Planning Not To Plan!

I was talking this morning to my old friend Phillip Gooden, and he mentioned that he was writing a variation to his latest story.

‘You know how it is,’ he said, ‘so often you don’t know how the story will pan out until you actually start it.’

It’s very true. So often aspiring writers will sit and glare thoughtfully at an empty screen for hours, and then decide to get over their blockage by trying to plan their book.

Sometimes, for some writers, this will work.


When I started out, I would fill sheets of paper with essential plans. I had whole sheets of A4 set out on the sitting room carpet, full of scrawls and arrows, pointing, in the most logical flow diagram you could conceive, exactly what route the story would take. It made the story coherent, it made it absolutely reasonable.

And it’s why I never plan to that extent any more.

And only one of these was planned ...

And only one of these was planned …

The thing is, while I was writing the story, I came to realise, at about page 80, that it was abundantly clear to me who the murderer was. Well of course, you could say. I’d written the damn thing, if I didn’t figure out who was the killer, there would be a problem.

Yes. But my problem was, it was so flagrantly obvious to anyone who read the book already who did it and why.

I suppose if I’d thought about it, I could have altered it slightly and created a book along the lines of THE SECRET HISTORY by Donna Tartt (an excellent book, by the way). However, I wasn’t that imaginative in those days, so instead I tore up a lot of paper, sat down and tried to replan the book.

But that’s the point. There’s only so much you can do with a plan. If you organise the plan in detail, you just give away all the secrets.

But it didn’t work. Real lives aren’t logical, nor are they planned, generally. They are shambolic, accidental, and full of incidents that weren’t anticipated. Life is messy.

Now, and for the last 31 books or so, I’ve tended to let the story develop on its own. I know the rough direction I need to take, but the scenes and incidents come to me daily, and surprise me. And that way, hopefully, the stories come across as surprises to the reader too.

Crime books depend upon motivations. There are many possible motives for murder, from sexual desire, to lust for money, to jealousy, rage, or even fear – but each possible criminal must have a decent reason to want to commit murder, and ideally he or she must also have a good opportunity and a means.

It’s the main reason why the ban on pistol shooting struck me as blatantly silly. By removing one means of murder, we were told, the public would be more safe. As if all guns are inherently evil and dangerous, and the mere possession of a pistol could lead to someone wanting to kill people. It’s rather a Viking concept. They attributed lots of human characteristics to their weapons, too.

In the UK, we have always had a tiny murder rate. It’s a cultural thing. And of the murders we do have, the vast majority are marital. Husband or wife murdering the spouse – I don’t know why. Perhaps because the mint jelly wasn’t put on the table with the lamb or something. Whatever the reason may have been, at that moment there was means, opportunity and motive to kill.

The interesting thing that was not reported at the time of the ban on pistols was, that although the police made a big thing of the fact that ‘legally owned pistols’ were responsible for an increasing number of homicides, and therefore handguns should be banned, in fact the murder rate with legally licensed pistols was stuck at fewer than one per annum. The increasing instance of ‘homicides’ with legal weapons was arrived at because police homicides committed with their own guns was increasing so rapidly at the time. And those guns weren’t held on licenses, although they were legally owned. As Goebels may have noted that language could be used creatively to deceive, although he was happy enough just to lie, of course.

But that’s another story.

In any case, murderers in books need strong motives, and if it’s blatantly obvious to the author who was the guilty party, it’s going to be damn hard to keep it secret from the reader.

Which is why, after THE LAST TEMPLAR, I amended my writing process. Now I sketch an outline of the story, but it’s only when I sit and write that the characters start to come to life and the story begins to evolve and take on its own momentum.

If you’re writing, you need to leave space for creativity and inspiration. You cannot plot and plan to the nth degree. At least, some can – I can’t!


Sales growing - lots on Kindle!

Sales growing – lots on Kindle!

While mentioning THE LAST TEMPLAR, I have to mention the wonderful promotion that Simon and Schuster organised last week. In the space of one day, it went from being a lowly mid-list title to becoming a best seller, with over 4,500 copies being sold on the Monday. It’s fantastic to see that so many people wanted to try the book, and I hope it’ll mean lots of people decide to try out the other titles in the series too.

Meanwhile, TEMPLAR’S ACRE is gathering more and more brilliant reviews. The sales are steadily growing, and almost without exception it’s getting strong, positive comments from all readers. Perhaps a chunk of that good news comes from the amazing Kindle deal. For the summer, Simon and Schuster have decided to offer TEMPLAR’S ACRE as an ebook at the ridiculously cheap price of £2.99 from Amazon UK. So, if you want to have a really good deal, you know what you have to do!

Just now (like Phil Gooden) I’m in the middle of the tenth Medieval Murderers collection. This being our anniversary edition, I’m taking a slightly different line on the story. Hopefully people will like it!

As soon as that’s put to bed, I have to crack on with the next book in the Hundred Years War series, which will itself be a challenge. However, I’m keen to get on with it. And as soon as that’s completed, I have an idea for another Jack Case story, which will hopefully get put on paper before Christmas.

This is what happens when you have a fiddler, melodeon player and Anglo squeezebox with too much beer inside them!

This is what happens when you have a fiddler, melodeon player and Anglo squeezeboxes with too much beer inside them!

The last few weeks have been very busy, first with a week away, second with the preparations for the Dartmoor Folk Festival, which went off really well this last weekend (hence the lateness with the blog). I’ve drunk more beer in three days than I have in the last six months. And I enjoyed every one of them! If you can get to no other festival next year, try to come to Dartmoor in early August. The bands are great, the location’s stunning, and you even get to see a happy Morris-dancing scribbler!

Tinner's Morris dancing outside South Tawton Church for the Folk Festival. Look out for us at Chagford on Thursday!

Tinner’s Morris dancing outside South Tawton Church for the Folk Festival. Look out for us at Chagford on Thursday!

And now I need to prepare for Thursday. A whole day at Chagford Show, selling books and dancing with Tinner’s Morris.

I hope to see some of you there!


Meantime, here are a couple of other pictures to get you into the mood!



New band, Gadarene, with a wonderful, rich sound to their music. Matt Norman of Great Western Morris is there with the hat!

New band, Gadarene, with a wonderful, rich sound to their music. Matt Norman of Great Western Morris is there with the hat!


2 Responses to “Planning Not To Plan!”
  1. Feud_writer says:

    This post rings so true with me. It’s exactly what I do – at first I thought it was a bit scary but now I get a real buzz from giving the characters their head and letting them take the story on – well not all of them, as some characters are not very trustworthy in that area…


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