I can never seem to make an outline for a mystery–be it novel or short story.  I’ll think up a situation, have a sleuth in mind, probably a villain–and then plunge in and let the story flow, a scene at a time.  It’s more fun this way; I love the surprises each scene brings (She jumped out a window! Oh! Now what’s going to happen?)  Of course this random method hasn’t always worked. Two-thirds of the way through my novel Stolen Honey I discovered that the person I’d earlier considered a villain couldn’t possibly have strangled a woman.  It wasn’t in his character. So I had to choose someone else with a motive and take another few months to go back and plant clues.

Two years ago I was invited to contribute an essay to the anthology Now Write! Mysteries, and in the process of deciding what to write I stumbled (literally–it had fallen out of a bookcase) upon a copy of my well-thumbed The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell. I reread the chapter titled “The Hero’s Adventure,” and in one of those rare moments of epiphany realized: Whoa… this is the outline I’ve been subconsciously following!      

In that chapter, Campbell wrote: “Where we had thought to travel outward, we will come to the center of our own existence. And where we had thought to be alone, we will be with all the world.”

The first time I’d read these words I had been through a traumatic divorce. With four children grown, I left Vermont to teach in a small liberal arts college in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. and was feeling a pariah.  How on earth was I, virtually alone in a rented room, to be with all the world?  I went on to study Campbell’s archetypal journey quest, in which the reluctant hero or heroine accepts the call to leave home, despite the apparent hardships, and sets out on a series of adventures beyond the safe, known world–often in search of something missing or lost (a human being?). 

The journey is both physical and interior: a search for answers inside the self. As the seeker journeys into this mysterious otherworld, he/she meets with trials, tests, temptations to overcome and “dragons” to subdue (a villain?). There are moments of doubt and despair. But with luck, the hero will encounter an altruistic person, male or female (a romantic counterpart?) to help achieve the goal.

I did, in fact, re-meet a man I’d dated in college, whom I eventually married.

The seeker ultimately overcomes the proverbial dragons, and returns “home” with a renewed understanding of self, the world, and his or her place within it.  The hero has been thinking one way, and now must disover a new way “of being or becoming.” Campbell cites the trials of seekers as diverse as Buddha, Odysseus, King Arthur, Jesus, Jonah and his whale, Martin Luther King, Jr.  I think, too, of the imaginary universe of Star Wars, which undoubtedly had its origin in the archetypal adventures Campbell demonstrates in his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1975). All stories, he shows us in this wise opus, are expressions of the same story-pattern, or “monomyth.”  


I was thrilled, of course, to use this structure for future mysteries, and to have a reason (excuse?) for not plotting out in advance. I would simply follow my sleuth, neck or nothing, into this perilous other-world and then out again as she resolves a crime.  I continued my quests through five mysteries with my Vermont dairy farmer Ruth, in two middle grade mysteries. and now in the persona of fiery Mary Wollstonecraft.  Mary’s was a continual quest for women’s rights, social justice, and recognition as a serious writer. But the search was filled with adversity: the childbirth death of a beloved friend, an abused sister, abandonment during the French Revolution by a lover whose child she bore, two suicide attempts. And then just after she’d finally found fulfillment with writer William Godwin and given birth to the future Mary Shelley–she died at age thirty-eight.

Not all quests end exactly as we hope–even in our novels.

I think  now of Mary’s quest as four steps.  As Departure (her dysfunctional childhood); as Initiation (her misadventures with men and a vilifying society); her Return (to Godwin–and her resilience after so many failures); and finally, as  Transformation. In the end of her real life, Mary had again taken up her novel Maria or the Wrongs of Woman and, no longer naive, having seen the dark side of the world, she plotted out a new, creative life for herself.  It was, sadly, the physician’s unwashed hands that halted this purpose.

So I completed my essay for Now Write! (published by Penguin, 2011), along with a guided how-to create a mysterious journey quest.  It’s a “how-to” I frequently consider myself, as I move into a third book in the Wollstonecraft series. 

And in truth, as I look back on my own unfinished life, the quest goes on–as I expect it does for each of us as we sit down to contemplate our latest mystery. “Do not go gentle into that good night,” warned poet Dylan Thomas, who had his own dragons to fight.  “Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.”


16 Responses

  1. Marvelous stuff. Insights galore for writers and readers as well. It is far beyond a plotting device; it’s a way to see characters (and ourselves) in a different way, the difference being who were are and who we intend (not wish) to become. Good work . . . .

    • Marcia, you’re an early bird (to view this essay)–and a wise one, too! Thanks so much for your insightful comment. You’re absolutely right. The journey-quest is a fresh way to look at one’s characters, and at the same time, to discover one’s own self.

  2. A wonderful way of looking at plotting a novel! This is often the most difficult part for me and what I must work at the hardest.

  3. I’m with you, Jacquie, re: plotting! I love to dig deeply into my characters, but find myself neglecting the plot–although I do believe that the plot should grow out of a character’s flaw, or whatever. But thinking of Campbell’s journey does make plotting a bit easier.

  4. Hi Nancy. Another insightful post. Last night as I was writing and plotting (more or less), I pondered whether I was guiding my protagonist along her journey or if she was guiding me. I like the fact that we are both growing together!

    • I love the thought of “both growing together, Cindy.” It’s exactly what Campbell says in his book(s). Writing is such a self-discovery–and is one reason, I think, why we write. Interesting that you were thinking this just last night! Growing together means that neither you or your character is trying to be ‘in control.’ A good thing!

  5. Nancy, your blog is exactly what I needed to read at this exact moment. I have a new work I’ve been playing with for weeks and I’m not happy with it. It doesn’t touch me at my core. Thanks for your insightful words.

    • I’m happy if it helps, Betty! I like the phrase: “It doesn’t touch me at my core.” I often feel that way when I’m reading a draft that doesn’t seem to work. Thanks!

  6. A writing colleague of mine at is nearly obsessed with Joseph Campbell – I know she would enjoy this post. Thanks for the insight!, author of Ghost Orchid – where the ghost orchid nearly writes the story…

    • Ah, I adore him, too, D.K.–I’ve read and reread him. As a nature lover, I’m sure he would have enjoyed your Ghost Orchid as well.

  7. A friend of mine once said that character is plot. She was talking about how we live our lives, but of course it applies to writing. You make that point beautifully in this post.

  8. Yes, nicely put, Anita. And plot should come out of character, so in a sense they are one and the same. It’s just the situation the character gets into–the “demons” he/she meets that change–and affect the character, too.

  9. AT our local Sisters in Crime chapter a couple of years ago, we had a presentaton of The Hero’s Journey” myth by an exellent local literature professor, , and I seldom fail to use it as a check list. I think my sencond mystery–Fatal Designs–to appear next year form L & L Dreamspell, I conformed even more closely to the formula. Erin MacKenna, Patricks’ teenaged daughter is kidnapped by soemvery bad people (the Departure) and tested with temptation to joint their sleazy world of so-called glamor in the strip joints (and worse) of East St. Louis (The Intitiation), realizes what she must do (The Return) and finds that the trial has helped her to grow up and pursue the criminals (the Transformation). After a couple of drafts, I realized I had omitted a key element–the amulet–which was to be the locket with her late mother’s picture, which is taken from her and which she must retrieve to be whole again. It’s a bit like the Cinnamon Bear’s quest for the Silver Star beyond the treacherous Root Beer Ocean. Anybody rememeber that radio serial from the late ’40s? (Maybe only Chicagoans. sponsored by Wieboldt’s Dept Store). Great post, Nancy.

  10. Ah yes, the amulet–it’s always helpful to involve some sort of valuable (magical) object. But how interesting that you came across this myth through a Sisters in Crime presentation–and then used it in your own work. I don’t know that radio serial, but I love the idea of a Cinnamon Bear quest and a Root Bear Ocean. More evidence of how all encompassing this journey myth is. We’re all writing the same core story! Thanks for this, Peter.

  11. Thanks, Nancy. I’ve been lurking for a while, but this post drew me out. You’re speaking for so many of us who know we can’t avoid the hard work of growing and like to have company, in fiction and in life.

  12. You’re so kind and intuitive, Camille. I look forward to soon being in good company again with your delightful sleuth(s).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: