Friday, January 20, 2006

HA: In Support of SOP (Seat-of-pants) Writing

Husband and wife Mel and Cheryl Hodde write as Hannah Alexander . . .

Recently, Mel and I were on one of our hikes in the Mark Twain National Forest near our home. We got into a conversation about using a GPS guidance system for our hikes. I’m against it. I’m the original non-techie.
Mel, on the other hand, loves anything technological. Have gadget, he will travel. It’s one of the few areas where we clash, albeit gently.

“Just think, sweetheart,” he said, “we won’t ever have to wonder about which trail to take once I get my GPS for Christmas.”

“I’ve never worried much about that, anyway,” I said.

“Um…yes, I know. Isn’t that how you earned your nickname?”

“What nickname? You call me sweetheart.”

He shoved a branch aside so I could pass through without mishap. “I mean the other nickname. The one I would never dream of calling you.”

I knew, then, to which nickname he was referring. My girlfriends, on a hike in the distant past, had decided I should be called “One-Hill-Short-of-the-Trail Cheryl” due to my propensity to get lost, when I was sure the end of the trail was just over the next hill. It never was, of course.
Southern Missouri hills are notoriously confusing for even the most direction savvy hiker—which I am not.

“That isn’t fair,” I said. “We were never lost for long. And just because we didn’t exactly know where we were, didn’t mean it was a dangerous situation. This is the Missouri hills, for Pete’s sake, not some deadly African jungle.”

That was when he sweetly reminded me that I had gotten us lost in the Hawaiian wilderness just weeks before.

“We’d never have gotten lost in the first place if I’d had my GPS navigational gadget with me,” Mel said.

“What fun would that have been?” I scrambled down into a dry creek bed and up the other side, following the trail. “As it is, we can use that experience in our next book. It’s called research.”
It occurred to me that I tend to write the way I hike—following the most interesting trail. What could be more fun? Sure, as Mel has pointed out to me, often the trail just ends, and we have to backtrack. I do that when I’m writing, too, and have to delete unusable scenes.

More often than that, however, with just a little research, I’ve found that those trails that turn out to be the most interesting and exciting are those that aren’t on any marked map. In fact, the maps of our Ozark forests can often be misleading, since those trails change almost as quickly as an ATV can plow a new path.

I’ve always wanted to be able to plot out a good, well-rounded novel, step by step, character by character, scene by scene, to create a good, solid skeleton from which to work. Unfortunately, a novel doesn’t come to me like that. My stories come to me through interesting little vignettes, insights into an off-beat character, or something that happened to me while writing that neatly packaged little novel. Then my rabbit trails take on more substance than my perfectly planned outline.

Just like a hidden spring or pond surrounded in honeysuckle can suddenly become the main attraction for a four-hour hike, I find my most interesting moments in writing come from surprise or sudden insight while I’m battling an unyielding mass of words.

To me, a regimented plotline becomes a GPS navigational system for my story. I mean, if there’s no mystery to discover, why bother? Life is not about predictability.

And I, I would follow the trail less traveled by. And that would make all the difference.

Hannah Alexander writes romantic suspense for Steeple Hill.


At 10:56 AM, Blogger Deborah Raney said...

Great analogy, Cheryl! I write the way you do, and love that exploration and discovery - even if it means I occasionally get lost.

At 2:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

From another SOP writer: Discovery is always more fun than knowing what's ahead. Unless, of course, you're driving on top of a mountain with a murderous switchback.

Good analogy! Good post.


At 3:13 PM, Blogger Bonnie S. Calhoun said...

Great post! I write the same way. How else can I learn surprise things about my characters!

I can't tell you how much I enjoyed Last Resort and Noelle's character!


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