Ever since I turned in my latest manuscript, I’ve been spending a lot of time weeding my vegetable garden. As I work in the hot sun, a tune keeps playing in my heat-addled brain, a tune I can’t seem to shake. It’s the song "Plant a Radish" from the off-Broadway musical "The Fantasticks," and it’s sung by two fathers who bemoan the fact that parents never know exactly how their children will turn out. So they extol the virtues of growing vegetables instead, because when you plant a radish, you know that you’ll get a radish:
Plant a carrot, get a carrot,
Not a Brussels sprout.
That’s why I love vegetables,
You know what they’re about!
Life is merry, if it’s very
A man who plants a garden
Is a very happy man!
(Lyrics by Tome Jones, composer Harvey Schmidt)
This song has special meaning for me, not only because I’m a gardener and a parent, but also because I’m a novelist, and every single story I’ve ever started has morphed, in some way, into that proverbial Brussels sprout, the vegetable I never thought I’d planted.
It’s a result of poor planning — or in my case, no planning whatsoever. That’s because I don’t plot out my books ahead of time. And that leads to surprises.
Occasionallly, I teach at writing workshops, and one of the first lessons I tell my students is this: not everyone’s a planner. Not every writer can map out every plot twist of his novel in advance. If you are a planner, then good for you. I envy you.
If you can’t do it that way, if you’re the sort who just dives into the story and sees where it takes you, that’s okay too. It can be a chaotic, frustrating way to write a book. You’ll waste precious time backtracking to fix things. You’ll probably have writer’s block somewhere in the middle, because you don’t know where the story goes next. You’ll suffer through multiple drafts, and you’ll feel like ditching the accursed plot many times. This probably makes writing a book sound like an ordeal, and it can be. But it’s also an adventure that will take you to unexpected and startling destinations.
The book I just finished writing, THE KEEPSAKE (in the UK, its title will be KEEPING THE DEAD) got its start several years ago, after I’d listened to a series of lectures by Egyptologist Bob Brier, about the ancient Egyptian technique of mummification. Brier had actually made a modern mummy (yes, a volunteer donated his remains for that purpose) and the result was startlingly similar to the mummies of ancient Egypt. How incredibly cool, I thought.
And then the novelist’s mind kicked in, and I wondered how I could turn this information into a thriller.
The idea sat and percolated for a few years. I just didn’t know what the plot would be. I wanted to incorporate my love of archaeology and the dusty creepiness of old museums. Since it would be part of my Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles series, it had to take place in Boston. And since I’m a doctor, I wanted medicine and science to be a vital part of the story, too.
All I knew about the plot was this: it would kick off in the diagnostic imaging department of a Boston hospital, where an "ancient" mummy is undergoing a CT scan. A shocking surprise is revealed — the mummy has a bullet in her leg. She is, in fact, a modern murder victim who’s been preserved using ancient techniques, by a killer with obscure archaeological knowledge.
Enter Jane Rizzoli.
And that’s all I knew about the plot. My proposal synopsis contained a bunch of nonspecific plot details to convince my editor I knew where I was going with the book. But the truth is, I didn’t know. I never do. I just started writing and waited to see where the story would take me.
It took me down a number of blind alleys. I wrote about a hundred pages that later got discarded. I wasted endless weeks chasing plot threads that petered out. I introduced half a dozen characters who were later excised and will never be used. The killer kept changing identities. The motives repeatedly changed as well. Characters clamored for me to "go this way," or "no, you numbskull author, go that way!" Surprises piled up, twists that I never could have planned out ahead of time because they popped up on the spur of the moment, right as I reached that point in the story.
In the midst of the chaos, something began to take shape, something I couldn’t see until I finished the first draft. Something that surprised me.
If I had charted out the plot ahead of time, would it have resulted in the same book? No. Would it have been a better — or a worse — book? I don’t know.
I do know that it’s the only way I’ve been able to write a book. Using this crazy, anxiety-ridden technique, I’ve produced twenty-one novels (counting my romantic thriller novels) and now I’m too old a dog to learn any new tricks. I’ve just learned to live with the unpredictability of every new book.
Thank heavens I have a garden. At least there’s something in my life that is utterly, unalterably predictable.