I’m often asked, “Do you outline?”
The answer (at least for the first nine novels I published) is yes. I’ve done this for a variety of reasons, but one of the most important is that I need to know where the story is going. What this does is free me from the question that can absolutely paralyze an author in mid-book: What the hell happens next?
I followed this process with Blood Hollow and had, I thought, a fine plot in place. Here’s how I initially imagined the story. It would be about a wild young Ojibwe man—a character named Solemn Winter Moon—who is accused of murdering a white girl. Cork, who knows the young man well and has an emotional attachment, believes that despite all the evidence against him, Solemn is innocent. Cork would go about doing what he does well, investigating in a rather stumbling way. He would enlist the help of Jo, his attorney wife, to defend Solemn in court. And Jo, ala Perry Mason, would extract a confession from the true perpetrator of the crime.
Looking at this basic storyline, I can see now that it seems pretty lackluster, at least on the face of things. But I had a few twists in mind that would surprise readers. And it would feature all the hallmarks of the series: the great northwoods setting, the Ojibwe culture, Cork and his family, and, of course, Henry Meloux. I thought the story through, created my outline, and sat down to write.
Midway through the book, however, things changed dramatically.
Here’s how it happened. I knew that at a particular point in the story Solemn Winter Moon would flee the murder charge against him. During his flight, he would encounter wise old Henry Meloux. Meloux would tell him that in order to face his reality, Solemn had to be a man, and he was not yet one. Meloux would send Solemn on a vision quest that would initiate his passage into manhood. It’s an old Ojibwe tradition called giigiwishimowin. In my outline, I had Solemn receiving a fairly traditional kind of vision for an Ojibwe, one that involved an animal spirit of some kind. But that’s not how I wrote it.
On the morning I was due to write the scene in which Solemn relates to Cork O’Connor the vision that he received during his quest, I sat down in the Broiler (the coffee shop where most of my books have been written), opened my notebook, and proceeded to give myself the surprise of my writing career. The scene I wrote was nothing like I’d imagined. In it, Solemn Winter Moon tells Cork that alone in a place called Blood Hollow, he spoke with Jesus. Jesus was dressed in jeans, a flannel shirt, and wore Minnetonka moccasins. Cork can see that Solemn has been profoundly changed. And Solemn’s transformation causes Cork to begin to reevaluate his own spiritual journey, or rather his abandonment of that journey. The story suddenly became about something entirely different than I’d planned, and the outline went out the window.
After I’d finished the book and looked back at that pivotal morning at the Broiler, what I realized was this: I wrote that scene in the week I learned that my mother was dying, and all the questions I’d been asking myself had changed, and the story reflected that in a profound way.
I still outline. It’s still the most comfortable approach for me in writing a story. I still dread waking up in the night wondering in a panicked way, What happens next? But I also try very hard to be open to those unplanned inspirations of the moment that can, if I let them, make all the difference in the world.