Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Pantsing by the Seat of my Plot: the writing process of Kim Headlee #amwriting #worldbuilding #MFRWOrg

"The True Picture of One Pict"
engraving circa 1585 by Theodor de Bry
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Plotter or pantser? I've been seeing that question asked of authors a lot lately. Me, I pants -- by the seat of my plot.

This means that I develop a 20-30 page plot treatment before typing "Chapter 1"  on the page, but I give myself permission to deviate from the outline as the situation warrants.

This did not always characterize my writing process. My first novel, Dawnflight (1st edition published by Simon & Schuster in 1999, ISBN 067102041; 2nd edition available in print, audiobook, and e-book) was written seat-of-the-pants fashion, with only a skeletal timeline of births, deaths, marriages, and battles that spanned my entire series as a reference. Its first draft was only 70K words; the Simon & Schuster edition, published ten years later almost to the day, contained 120K.

So now I pants by the seat of my plot, and write the book from start to finish based upon my comprehensive outline. With such a tool the book pretty much writes itself, as was the case with Liberty (by Kimberly Iverson, HQN Books, 2006, ISBN 0373771347; 2nd edition available as e-book and soon in print).

But what happens when I get a fabulous idea for a scene that fits the plot outline but must occur much later in the book than I'm at in my page count?

Sometimes I just drop a note into the outline and go on. I've had the entire plot arc for the 8-book series The Dragon's Dove Chronicles (of which Dawnflight is book 1 and its sequel, Morning's Journey, is also available in e-book and in print) rattling around in my head for more than a quarter of a century, so I have had a lot of practice remembering things.

However, I'm also that much older now, so I'm less willing to leave crucial details to the vagaries of my dying brain cells.While on an airplane last summer I had a wonderful conversation with a military linguist that sparked an idea I wanted to incorporate in to my series... but since I didn't write it down, it went the way of some of those now defunct brain cells.

This is where my world-building tools come in handy.

With a series like The Dragon's Dove Chronicles, the timeline of which spans at least 75 years, tracking major and semimajor characters hailing from five different cultures (six, if you want to put the Romanized Celts in a different class than their un-Romanized neighbors), which includes significant linguistic elements adapted from all six (including Latin), a master glossary has become an absolute must for me to maintain.

By now you're probably wondering when I will get around to explaining why I have decorated this post with "The True Picture of One Pict." I'm glad you asked! I have been fascinated by this image ever since I first saw it decades ago, during the earliest stages of my research, but I had always written it off as sheer fantasy: i.e., a charming curiosity that I had never intended to utilize in my fiction.

Until last night... when the aforementioned fabulous idea hit me: for a pivotal scene to be incorporated at about the 80% point of my current work-in-progress, Raging Sea (The Dragon's Dove Chronicles, book 3), that pays homage to this 400+ year old image while remaining faithful to the cultural and sociological parameters I have already established in my series. For the record, I am at about the 20% point in terms of my projected word count of Raging Sea.

I could have just dropped a note in my outline and gone on -- in fact, I did. But this scene warranted inventing a specific, quasi-religious ritual for my main character, Angusel (a.k.a. Lancelot), to undergo, and that ritual needed to be named. Here is the entry I added to my master glossary last night:

an tùs (Caledonaiche, “the anointing”). A Caledonach ritual most commonly used for ordaining priests (tùs an sagart, “anointing the priest”), it was also used in generations past for preparing warriors for an important battle (tùs an gaisgeach, “anointing the champion”). The ritual’s primary component involves having the priest’s or warrior’s body painted with woad warding-marks in the shape of the deities’ totem creatures to invoke special blessings for the coming ordeal. A priest undergoing an tùs is anointed by his brethren priests. A warrior is anointed by his soul mate, and there is a prescribed sexual component, since in this case the ritual functions as a farewell too. Origin: Scottish Gaelic an tùs (“the beginning”). [RS]
As you might have guessed, the [RS] annotation at the end is my abbreviation for Raging Sea, a system I developed for ease in pulling out a volume's entries when preparing the book for publication. At that time, I delete the abbreviation(s) from the book's layout file. Of course, words like "Caledonaiche" and "Caledonach" and "warding-mark" also have their own entries in my novels' glossaries. Most of my world building contains invented linguistic components, and I like to think that Professor Tolkien would have been proud of me. :)

And as you might have further guessed, Angusel is not a priest but a champion. This warranted an additional note in my glossary for this entry, one which will not appear in the book's backmatter when published but is vital to help me remember the scene's details when the time comes to write it:

[RS: Eileann resurrects this custom to prepare Angusel for battle, and she conceives Lannchu during this first consummation of their love. This also becomes the first time Angusel is able to have sex with a woman without seeing Gyan instead, because Eileann is aware of his “curse” and helps him conquer it. Although Angusel covers the sacred paint with his armor the next morning before riding into battle, the sight of his parents dying on the battlefield causes the woad-painted, naked berserker (ro-h’uamhasach) to emerge.]
You have the benefit of seeing the final outcome of this exercise; its other component involved my having to invent the Caledonaiche term ro-h'uamhasach, since the word "berserker" is adapted from Old Norse, and there is no such equivalent in Scottish Gaelic today:

ro-h’uamhasach (roh HWAH-ah-sack, Caladonaiche, “the most terrible man”). Term applied to a Caledonach warrior fighting in the deepest throes of battle frenzy; a berserker. Origin: based on Scottish Gaelic ro h–uamhasach (“very terrible,” “very dreadful”). [RS]
[RS: Angusel earns this designation when he strips off his armor to expose his warding-marks and runs naked, screaming, into the battle like Caledonach champions of centuries past.]

Now I can't wait to dive back in to my WIP so I can reach this point in my story as soon as possible!

If you would like to read more about Angusel and his ancient Pictish/Celtic/Roman world, I invite you to check out my new #SundaySnippets weekly feature, where I post a scene from Raging Sea, starting with Chapter 1, Scene 1.

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  1. Can I just say that, to me, a 20-30 page plot treatment makes you firmly a plotter? I'm a former pantser too, and can definitely see, with your creation of words and rituals, why you changed your habit!

    1. LOL -- I'm about ready to throw this outline out the window, though. It's looking like it's about two books' worth! :D


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