Changing It Up

Writing a book is hard. I’ve been at this for more than thirty years. It doesn’t get easier, just more challenging. And it’s never a straightforward process. Start with chapter one and plow through till THE END? No, it’s a journey on a twisting, turning path.

When I start a book, I have an idea of where I want to end up. But getting there is always an adventure. My path takes me up the hills, or even mountains, down into the valleys, wandering along cliffs and thumping over potholes.

Sometimes I find myself at a crossroads. Or a big bump in the road. It’s not writer’s block. It’s more like: what do I do now?

I’ve discovered one technique that often helps me get past whatever it is that’s impeding my progress. I call it changing it up. Changing one or two details can help reinvigorate the narrative, and my writing process.

For example, in the Jeri Howard novel I’m writing, I have two important secondary characters, husband and wife, who own a small press that publishes travel books, like the ones that Jeri’s fiancé Dan writes. Their request that Jeri and Dan help them inventory the contents of a relative’s Alameda house sets the book in motion.

When I started the book, I had the characters living in Berkeley, with their company located there as well. Something about that wasn’t working. I decided to move the characters and the company to Alameda. It’s a small change, but it helped a lot. It explains the husband’s relationship with his aunt, who owns the Alameda house, and it helps with Jeri’s investigation. The crime scene is in Alameda and so is much of the background story.

I’ve made several changes to another novel. It’s the first one I wrote, back when I was learning to be a writer. At the time it was a book about broken family relationships, things happening in the past that affect the present. Well, that sounds like lots of the Lew Archer private eye novels by Ross Macdonald. I’ve decided to revive that plot. I’m seasoning it with a handful of crime.

When in doubt, add murder.

Many years ago, when I started that book, it was set in rural Colorado, the state where I lived at the time. I have been a resident of California for forty-plus years, so I decided to set the in rural Monterey County. Then I made up a town and a county, both called Rocoso, for my novel The Sacrificial Daughter. Making up a setting means I can make up all sorts of details like history, geography, local issues, without relying on the baggage that comes with a real setting. Now the revived plot takes place in my fictional county.

Then there are titles. I thought perhaps I’d christen the old novel, the one about family relationships, with a new title. I tried it on for a couple of days and decided it didn’t work. So it’s back to the original title. In the meantime, I’ve discovered that the title I’ve chosen for my work in progress has been used several times before. I do like that title but I must consider changing it. I have a few in mind and we’ll see if they work.

Sometimes as I write, I give characters a temporary name. Might even be X, Y, or Z. With my work in progress, I have two characters I’ve been calling Thug 1 and Thug 2. That tells you plenty about these two guys. If they were walk-ons, I could have left them with those handles. But as I revise, I’ve discovered that Thug 1 is related to another secondary character, and Thug 2 unintentionally reveals an important clue. Now they have names. Making that change tells me more about the way they look and act.

I’m still thumping over potholes with this book. But I’m getting closer to THE END.

7 thoughts on “Changing It Up

  1. LOL you made me cringe when you said you give characters X Y and Z for names! I can’t continue with the story if I don’t have a name even for small part secondary characters. To me, that is part of who they are, and I can’t move them about and have them say anything if I don’t know them. Even if their name is never mentioned. What a strange lot we writers are with all our quirks and ways we put stories to paper. Great post!


  2. This is one of the best blogs on the mindset of writing I’ve read in a long time. It simply sang to me. And the line about “when in doubt, add murder” actually made me laugh out loud. Sometimes I learn something new, even in my thirty-odd years of writing mysteries. This was one of those times!


    1. Thanks. I’m always mindful of a comment attributed to Raymond Chandler: When things get slow, send two guys with guns through the door. When I was writing Don’t Turn Your Back on the Ocean, I had one of the major secondary characters arrested for murder. That definitely picked up the pace.

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  3. Nice post, Janet! It comes at a good time for me, as I struggle with the first draft of the fourth book in my Berkshire Hilltown Mysteries, and like you, I’m a pantser, who begins a book with only a general idea of where it will go. Like the idea of changing up. Maybe it will help me in my search for another flash of inspiration that will move the story along. Thanks!


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