addition to the travels this year–Nashville! We also have two events in the greater Atlanta area in February. Hope to see y’all there!

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Waving farewell for 2017

It’s December 15, my dears, which means it’s our 27th wedding anniversary at Chez Raybourn as well as the due date for Veronica Speedwell #4! I plucked the date out of thin air for my deadline with the thought that I could well and truly celebrate once the book was turned in. And celebrate we will–we’re headed to DC next week for a little pre-holiday merriment and together time since we’ve both been working like Spartans for months now and are in dire need of relaxation.

This means I have mere days to indulge in a getaway with my husband, wrap Christmas presents, and binge on all my favorite holiday treats–films, music, and even a fiddly bit of crafting–before gearing up for January’s release of A TREACHEROUS CURSE and the book tour to come. So, I am unplugging for the duration of 2017. I will still tweet and post pics on Instagram, but this is our last blog entry for the year. I am wishing each and every one of you a joyous and peaceful holiday season, and I hope to see you back here bright and early in the new year!

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Holiday viewing!

We’ve done holiday reads, so it only seems fair to follow up with some of my favorite holiday viewing. This list is highly idiosyncratic.

*HOLIDAY. Not the Kate Winslet/Cameron Diaz/Jude Law thing but the utterly fabulous Katharine Hepburn/Cary Grant film. Worth watching for Hepburn’s affinity for a stuffed giraffe alone. It’s not as sweet as you’d think; it’s like my favorite chocolate cookies which are spiced with cayenne–it has an edge that makes the sweetness all the tastier.

*CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT. The original with Barbara Stanwyck. Enchanting in so very many ways. It even has a COW.

*THE LION IN WINTER. I’ve mentioned before that this is my go-to film when I’m wrapping presents. I start with Eleanor of Aquitaine’s arrival at the Christmas court and wrap all the way through the climactic dungeon scene. Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn are unspeakably glorious in this, and whatever your family difficulties, hey, at least y’all aren’t trying to stab each other, right?

*THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL. The definitive version, in my opinion. No one else will give you singing cabbages, of which I think Dickens himself would have heartily approved.

*BEAUTY AND THE BEAST: THE ENCHANTED CHRISTMAS. I raised a Disney child, so I make no apologies for this. But the songs are hideously catchy–you’ll be humming them through Epiphany.

*TUNA CHRISTMAS. Never shown on TV, available only through a spendy DVD, this is the follow-up to GREATER TUNA, a tale of small-town life in rural Texas. This is the filmed stage show, and the gimmick is that two actors play all of the parts, to tremendous and hilarious effect. I never watch it without a pang of homesickness for all things Texan.

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Holiday reads!

Oh, I do love seasonal reads, don’t you? Here are some of my favorites:

*NIGELLA CHRISTMAS. The definitive holiday cookbook with options for every possible kind of feast. Worth buying for the snappy prose and utterly perfect roast potato recipe alone.

*MARTHA STEWART’S CHRISTMAS. A throwback to be sure, but I love flipping through the pages to remind myself exactly how much labor I’m saving by NOT making my own potpourri and wrapping paper.

*WHITE CHRISTMAS. I love color too much to ever be able to pull off a white Christmas myself, but Tricia Foley does it in elegant style.

*JANE AUSTEN’S CHRISTMAS. Full of charming Georgian traditions and snippets from Austen novels. A lovely gift for an Austen devotee as well.

*THE SANTA KLAUS MURDER. A snow-bound country house, a dead body during the holiday celebrations. What more could you want?

*COMFORT & JOY. Contemporary and stylish family upheaval. Just the ticket if you like playing Peeping Tom on other people’s chaos.

*CHRISTMAS AT COLD COMFORT FARM. NOT to be attempted unless you are a diehard Gibbons fan and have read CCF at least three times. It’s not her best, but it does still have charm.

*EVERYMAN’S LIBRARY CHRISTMAS POEMS. Perfect for dipping in and out of during the season and absolutely essential if you end up stuck with people who demand you sing for your supper. Whip this out of your pocket and recite something seasonally appropriate.

*JANE AND THE TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS. This has become my compulsory annual re-read and the season hasn’t properly started for me until I’ve plunged into Jane Austen’s world and the delights of a corpse at Christmas.

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A digital gift for you!

Have you pre-ordered A TREACHEROUS CURSE? If you do, we have a free digital gift pack waiting as a thank-you! Click HERE for details.

Note: I’ve had some questions from readers who pre-ordered months ago so just to clarify, YES, this gift pack is for you! Just click on the link, fill in the info, and collect your pack. Happy reading!

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