Friday, October 26, 2018

Puzzling Out a Story One Piece at a Time


by Pam Hillman

Each story idea starts with one tiny little puzzle piece. Just one.

A word, a photo of days gone by, a scent, a location, an event. Before my Natchez Trace Novel series became the full-fledged series that it is now, it was just a single thought to write about an indentured servant, which became the premise for the first book in the series, The Promise of Breeze Hill.



One idea. One Nugget. What might that be? It might be a character who can’t walk away, but then later doesn’t want to walk away, which, ironically, seems to fit all my heroic heroes. (Hmm, am I sensing a theme?) And, since I like to put a bit of a twist on my stories, I wanted the hero to be the one who was the indentured servant.

And to make matters worse, I indentured the poor guy to the heroine, but something in his past makes this a really bad thing. I just kept tightening the ropes on him. I also wanted my indentured servant to be an alpha male, with a take-charge attitude. More thinking outside the box turned Connor into a man who has already served a forced seven year indenture, but willingly indentures himself to pay for his four younger brothers' passage from Ireland.




What would make Connor so adverse to be under the thumb of a woman...something more than just be an alpha male in a time period when women had little say in how things were run? What baggage and problems can I throw at Isabella Bartholomew? And what power (big grin) can I give her? What can push them apart, but draw them together? On and on and on, the pieces just keep falling in to place.

And it all started with the germ of an idea to write about an indentured servant.


Oddly enough, or really not so odd, The Road to Magnolia Glen, the second book in the series started the same way. The good news was that I had an overarching series "theme" by this time. All I had to do was make Connor's younger brother a man who'd had to tend to his family back in Ireland for many years and he felt like he'd missed out on life.

Knowing that was not much more than picking out all the edge pieces to a jigsaw puzzle and putting the "frame" together. I mean, it's pretty easy to find the edges, but a lot harder to drill down and match up all the interior pieces. AND... here's the thing... we don't have a picture to go by. We're working blind, piece by piece.

But us authors are brave and determined if nothing else. And sometimes we carve a few pieces and make them fit. Ahem.

I built Quinn and Kiera's story the same way I built Connor and Isabella's, one piece at a time. I have a hero who, while he loves his brothers, (thinks he) wants to shuck his responsibilities and strike out on his own; a heroine who's doing everything in her power to keep her sisters together. One piece leads to another, and, well... their lives change.

Do you enjoy puzzles? Try this one on for size. :)



The groundwork for Caleb O'Shea, the hero in The Crossing at Cypress Creek (Spring/Summer 2019) was laid in the first two books, but it was almost as vague as the gray backgrounds in the puzzles above. Caleb the black sheep prodigal of the family. All I really knew was that he had to show up in Natchez and he had to be really tough. I knew nothing about Alanah Adams (I didn't even know her name) until I turned in book #2 and turned my attention to book #3. But I love Alanah.

And the women they are bound to protect with their lives: Isabella, Kiera, and Alanah? Each had to fit the heroes and they do. I'm not sure if they chose each other or if I did all that matchmaking by myself. I'm just glad all three couples ended up perfectly matched!


Let's talk. Authors, what's the first thing you come up with for a story? Is it the big picture, like the edge piece, a corner, or some obscure little thing that readers might not pick up on until the end of the book/series. Would you say you approach a jigsaw puzzle the same way you approach planning your books.

Readers, what catches your attention in a story first? Also, do you enjoy jigsaw puzzles? Where do you start with those? Do you pick out all the border pieces, or start with a focal point, like bright colors or a red barn or fall trees?

28 comments:

  1. Mine usually start with an idea. Sometimes even from a dream

    One that I am still writing starting from a nightmare I had 2 years ago when the mountains around my town were on fire. I dreamed about it. I was at the top of a mountain and completely surrounded by fire. Then I woke up. Jotted down the thoughts. As a year of jelling the thought. I heard locals here in the Appalachians talk about going coon hunting. I asked if people actually hunt raccoons and eat them. They laughed and explained. It is fun to be adding some of the local charm and even names of things like a street name becoming a name of a mountain. I an still writing and adding notes and ideas to the story. It is very much a work in progress.

    I have gotten ideas in the middle of sermons and written those thoughts down to develop later

    I am looking forward to reading the 3rd book in your story.

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    1. Good morning! Wilani, yes, more than one of my ideas have come from sermons. And it wasn't that I was daydreaming, but literally something the preacher said that set off an idea. :)

      I especially remember one preacher who preached about how the prodigal son wasted not only the money that his father had given him, but wasted his substance and his youth. I'd never thought about it in that context before and it resonated with me, esp. since I was working on a prodigal story.

      And, I've even had preachers say something that unravelled a plot twist that I was struggling with, so sermons are definitely fodder for great ideas. :)

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    2. I will tell my husband he may be contributing to book plots each week! :)

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  2. As I watch these Christmas movies over and over, I keep wishing there would be a sequel to the movie I want to find out what happens next. At times I have thought perhaps someday I could write the what next part, but never have.

    Has anyone else ever wondered what happens next in a movie or even a book after it ends.

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    1. I do this all the time with movies, books too, write my own epilogues in my mind. I sometimes do it in real life too, describing how I want a day or event to go. My husband laughs at me when I do it saying I am writing my own happy ending. I just smile and say that's the surest way to get one :)

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    2. Raising my hand. Hey, it's the writer in us. :)

      And... isn't this what fanfiction is? Is fanfiction still as popular as it used to be? I've never read any fanfiction, but I used to hear a lot about it.

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  3. A pretty cover will attract me every time, it's what drew me to The Promise of Breeze Hill. And it was as good on the inside as the cover implied!
    I've been waiting for news on Caleb's story and I'm writing the title down right now to put it on my TBR list. I buy a lot of book for my kindle, but this series I have in paperback as they are gorgeous books.

    As to puzzles, I start with the border and work in towards some standout focal point.

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    1. Tracey, thank you! This series (my first series, actually) just ended up being a very nice package. Beautiful covers thanks to Tyndale and readers have been so kind and encouraging about the stories. I am blessed! I can't wait to share Caleb & Alanah's story with y'all! :)

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    2. Oh, I forgot to mention the puzzles. My dad and I used to put together a puzzle every Christmas. The bigger (as in number of pieces), the better! We both really enjoyed it. When I got married, I bought one, thinking my hubby and I would enjoy it. I could just picture us sitting around drinking hot cocoa and quietly putting our puzzle together.

      Uh, no.

      He doesn't enjoy hot cocoa or coffee and his idea of putting together a puzzle is forcing that piece inside a hole. He'd insist the colors matched, but just didn't understand that it either fit perfectly, or it didn't. Maybe as a carpenter, he wanted to grab his knife and whittle it out, or maybe add a jib to make it fit.

      He quickly gave up the activity, and it just wasn't much fun to do it by myself. I haven't put together a puzzle in years. Now I'm thinking I should get one to see if the pleasure is still there. Like I have time! lol

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  4. It was fun to read how these stories came about, Pam! For me, the first piece is usually an idea or a character that comes to mind. I do better focusing on one book at a time, but when story ideas come to mind, I write them down and save them in a folder. I've had a couple come to mind this year that I hope to work on next year. :)

    I like to know my boundaries, and that includes in puzzling. I begin with the edge pieces and then work from here. :)

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    1. Jeanne, I like the way you put that... knowing the boundaries. Yes, that is a perfect way to describe laying out a puzzle and laying out a book.

      Like you, I've mostly started with one thing in one story, but now that I've graduated up to plotting series, it's helpful to figure out early on that one big picture puzzle piece that ties the series together, and how that piece should play out in each book.

      If we were talking puzzles, I suppose this could mean that someone would choose three puzzles with the same theme and color scheme ... Christmas, old barns, sailboats/wharfs ... with the intent of displaying them together maybe.

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  5. Lee-Ann B here: thanks Pam for this post. I loved Quinn and Kiera's story btw (reviewed it on my blog��). I enjoy reading series that pick up the stories of secondary characters rather than the same characters over and over again (it kills it for me when there's more than 2 books or 10 written about the same character or family...). As for ideas for writing - starts out with seeing something in my travels or a headline. For example recently a student at Uof Calgary met a girl but copied her phone number incorrectly. So he emailed all the women listed in the school directory with the name Nicole. Long story but he ended up finding her and had a date set up. I think there's great content for a romance novel...

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    1. Lee-Ann, thank you so much for the review! I love my readers! :)

      I think some genres lend themselves better to a long series written about the same character than others.

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  6. Oh, how fun to do a puzzle this morning! It took me 13 minutes, though. haha

    Great post, Pam! I love to see how your brain works. I think I need to try this method more than I do now. I don't usually see the big picture (it's one of my weaknesses), so this might help to just build it from one puzzle piece. Thank you!

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    1. pssst, Missy, I'm not sure I have a method. But I'm working on it! lol

      Seriously, I am trying to nail down the one big piece that is the series hook, and I'm pleased with what I've come up with. Of course, now I have to translate that to 3 book ideas, 6 major characters, (3 heroes, 3 heroines) and sell my editor on the whole package. Whew. :)

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  7. This was a great post, Pam. I also start stories with a nugget of an idea - usually one I find in my research. It may take several books for that particular nugget to appear, but it does!

    And I enjoy puzzles, but only do one a year. My mom and grandmother both loved puzzles and spent hours doing them. At this point in my life, I don't get spending so much time on something...and then taking it apart and putting it back in the box. So I cross stitch. Same idea, but with a lasting picture at the end.

    But I do bring out a puzzle every Christmas, in memory of my mom and grandmother. Sometimes the family helps, but most often I'm working on my own in the late hours of the night. Not really alone, though, since I spend that time remembering Christmases past.

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    1. Jan, one piece (puzzle or story), leads to another, then to another, doesn't it? I really need to get a puzzle this year. But I'm already pressed for time. Not sure I want to tempt myself! :)

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  8. Hi Pam:

    Building a novel from a single puzzle piece upwards reminds me of induction in which you build a theory from many discrete facts. Modern science relies very heavily on induction which is a 'bottom up' way of discovering. In effect: collect many puzzle pieces, facts, and see what kind of picture can be made from all those pieces. I think this approach favors pantsers.

    In addition to induction there is also deduction. I favor deduction in which you start with a overall theory, the big picture, and from there work down in trying to deduce how that theory could be constructed and what facts would follow from such a theory.

    This is a top down way of thinking. Theoretical science tends to favor deduction as in the theories of the 'big bang' and 'black holes'. Given the big picture what discrete facts can be expected? Look for those puzzle pieces. Here we are looking for specific puzzle pieces.

    For example: my 130,000 word wip "Characters in a Romance" started with the big picture. The universe exploded and all the characters in all the fiction works were blown out of their books and need, like in the Wizard of Oz, to find their way back 'home'. From this big picture I looked for the pieces that were needed to build the big picture. That resulted in many adventures and twists and turns.

    I think this approach, deduction, favors plotters. However, It might prove useful to use both approaches on the same WIP to see if used together a better story can evolve.

    Great post today. It really got me thinking.

    Thanks.

    Vince

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    1. Vince, so glad to see you today. So much to ponder, yes?

      The theories you shared about induction and reduction are fascinating.

      In coming up with a story, the author starts with nothing, so they have to create each piece as they go, starting with that one piece... that one germ of an idea that gets them going. A pantster discovers these pieces while writing, a plotter discovers most of them while plotting his story.

      Also, if I understand induction and deduction correctly, brainstorming sessions would be similar to induction, where several people throw a lot of great ideas (puzzle pieces) on the table and the writer decides what works. It'd be like taking four or five 1000 word jigsaw puzzles and dumping them all on the table, then sorting. Oh my! I'm not THAT brave! lol

      But if I had a LOT of time and nowhere to go, that could be really fun. :)

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  9. My book that came out last year started with a location. A smoothie shop just outside of Austin, TX. From there, the idea of the hero and heroine meeting there, falling in love, and finding out about a similar past, led to over 200 pages of romance with a bit of mystery. I love your analogy of it being like a puzzle, but I think I generally have a vague idea of what the end will be like. It's a perk of writing romance ... always a happily ever after.

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    1. Amy, that's so true! In romance, we do know that there's going to be a happy ending, don't we? Love the idea of starting with a location, and a smoothie shop is su-weet! :)

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  10. I loved this post! This is really how my first book came about. I love medieval and was doing some research when I read about women sent to convents for education. That got me thinking...what if a girl was sent for an education, but then her family quit responding to her letters home. What if the Abbess started pressuring her to take her vows? What if she overhead the Abbess and found out the Abbess was being blackmailed to make the heroine either take or vows or be married off to a stranger? Hhhmmm...I believe the heroine would disguise herself as a boy and escape the convent to find out what is going on and why she is being kept from returning home.

    I love the nugget idea...that first puzzle piece that begins a fabulous journey, one piece at a time.

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    1. Ohh, Sherrinda, you book sounds fascinating! I'd want to know why too!

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  11. I always do the border first on a puzzle.

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  12. Great post, Pam. As always, I love your graphics! You are the Queen! Did you use Word Swag or Pic Monkey?

    Like you, I start with a tiny idea that grows, one puzzle piece at a time. I've learned developing the story takes time...much as I hate to wait to find the right pieces. Eventually the puzzle, like the plot, falls into place. Thank goodness!

    Love this series! Beautiful covers too!

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    1. Well, actually I didn't use Word Swag or PicMonkey to create the puzzle memes. I save copies from the puzzle maker with the puzzle pieces before the puzzle was completed. :)

      I know... it's the length of time that it takes for it all to come together. But it's worth it once we finally get that last perfect piece to fit.

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