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Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History, has written more than 50 books specializing in British Christianity. These books include: The Monastery Murders, clerical mysteries; Lord Danvers Investigates, Victorian true-crime; The Elizabeth and Richard series, literary suspense; and Glastonbury, The Novel of Christian England. She loves research and sharing you-are-there experiences with her readers.

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Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History


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Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History

A traveling researcher engages people and places from Britain's past and present, drawing comparisons and contrasts between past and present for today's reader.

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The Writing Process--It's A Mystery

By Donna Fletcher Crow ~ October 22, 2012

Karen McCullough, one of my fellow authors from the new e-book 25 Years in the Rearview Mirror, 52 Authors Look Back, and I are doing a blog exchange, so after reading her post here, you can check out my post on her blog at
If you enjoy magazine columns and Chicken Soup for the Soul books, then we're sure to enjoy our collection of essays, designed to warm your heart, raise your spirits and compel you to examine your own life. Read about school days, quirky jobs, romance, raising a family, hard times, the writing journey, and find out what makes your favorite characters tick.
Get a full listing of authors, essay titles and retailers here:
Follow the 25 Years in the Rearview Mirror Blog and Radio Tour schedule here: And don't miss the chance to join the 25 Years in the Rearview Mirror Yahoo Group, a fun and inspirational group that discusses the past and will help you to stay on track for the future. Http://

The Writing Process  - It's a Mystery to Me, Too

Hi Donna, and thank you for hosting me on your blog and for asking about my writing process.                                                                                                                      

In regard to how I write, I generally call myself a pantser with some plotter tendencies.  For those who don't know, a "pantser" is one who writes by the seat of her pants, with no advanced plotting and no time spent writing outlines, interviewing characters, or working on structure.  It's kind of a sit-down-and-write-what-comes-to-you-next process.
A plotter, on the other hand, is someone who at least starts with an outline of the story. Some plotters do detailed character worksheets, GMC (Goal, Motivation, and Conflict) grids, and an outline so detailed it's almost a first draft. I know at least one author who does 50 to 60 page outlines before writing her novels.

I tried it once.  I wrote a very detailed outline for a book I had in mind, with at least twenty pages showing every important scene of the story, including the climax and resolution. With that in hand I should've been able to knock out the novel with no trouble. It didn't work out that way. I knew all of what happened and I'd totally lost interest in the story.
Ideas for stories pop into my head all the time, but I know that most of them aren't novel-worthy. I usually need to have several ideas rubbing off each other and creating sparks that excite me before I suspect there's a book in it. It's the depth and complexity of the main ideas I've got that really spark the project.

One of the things I generally know right away is what will happen in the opening scene. Usually I also have a pretty good idea where I want the whole thing to go and how it will end, although in the case of my mystery novels, I often don't know who the true villain is.  I usually have two or three who could fill the role, and I don't know until I get there which one it actually is. Once it turned out to be someone else entirely.

So how do I get there with so little information?  Usually, I find I can write the first couple of chapters without too much trouble, based on what I do know. I keep writing until I get to a point where I don't know what happens next. That usually happens somewhere around chapter three, when the momentum of the opening wears off, and I have to start building the plot itself.

At that point I stop, get out a pad and pen, and make a list of possible scenes, incidents, plot developments, etc.  I include everything I can think of that might happen in the story, based on the beginning I have and the end Iwant.                                                             

I try to come up with a few wild and crazy ideas, searching for the most unlikely and improbable things I can conceive.  It surprises me how often those off-the-wall ideas will turn into actual incidents in the plot or at least lead to some interesting twists. 
Then I take the list and put the incidents in what seems like the most likely order for them to occur.  I don't use all of them, and I find that things pop up and occur to me as I'm writing, but that list usually gives me enough ideas and direction to move ahead with the story.

Somewhere between the halfway point and three quarters, I hit what I call the dead zone. It's happened with every novel I've written. At this point in the story, I'm totally convinced it won't work out, it's pointless drivel that no one will ever want to read, and I've totally wasted my time writing all this mess. The first couple of times it happened, it caused me to stop writing the book I was working on and start on something else, but I've come to recognize the pattern, and I know that if I just keep moving through it, I'll get to the next phase, the one that makes it all worthwhile.

The mystery, the magic, and the real wonder of a novel usually comes at about three-quarters of the way through the story, when the entire thing comes together in my head and I see how it all works out. I don't know how it happens, in truth, because I sometimes set up situations where for a long time even I can't figure out how to make it come out where I want it.  It does, though. I can only think that my subconscious mind has been wrestling with the problem I set up and had come up with an answer. Or maybe it knew it all along, but wasn't telling until the time was right.  I have no idea.

That's how it worked all those years ago, when I wrote the novel that I talk about in my essay in the 25 Years Ago collection.  A Question of Fire was the third complete novel I wrote, but it didn't get published until fifteen years later, after several thorough rewrites. I had no outline when I started writing the book, only one character I knew pretty well, my heroine, Cathy Bennett, and a vision of her holding a dying man and becoming the unwilling recipient of a secret that others would kill for. That was it. The rest came to me along the way as I wrote the first draft, then rewrote and refined until I and the editor who first bought it were happy with the story.

One of the down-sides of my process is I usually have to go back and do a lot of rewriting, since my vision of the story changes and sharpens through the process of writing it.  I don't mind that part, though.  Once I can see the whole picture, I actually enjoy going back and shining up pieces of it or realigning things to fit the whole vision.

So that's why I don't outline. I rob myself of the excitement of setting up an impossible situation and learning how it can be resolved in a satisfying way.

BTW: A Question of Fire was out of print for a long time, but I'm thrilled that it is now available again in a variety of ebook formats.

Karen McCullough is the author of a dozen published novels and novellas in the mystery, romantic suspense, and fantasy genres and has won numerous awards, including an Eppie Award for fantasy. She's also been a four-time Eppie finalist, and a finalist in the Prism, Dream Realm, Rising Star, Lories, Scarlett Letter, and Vixen Awards contests. Her short fiction has appeared in several anthologies and numerous small press publications in the fantasy, science fiction, and romance genres. She has three children, three grandchildren and lives in Greensboro, NC, with her husband of many years.

Blog: http://www.kmccullough/kblog

 A Question of Fire:

When Catherine Bennett agrees to attend an important party as a favor for her boss, she knows she won't enjoy it, but she doesn't expect to end up holding a dying man in her arms. Nor did she anticipate she'd become the recipient of his last message about the location of evidence that would prove his brother innocent of murder. Now the killers are after her to get that information. She'll need the help of attorney Peter Lowell, as well as the victim's difficult, prickly younger brother and a handsome private detective to help her find the evidence before the killers do.

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Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History, has written more than 50 books specializing in British Christianity. These books include: The Monastery Murders, clerical mysteries; Lord Danvers Investigates, Victorian true-crime; The Elizabeth and Richard series, literary suspense; and Glastonbury, The Novel of Christian England. She loves research and sharing you-are-there experiences with her readers.

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Reader Comments:

Great interview! Karen, I like the idea of having several people as suspects before the reader finds out who really dunnit. Also, I don't work from an outline but as I progress I make a running list of the important plot action per chapter. When I'm done do I realize I have an outline of sorts. At least I know what happened in each chapter. I keep these notes always, so when I go back and editing and change things, as you do, I also change those keeper notes. These notes are valuable when writing sequels. Love this interview and going over to the next one now.
-MaryDeal, October 22, 2012

HI Donna -- Thanks for having me on the blog. I appreciate the chance to visit.
Mary - Thanks for the comment. I do something similar in keeping a running outline of what I've done in each chapter. I need it to keep up with what's happened, and it does translate easily into an outline when needed for submitting the book.
-Karen McCullough, October 22, 2012

Thank you for so much for being my guest, Karen. Oh, yes, having lots of suspects is so important. I've tried both approaches to writing, but I find that it goes much quicker if I have a good outline.
-Donna, October 23, 2012

So nice to get to know a little more about you, Karen. I enjoyed your story in the 25 Years collection.
-maryann, October 23, 2012

The "pantser" style is how I started, so I feel encouraged knowing that some authors do quite well with that strategy...a little organization never hurts me, though! I am anxious to read one of your books.
-Mary, October 23, 2012

Loved the blog. I'm a plotting panster, if there is such a thing. I write a psychological profile and develop a life story for my characters before I begin writing and have an otline of sorts so I know what has to happen in each chapter---and a timeline which is critical for me in mysteries---but I turn my characters loose and write what they tell me.
-Nancy Lynn Jarvis, October 23, 2012

I think I'm a pantser just learning to plot. It's nice to read your experience.
-Sheila Deeth, October 23, 2012

Amazing how many pantsers there are out there--am I the only outliner?
-Donna, October 24, 2012

I can totally understand how knowing everything that happens draws away excitement that needs to fuel the story. I do find that knowing some of the big, key scenes can actually generate excitement, though--I am anticipating and keyed up to write them, and of course, in the actual execution surprises always happen.

Julie Burstein said that creativity needs mystery, and I think we all find that mystery in different parts of the process.

Nice post!
-jennymilch, October 24, 2012

Whatever you do, Donna, keep doing it! It works! Love, Mary
-Mary, October 24, 2012

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