Plotting and Plots

I enjoyed Lea Wait’s blog on her grandparents’ garden. Over the past few summers I’ve worked to establish some perennial beds in my yard and in the yard of the rental house next door to me, which I am fortunate enough to own. This summer, for the first time in over 25 years, I did not teach a summer course, so I’ve had a lot more time to get my hands dirty.

It occurred to me recently, as I was spreading mulch, that my gardening technique resembles my writing technique in one significant respect: I figure it out as I go along, in both my garden plots and my book plots.

One of the most common questions writers are asked is whether they outline their stories before they begin to write or whether they remain open to changes in direction that come up as they work. I know people who don’t start to write until they have a twenty-page outline completed. I also know people who begin a flower bed by measuring and diagramming where everything is going to be planted. Sometimes, when I’m stuck, I envy those people, but I can’t write a book or plant flowers that way.

Before going any farther, I need to describe the layout of my flower beds. My house and my rental house are on inner city lots, so quite small and with plenty of big trees. Both lots are flat. The rental house was built first, in ca. 1895. About 1925, for reasons no longer known, the owner of that house divided the lot and sold half of it so someone could build what is now my house. That means I have two houses on what was originally one lot, sharing a single-car driveway.

The rental house was owned for years by a man who preferred low maintenance. He put on vinyl siding (before my neighborhood was designated a Historic District) and planted lots of evergreen bushes. Last year I finally got around to having the evergreens—which were overgrown and/or dying—torn out. I discovered the evergreens at the back of the lot were holding up the fence, so that had to be replaced. I had already started a flower bed in that yard. This year, with all the brush gone, I had a much bigger space to work with and a new fence as a backdrop.

In the back yard of my house, previous owners had put up a child’s play house and stacked firewood along the side of the garage. The play house was ready to fall down, so I had it taken out and moved the firewood inside the garage. (Dry firewood burns so much better than wet.) I also bought a small strip of the land between my house and the house to my west, so I could walk around my house without stepping on my neighbor’s property. Like I said, very small lots.

My dad was an avid gardener. Maybe there’s a gene for it. I had never had much space to work with, but now the urge came to the fore. I did not, however, sit down and figure out my plot. (Yes, that’s intended to have a double meaning.) I could see that the flower bed should start by the side door of the garage and curve around until it reached a point, along my new property line, even with the front of the garage. I wanted a small black, wrought-iron fence along the property line—to go with a bench I’d inherited from my parents’ house—and some kind of stone path. That was all the outline I had when I started work.

My selection of plants has been as unplanned as the form of the flower bed. I go to nurseries and browse, knowing that I have mostly shade with a few spots that get enough light to qualify as “full sun.” The great joy of opening up the bed in the yard of the rental house is that it gets a lot more sun, so I have more options. Also, this spring the power company took down a tree on my neighbor’s property to the west, so my originally shady flower bed now gets more sun than it did when I started it.

My friend Pliny also loved the gardens on his various estates. Of course, he had someone to do the work. In one letter he describes how his gardener has trimmed the shrubbery in the shape of Pliny’s name. In other letters he describes how much he enjoys walking or sitting in the gardens, which feature mulberry and fig trees and a vine-covered pergola. (I think I have room for one of those, maybe next summer.)

The result of my “plotting” has been immensely gratifying. As I’ve gone along, I’ve realized that I need something tall here, something with a lighter colored flower over there. A rhododendron can serve as an anchor plant in a corner or in the shade in the back. This plant doesn’t work as well here as I thought it would, so I’ll try it over there. I recently read an article on the Feng Shui of gardening. It was mostly common sense stuff—tall plants in the back, short ones in the front, some rocks here and there, variety of colors and textures. Turns out I’d been doing all that by instinct.

It may sound chaotic, but that’s also the way I plot a book. I always have a general sense of where the story will end, but I don’t know everything that’s going to happen to get me there. For me, that’s what makes writing exciting. Now, I say I know where the story will end, but sometimes I do get surprised. In the Pliny novel I’m currently working on, The Eyes of Aurora, I had what I knew would be the final scene in my head practically from Day 1. A couple of weeks ago, I moved that scene to chapter 4, because I realized that was where it had to be, just like a flower I had expected to flourish in one place until it became obvious that it would look better and work better in the overall scheme of the garden somewhere else. Maybe this is the Feng Shui of writing mystery novels.

Working this way sometimes leaves me stuck but also leaves me open to unanticipated inspiration. I have browsed in a nursery and come upon a plant and known instantly that it was the key element I hadn’t even suspected I was looking for. In the second Pliny book, The Blood of Caesar, I got stuck for a long time—long enough to write a couple of other books—but one day as I was struggling to get unblocked, a character opened a door, stepped out and introduced herself. I had no idea she had been there waiting for me, but she became the focal element of the story. (Library Journal named the book one of the 5 Best Mysteries of 2008.)

I enjoy gardening and writing for some of the same reasons—the pleasure of discovery and of hard work, the satisfaction of looking back on something that I’ve done well, and the reaction of people who affirm that I’ve done well.

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7 Responses

  1. That’s fascinating, Albert! I had only a vague idea you worked that way. When I began my book all I had was the main character, and he wasn’t even doing anything yet. I still don’t feel like I’ve mastered the plot, but at least I know more than I did. You’ve been a big part of that. Thanks.

  2. The correlation between plotting and gardening was interesting, as was the way the author related it to Tactitus and Pliny. Look forward to reading future posts.

  3. Very nice article.

  4. You and I garden and plot the same way. My house lot is also (at least now it is) mostly shade. Years ago, I transplanted a lot of myrtle under the big sweet gum in front of the house, and gradually added wildflowers from our woods and spring bulbs. Under a big maple in the back we have pretty much the same mixture, plus raspberry bushes. They used to be farther back, but the birds moved them. Those birds (or someone) will move things around in my other plots too. Some of our jack-in-the-pulpits are now giants, and I have no idea why they’re so big, but I love them. No idea where some of my characters come from, either. But isn’t it great when they do?

  5. Nice analogy! I once heard a famous writer compare seat-of-the-pants plotting to climbing a mountain. You might take the wrong path and end up at a cliff, but at least from there you can see where you’ve been and where you want to go.

  6. Peg, I’ve sometimes said that when I start a story I know I’m going to Indiana (I live in Michigan). Somewhere along the way I have to decide whether I’m going to Fort Wayne, Indianapolis, or Evansville, and whether I want to travel the interstates or those lovely back roads.

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