On social media some writers set store by whether someone is a “plotter” or a “pantser.” Do you try to outline your story first, charting the direction of the plot and planning the different characters? Or, do you just “fly by the seat of your pants,” letting the story develop as you write?

When I first began writing The Kimono Tattoo, I tried to be a plotter. I bought two books that I thought would help: William G Tapply’s The Elements of Mystery Fiction: Writing the Modern Whodunnit and Jake Adelstein, Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan. Tapply’s book helped me appreciate some of the steps needed to write a mystery, such as finding the setting and selecting a voice. Adelstein opened my eyes to aspect of Japan I had very little contact with: crime.

Books for plotting

I spent the first few days of my writer’s retreat reading these works, underlining passages, and trying out ideas. Tapply notes that “an idea is not a plot; and a plot isn’t a story. An idea is a spark that ignites the individual creative imagination” (11). I had an idea. 

An American translator in Japan would uncover a crime in the process of her translation.

That was it. That was the idea. And now where do I go!

As I described in an earlier post, I started to work on the characters’ backstories. Before long these characters stopped being fiction, and started following me around. I remember shortly after I’d arrived at the cabin I took a quick trip to Raleigh to visit my mother in her assisted living home. I excitedly told her about my story, my plans, my ideas. “Wait,” she interrupted me, “are these real people?” I realized I had been talking about them almost as if they were.

Living alone there in the mountains, the characters became my only companions—well, in addition to my dog, Wilson (and the phantom black bear Earl had scared me with!). In the mornings I would take Wilson on a walk. And in the evenings I would run. Ruth and the other characters in the novel often tagged along.

I think a lot of writers find inspiration as they run. Murakami Haruki has written a book about it, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Joyce Carol Oates is a running writer and so is Malcolm Gladwell.

Sara Paretsky’s fictional detective, V.I. Warshawski is a runner. And we all know about Forrest Gump.

Running and writing are inseparable for me. That’s where I find the next step in the story, that’s where I overhear my characters converse. But only when I run alone. When I run with friends, we talk and my mind does not have time to wander. When I run alone, I enter a zone where I stop thinking. Before I know it, a scene flashes across the empty screen of my mind. Characters enter. They talk. They carry me in new directions.

As soon as I get back from my run I rush to find a pen or pencil or open my laptop so I can jot down what I’ve just seen.

I’ve tried to be a plotter, but my plot ideas get away from me when I run. I’m not exactly a pantser, but I do enjoy the inspiration that comes “on the fly” as I lope slowly over mountain paths.

Photo by Emma Simpson on Unsplash