(The first in a series of questions from our members, answered by “Longmire” creator Craig Johnson)
Question #1, 5/15/2018
From Mark Keast:
“Do you know how the story will end before you start, or once you start with an idea, does the story line lead you?”
I’ve heard some authors say that they just start a story and see where it goes, but the idea of that scares me. I guess I’m just too much of an architect to just fly by the seat of my pants.
I built my whole ranch myself, and I sat down and drew up very detailed plans before I ever lifted a log. I guess I’m protective of not only the idea in my head but the time I’ll spend expressing it. I like knowing where a story is going, because I want to be clear about the message I’m going to relay to the reader. I tend to refer to what I write as socially responsible mysteries. I’m not really interested in stacking up bodies like cord wood, so I need to have a plan for a who-done-it simply because that’s one of the biggest statements you’re going to make in crime fiction, providing not only the who, but why-did-it.
The reason I tell young writers to outline their books before they begin writing is that it guards against two major stumbling blocks, the first being pacing. Pacing is one of those really difficult things to teach a student, because it’s one of those skills that develops through the process of writing, but it’s hard to see unless you can examine the entirety of the work. Having an outline allows you to recognize that and make changes without re-writing the entire novel. The other is that make-believe bugaboo, writer’s block. I’m firmly of the belief that writer’s block is simply not knowing what happens next, and if you’ve got an outline you always know what happens next.
All that having been said, I do think that as you develop as a writer, you find yourself more likely to take chances and be more improvisational. After a number of years writing, I think you get an instinct for what will work and what won’t. Writing a novel is in many ways like going on a trip to a place you’ve never been; you’ve looked at maps, read tour books, and seen photographs, but you haven’t been there. Writing, like traveling, is an action unto itself, not a destination, and sometimes you learn things along the way.
Some readers have noticed that I bookend my novels, something I’ve done since the first Walt Longmire book, The Cold Dish. The novel begins and ends with Walt watching the geese, in Death Without Company it’s graveside and so on all the way through The Western Star with the line “Business.” It’s a cyclical pattern that I think adds something to the books that’s different from what I’d see written before, but it’s pretty much proof-positive that I know the ending when I write the first sentence.
— Craig Johnson