Jeanne Matthews was born and raised in Georgia, where owning a gun is required by law in certain places and “he needed killing” is a valid legal defense to homicide. Jeanne’s debut novel, Bones of Contention, published in June, 2010 by Poisoned Pen Press, features a conniving Georgia clan plopped down in the wilds of Northern Australia where death adders, assassin spiders, man-eating crocs, Aboriginal myths, and murder abound. Jeanne currently resides in Renton, Washington with her husband, Sidney DeLong, who is a law professor, and their West Highland terrier. Her second novel, Bet Your Bones, and the third, Bonereapers, are available at bookstores everywhere
I. My husband has threatened to leave me unless I learn how to outline.
A. He is fed up with being waked up in the middle of the night with me wailing, “What now?”
B. He is tired of me whimpering that I’ve painted myself into a corner and asking him what a sane person would do in such dire circumstances.
II. His answer is always the same.
A. “It’s your own damned fault. You should outline.”
B. Or sometimes, “You’re nuts to launch into a novel blind, not knowing whodunit or why or where the action will lead.”
1. Well, duh. Who could disagree with that? There is no logic to sending one’s characters onto the page without a clear notion of what lies in store for them.
a. They could end up stranded and clueless in chapter 2.
b. They could end up in literary purgatory.
c. They could end up in the wastebasket.
d. It is against the rules of outlining to write complete sentences, but how else is it going to make sense?
2. It is also a no-no to use single sub-points, but I couldn’t think of another point of equal importance to number 1, above. Outlining is a very demanding form.
III. Neither threats nor logic have reformed me or inspired me to learn the skill of outlining.
A. Maybe it’s a perverse reaction to lists and Roman numerals.
B. Maybe it’s some deep-seated guilt complex that makes me want to punish myself.
C. Maybe I can only think in complete sentences and unequal sub-points.
D. Or maybe it’s a glitch in my anterior cingulated cortex that renders me incapable of planning ahead.
E. Whatever it is, I fly by the seat of my pants when writing a novel and, like Flannery O’Connor, I don’t know what I think ‘til I see what I say.
IV. I may not know exactly what will happen when I begin one of my Dinah Pelerin mysteries, but I always know where it will happen. Dinah’s plane always lands in the place where Jeanne wants to spend her next summer vacation and my stories evolve out of the physical and political environments of the places in which they are set.
A. In BONES OF CONTENTION, I plopped Dinah down in the middle of the Northern Territory of Australia for a reunion with her criminally minded family where she learned about Aboriginal art and the Aussie lingo called Strine.
B. In BET YOUR BONES, I sent her to the Big Island of Hawaii for the wedding of her best friend where she was forced to learn pidgin and the local laws affecting the disinterment of old bones.
C. And in my latest book, BONEREAPERS, I dispatched Dinah to the Norwegian Arctic, Land of the Midnight Sun and the Svalbard “Doomsday” Seed Vault. The vault is a kind of Noah’s Ark for seeds, designed to protect the planet’s agricultural diversity from:
1. Rising seas;
2. Hurtling asteroids;
3. Disease pandemics;
4. Nuclear holocaust;
5. And the degradations of Time, itself, for the next 10,000 years.
V. Ha! And they said the Titanic was unsinkable.
A. Can the vault protect the seeds from human greed and mismanagement?
B. Are the seeds vulnerable to corporate breeders intent upon
1. Manipulating their DNA?
2. Patenting the hybrids as their exclusive intellectual property?
3. Rendering the seeds sterile so that they will not reproduce and farmers will be forced to purchase them over and over again at the start of each new planting season?
4. Creating a “death gene” that will cross-pollinate and destroy all the earth’s agricultural crops?
VI. With the world’s agricultural heritage at stake, the vault seemed an ideal spot for a murder.
A. It is remote.
1. Six hundred miles from the North Pole.
2. One, two, three, four, five, six. Hundred miles.
B. It is frigid.
1. Temperatures seldom rise above zero.
C. It is bleak.
1. Especially during the long Polar Night.
2. There are more polar bears than people.
a. A lot more.
b. Really. Polar bears have a different notion of “bleak.”
VII. Hey, honey! Are you asleep? Wake up! I’ve just had a terrific idea for my next book!
A. The island of Samos.
1. It would be a beautiful spot for a murder.
a. It’s warm.
b. It has over 300 days of sunshine a year.
i. It’s in Greece, you know?
ii. I don’t know who’s going to be murdered yet. I’ll think of something. I’ve already got the title. HER BOYFRIEND’S BONES. What do you think?
VIII. Good grief! Why are you so grouchy?
A. Oh, stuff it! People who are reckless enough to marry a fiction writer assume a certain amount of risk and sleeplessness.
B. And come on, admit it. The travel benefits can’t be beat.
Hah! This should be required reading for all writing classes. But seriously, have you ever tried flow charts? Gives a bit more wiggle room and visualization power yet has some of the clarifying strength of a strict outline.
My “outline” reads more like a synopsis…starting with where I intend to start and where I will end (I have to have that goal post or my plot wanders in the wilderness until it dies of starvation). The initial middle part usually goes: after trials and tribulations and some red herrings protagonist ends up at the end. Gradually I figure out what the trials are and the outline expands, gets broken into chapters. Thus do I trick myself that I’m not really going through the agony of writing but actually doing what I like best…rewriting.
Outlines are a lot like synopses. What you’ve said about place, time, and whatever, that amounts to a bare-bones outline. Write that, and you’re good. Outlines should give you plenty of space anyway, and are always subject to revision.
And IMHO, it’s better to be woken up to talk about a story, then woken up by someone who’s frantically checking in the middle of the night, for no good reason, that you’re not dead 😛 (My ex had issues).