Spirits and Sourdough is tenth in the Magical Bakery Mystery series. When hedgewitch Katie Lightfoot takes a ghost tour in Savannah, Georgia, the psychic tour guide tells her that she’s being followed by the spirit of a recently murdered woman. Katie knew the victim and understands she must bring the killer to justice.
Bailey Cates writes the New York Times bestselling Magical Bakery Mysteries. As Bailey Cattrell, she also writes the Enchanted Garden Mysteries featuring aromatherapist Elliana Allbright. Bailey writes, gardens, cooks, and hikes in northern Colorado, where she lives with her guy and Cheesecat the Orange.
Don’t Do What I Do: Confessions of an Outlining Pantster – Sort of.
Thank you for inviting me to your blog, George!
One of the most asked questions authors receive is about writing process. We are always seeking that perfect process to plug our creativity into, and heaven knows there are plenty of books offering the right way to do it.
This is not the right way to do it.
After twenty books, I’ve honed my writing process into a weird jumble of techniques that I don’t recommend to anyone. I honestly wish I could make one of the many logical methods out there work for me. But: nope. Mine goes like this.
First, I either already know or develop the main character. In the series, I write I know her and her cohort pretty well by now. So next, I play around with the circumstances around the murder, the reason the protagonist will get involved, who the victim is, and who the suspects might be. Usually, I don’t have names at this point, except for the recurring characters, but occasionally I know the victim’s name right off. That’s usually a good sign because it tells me more of the story than usual is lurking around in the back of my brain.
Then, I stew a bit. I take walks and clean the house and garden … and stew. What theme might distill out of this situation? What subplots might fit, and how could they connect to the main plot? How can the protagonist grow in this story? And perhaps most importantly, what are the characters’ secrets – victim, killer, and suspects. I take a bunch of notes at this stage, and there is a blizzard of post-its around my desk, so at some point, I collate everything and map out the first third of the book on index cards stuck to a twelve-foot length of craft paper tacked on my office wall. Higher tension scenes are physically higher on this storyboard, so I can judge pacing. I keep track of each day in the book on this storyboard, color code subplots, and plug in things I know about later in the book – like if I know where the climax will take place, or what the subclimax will involve – and at the edge of the board, I keep a running list of loose ends that must be resolved by the end of the book. By this time, I’ve figured out how to start the book, usually during a nice long walk. I start writing, even though I only have the first third of the book worked out in any detail.
As I write, I mark places where I need to research with xxx. On days when the writing feels like throwing bricks at the computer screen, I’ll take a break and peruse books, make calls, and search the Internet to fill in all those details.
As I approach the end of the first third of the book, what comes next, or things that need follow up, make their way into the gradually fleshed-out second act on the storyboard. That act usually ends a bit more than two-thirds through the book. It culminates with some kind of excitement/threat/revelation that serves as a sub-climax before a brief rest in the pace before ramping up for the final climax and capture of the murderer.
By the time I get to the climax, I’m not even bothering to put more index cards on the storyboard – my tidy storyboard just kind of trails off as I get toward the end. I know what’s coming, at least in a general sense, and ride that momentum.
Sometimes I know who the killer is right off, in the very first stages of putting the story elements together in my mind. However, there are times when I don’t know for sure who did it, only that there are some very good suspects to sift through. As I get to know them better – and their secrets – I figure out who the killer is.
As unorganized and random as that method sounds, I approach scenes in a similar way. Only, perhaps a bit more organized. I cluster, or mind map, each scene before I write it. The scene concept goes in the middle, and I start adding bubbles around it. I note the setting, any descriptions, cause, and effect, working it all out in a nonlinear way. Then, I make it linear by taking a highlighter and connecting the bubbles in the order I want to use them in the scene. So, it’s kind of a scene outline, albeit a weird one, and I do it for nearly all scenes after I get the first twenty pages of the book down.
Finally, I have a few rules I try to stick by for each book.
- At least two subplots.
- Each subplot has at least three scenes (those scenes might involve the main plot as well).
- If a character has a name, they have to appear, or be referenced, at least three times.
- The baking/cooking and magic are sprinkled liberally and deliberately throughout each book. I keep track of their regularity on the storyboard, adding wherever those elements seem light.
- I try not to have character names that start with the same letter, especially if they are going to be in several scenes together because it can be confusing to the reader.
- Of course, you can only have so many Zoes or Zacks or Yvonnes, so I sometimes mine unusual names that will stick in the reader’s mind as distinct. My best source is old movie credits.
- At least one recipe at the back of the book reflects the pastry in the title of the book.
However, as I write this, I realize I didn’t put a recipe for sourdough in the back of Spirits and Sourdough! The blood-orange thyme cake is to die for, though.
You can find out more about me, my books, and the recipes in the back of them at www.baileycates.com.
Great advice, Bailey. Your method sounds very fascinating, and obviously ti’s worked well for you. Writing, as you point out, is an individual process and you have to figure out what works for you. Good luck.
Thanks, Michael! I guess it does work out for me in the end…
I know a lot of writers who wouldn’t recommend their process, including me. However, you pull excellent mysteries out of that process, and I respect that.