PLANNING A MYSTERY by Sarah Wisseman

I am like most writers: the blank computer screen scares me. So I use whatever physical and visual aids I can think of to get going—and keep going—on a new book. Over the garage, in my writing-and-painting room (also used as a guest room, exercise room, sewing room, and a place for staring out the four windows at Illinois weather), I draw timelines and plotlines on the washable surface my husband put up for visiting kids to color. Downstairs, at small desk where I park my laptop at night, there is a bulletin board with maps, photos of what my characters might look like (cut out of magazines and clothes catalogues), location pictures, character lists. Here’s what the most recent board for Umber Rome (not yet published) looks like:

I set up a notebook in a three-ring binder with tabs, printing out character bios and setting notes as they are created. I draw maps of major buildings in the story, such as the painting conservation laboratory in Siena, Italy used in Burnt Siena (June 2015). I add lists of Italian phrases I know I will have trouble spelling, and Italian first and last names that I might use for new characters.

Then there is the plot construction. I like Randy Ingermanson’s “Snowflake Method,”, although I don’t use it exclusively. The idea is to start with the simplest and shortest description of the book (think elevator pitch) and write that down. Then make it more complicated and expand to a paragraph with “three disasters and an ending.” When it grows to two or three pages, it may eventually become the synopsis I send out to agents and publishers to sell the book. Of course, it will be rewritten many times before that happens.

On the computer, I set up a folder for the new book and have at list three files that are constantly being modified: the manuscript, the working outline, and the character list. The outline contains that first paragraph describing the book, some general ideas of where the book is going, and a brief description of each scene. I also use a separate Excel file for an abbreviated scene list (when, where, point-of-view character, what happens) to help me “see” the book in three acts and decide where the high action scenes must go.

All this helps me work more efficiently, especially when daily life gets in the way of daily writing.

What’s next? Tear down the current bulletin board and put up a new one for Indigo Florence, book 3 in the Flora Garibaldi Art History Mysteries.

Burnt Siena: A young conservator working in Siena, Italy, discovers that her employers, a family firm of painting restorers, are smuggling antiquities and forging Greek sculpture.

Archaeologist Sarah Wisseman has published two Lisa Donahue archaeological mysteries set in Boston (Bound for Eternity and The Fall of Augustus), two in the Middle East (The Dead Sea Codex and The House of the Sphinx), and one stand-alone historical mystery (The Bootlegger’s Nephew) set in Prohibition-era Illinois. Her new series stars Flora Garibaldi (a paintings conservator) and is set in Italy. Burnt Siena was released in June 2015 (Five Star/Cengage). 


M.M. Gornell said…
Always great hearing how other authors tackle writing! Thanks Sarah and Marilyn.
And continued success. said…
I enjoyed Sarah's method. Would that I were so organized.
GBPool said…
A very good outline for mystery writers and even other writers. I use all those points and find that they have aided me immensely.
Q said…
Another great interview.
So great to hear how other fiction writers work. This method would work for any fiction, not just mysteries. I'm always curious on how mystery writers work out the plot details. I'd like to hear more about that.

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