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The Sirens of Suspense




Bryan Gruley is the Anthony, Barry and Strand winning and Edgar nominated author of STARVATION LAKE , THE HANGING TREE and THE SKELETON BOX. Bryan is a reporter-at-large for Bloomberg News, writing long-form features for Bloomberg Businessweek magazine. He previously spent 16 years with The Wall Street Journal, where he shared in the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Bryan will be appearing at the Authors @ The Teague program at Velma Teague Library in Glendale, AZ this Thursday (June 14) at 2:00PM and The Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, AZ at 7:00PM.

Find Bryan on Twitter and Facebook.

The Chronology of an Idea item1

In 1907, a young nun vanished from a Catholic parish in northern Michigan. Years later, another woman confessed to killing Sister Mary Janina and burying her bones beneath the church. The ensuing murder trial was one of the most spectacular in Michigan history.

The image of the nun's buried remains inspired my third novel, The Skeleton Box. Making my own particular fiction of this grotesque history forced me to fall back on a tool I've long relied upon in my "day job," writing newspaper and magazine non-fiction. Some writers call it an outline. I call it a pain in the butt. But I use it. Sort of.

Authors disagree wildly on the usefulness of outlines. Steven King says they stifle creativity. James Ellroy builds outlines of hundreds of pages. Joe Finder has tried both ways, and favors outlines.

I set out to outline my first book. It was difficult, partly because I'd never written a novel, partly because I didn't know how I was going to travel from A to Z. I worried that trying to figure it out ahead of time might offer another way to procrastinate, like sorting email or re-shingling the roof. I really just wanted to find out if I had a novel in me. So I sat down and wrote: "Chapter 1." I discovered that the act of putting words to page helped me draw a map to my destination. Outlines schmoutlines. My imagination trumped all.

Until it didn’t. When I turned in The Skeleton Box a year ago, my editor started asking questions I was unable to answer. “How could this happen in 1997 if so-and-so wasn’t born until 1988?” she would ask, and a long pause would follow before I admitted that so-and-so’s creator—me-didn’t know.

Problem was, although the main action is set in 2000, key events occur in each decade from the 1930s on. But I’d been too enamored of my brilliant imagination—or too lazy—to chart it out. Now I was lost in my own fictive world. My editor was forgiving but stern: Make an outline.

Outlines are tedious. I know because I routinely build something similar for my non-fiction narratives. I create a Word file called “chrono,” for chronology, and look at every page of my notebooks, extract facts that matter and arrange them in order. My chronologies usually surprise me. I see story arcs and cause-and-effect links that weren’t previously obvious in the jumble of information. It’s like being one of Vonnegut’s tralfamadorians seeing all of time as an unbroken mountain range.

People think writing fiction is easier than non-fiction because, hell, you can write whatever you want. I’ve come to believe fiction is equally hard for the very same reason. Which is why I obeyed my editor and built a chronology for The Skeleton Box.

Note that I said chronology, not outline. My 4,100-word timeline began on January 12, 1903, and ended where the book begins in March 2000. I didn’t map out the scenes and chapters in the novel, although some scenes in the chronology naturally wound up in the book.

Because so much of the past is crucial in this tale, the timeline helped me understand not only the order in which things happened but how characters were motivated. Because the chronology didn’t intrude on the present, per se, my imagination remained free to roam. As Finder has written, “You don’t want to be hamstrung by your outline. You have to stay open to inspiration, serendipity.”

I’ve already assembled a 6,000-word plan for a fourth Starvation Lake novel set in 2012. My agent and my editor badgered me into it, and I’ll admit I’m glad they did.

I did not, however, outline this essay.


COMMENT? QUESTION FOR BRYAN? OR TELL US your thought on outlines by commenting below or visit us and share your thoughts on our Facebook page and be entered to win a signed copy of his latest book THE SKELETON BOX!

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