Let’s say you have an idea for a story in which a 21st century man walks across Florida in search of the fountain of youth.
If you’re an organized person, you might rush to your computer, open a DOCX file and start creating an outline. If you’re a disorganized person, you might wander the blue highways of Florida for a few years and see what kinds of ideas come to mind. Maybe you’ll even find the fountain of youth.
I don’t advocate either approach. Outlines tend to restrict the story before it has time to take shape–that is, everything you don’t put in the outline tends not to be considered. Wandering tends to be addictive and pretty soon the story gets put off for a year or two and then a year of two more.
You’ve heard people say: “I was just thinking about Uncle Nat when he called up” and “My wife and I were wondering why we don’t see any red barns and then suddenly we begin seeing them everywhere.”
Whether you want to call it creating your own reality, fate, destiny or the focus of your awareness, thinking or researching one thing tends to draw similar things to mind. If you’re allowing your story to unfold, these similar things can add a lot to the plot, theme, characters and settings.
For example, while working on my upcoming novella about a conjure woman, I began finding multiple references linking conjure and the blues. I like the blues and so I looked further (trying not to wander and become distracted with my research) and found that many blues songs refer to conjure women or being “tricked” (hexed) or needing some good gambling MOJO.
These ideas enhanced the plot of my novella because blues songs and a juke joint became part of the story. Had I outlined the story in advance, covering the major ideas I had for it, I might not have found how well the blues fit what I needed to do.
Many writers I know tell me that when they research a subject–and don’t get in a hurry about it–the research leads them from one thing to another thing and suddenly (as though it’s destiny) they find something very crucial to their story. How? I don’t know. But the “how” doesn’t matter. The results are what matter.
If you’re writing a novel about a modern day Ponce de León, reading about the historic person who purportedly sought the fountain of youth might generate ideas. Where in Florida did he go? Look at those places and keep your mind open for landforms, local legends, and perhaps a little history about the kinds of people who have lived there.
This might look like a waste of time because, after all, most of us were told in our high school English classes to start themes, book reports, term papers, etc. with many hours of work on an outline. Sooner or later, you might want to do this. When it comes to fiction, later (and possibly never) are better than sooner.
Let’s say the story you want to write has been nagging you to write it. Part of “writing it” is finding it. When it unfolds naturally, then you’ll probably end up writing the story you really wanted to write even though you didn’t know you wanted to write it the way it turned out when the idea first came to mind.
Writing that outline first has about as much chance of resulting in a good story as a marriage has of working out when you marry somebody during the first date before you know who they are.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Emily’s Stories,” a three-story set about a young girl who allows her intuition to guide her so that she can solve problems her practical-minded parents can’t solve.