Gathering Up Wind and Laying Down Stones

Right now, I am gathering dreams that blow in on the wind: ideas, images, quotes, small points of character, simple twists of fate, and otherwise tiny shards of a brewing story.

I collect these mementos of imagination in a black book. In the past, before I was writing seriously, this was a major outlet for my expression. I collected and pasted all through college, and the years after. I’d cut images from anywhere. I’d copy poems from books, horoscopes from the local newspaper, headlines, fabrics, photos. Whatever struck my fancy and got me thinking. In my travels, I would jot notes about strange folks lurking on a street corner or sipping bourbon at a swank bar. I made up lives for them, channeled their (imagined) thoughts, and surmised their deepest secrets.

Once I started writing DISTILLATION though, my collection practices became a bit less artistic and more focused. I used two different notebooks to record research and ideas. In the early drafting stages, these were similar to the collections I’d done before – character sketches, meaningful lines, images, plot points, poetry – all to nourish the seed of an idea into a vibrant bloom.

By the time the first draft was finished though, and then revised, folders and mounds of paper had sprouted like mushrooms all over my office. Photocopies and sketches of architectural designs, descriptions and drawings of essence stills, photographs of peppermint and a particular town’s rural landscape and cultural landmarks, renderings of allegorical alchemical art, information on archaeological digs, and (most creepy) a detailed sketch of the bone and cartilage structure of an infant and a description of infant remains unearthed at a real historic burial site. There are notes, notes, and more notes on tarot, on genealogy, on plot. These were the tools in my toolbox.

As I wrote and revised, rewrote and revised again, I found that revisiting these collections, helped me to find my path again and again. I look back at them now and realize how much research and planning went into writing DISTILLATION. It is evidence of the process of constructing a story’s path.

A favorite question for writers is: “plotter or pantser?” A plotter being someone who plans his or her story, either before or as they write. A “pantser” (which to me sounds like someone who pulls people’s pants down) is a person who just writes and sees where the story goes. At least I think that is what it is. I am a plotter, but I also follow the wind. And so I wonder, can someone be both?

For me, it all starts with a feeling in the air, a smell on the breeze, an image, a sound, a phrase, the inspiration that starts me dreaming. Sometimes that is when I start collecting – as with DISTILLATION. Other times, as now, I first come up with the premise, then start gathering. The collection doesn’t have to get very large before I start writing, at least a first scene or some moment. Once I get a scene, then I plot. I am a list maker. Lists fill my notebooks and computer.

These lists are, for me, akin to the laying stones. Piece by piece I construct a path with the bits I’ve gathered, a road for my story to travel. But I only build this path a few steps at a time. I write a scene and then list the next steps. Often, I need to back track and reconsider the direction I am traveling. Did I actually step on all those stones? Is there one I forgot and want to add in? Is there one I left out and for good reason? Sometimes I need to locate a missing stone, and it is common for the path to take a whole new and unexpected turn. At that point, I start a new list.

And so, yes I plot, but only a few steps at a time. Often, I know where I want to end up and so the stones I’ve laid must eventually lead me there. But often that end-point is vague and will only come in to focus once I’ve followed the path and come out on the other side.