My favorite part of the writing process is plotting. Next favorite? Revising. I’m weird that way. When I start plotting a new storyline, I use the simple “What if…?” technique. What if Letty found a bloody sock on her floor after one of her clients left his therapy session? What if Letty ran into an old friend who pretended not to recognize her? What if the murderer was a one-armed librarian who, after a lifetime of shushing people, decided to silence them forever? (All fake what-ifs, by the way, although I kind of like the psycho librarian one.) It starts like that and then I just follow the trail of more what-ifs making life more complicated for Letty and, hopefully, adding suspense and complexity to the story.
Strangely enough, the first what-if in my writing career came not at a desk but in a bathtub one day while I was reading Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers—a lady who ranks right up there with Dame Agatha in my heart. I was first introduced to Sayers when Gaudy Night was an assigned read in a women’s study class in college. Although I’m not at all an anti-feminist, it was still the best thing I got out of that class.
Gaudy Night is a mystery about a poison-pen writer who sends obscene and abusive letters to the students and professors of Harriet Vane’s alma mater, Shrewsbury College. As the threats gain in intensity, Harriet calls in Lord Peter Whimsey to help her stop the prankster before it’s too late.
On a deeper level, Harriet Vane goes through a self-examination process regarding the choices she’s made in her life, her decision to continue writing mysteries, especially in light of her own past (read Strong Poison if you want to learn that), and her tumultuous relationship with Lord Peter. Sayers writes, “[Harriet] had written what she felt herself called upon to write; and, though she was beginning to feel that she might perhaps do this thing better, she had no doubt that the thing itself was the right thing for her. It had overmastered her without her knowledge or notice, and that was the proof of its mastery.”
Back to the bath…
So, there I was, reading about Harriet’s decision—no, compulsion—to write and I realized how deeply that sentiment resonated in me. There were differences, of course. For one thing, despite loving to write and, of course, read, I’d never have believed I could write a book. Honestly, it just never occurred to me. To me, authors seemed like some strange, mystical beings that flitted through the shadows and hid from “regular” people in caves and dark woods. Kind of like fairies, but with pens and paper. Or, I guess, laptops, which would require long, long extension cords. (My metaphor is falling apart.)
So, as I lay there soaking, I dared to asked myself “What if… I wrote a book?” The image felt as fragile as the lavender-scented bubbles softly popping all around me. (I didn’t have kids then. Bubble baths are now a distant, almost decadent memory.)But I held on to it, toweled off, and did what every good reader does when confronted with a new idea—I ordered up a bunch of books so I could read about writing. And eventually, still hanging onto that pivotal, new vision of myself, I started writing.
I hope one day that I might give that gift of encouragement to someone who, for whatever reason, thinks he or she just isn’t good enough to reach for their dream. Heck, I’d even settle for the “Well, if she can do it, I know I can” variety of inspiration.
My advice to them would be: whatever it takes, follow that what-if.