To The Far West: Research and Outlining

One thing I haven’t done on my blog is go through the process of creating fiction, from start to finish. Since I’m in the middle of a short story, I thought it would be a good time to correct that oversight.

This is my contribution to Tales of the Far West, an anthology for the Far West franchise. I’ve written for a number of franchises in the past (everything from Vampire: The Masquerade to Red Dwarf), and one of the key things of writing for someone else’s universe is that you have to research. You don’t have to just research the specific property in question (although for some established franchises, that can be a massive undertaking in itself), but you also have to look into ancillary research that relates to the property.

For example, Far West. Since this is a property that’s still being developed, Gareth was able to get me a short bible, and made himself available for questions. If I don’t know the franchise to start, I try to go into it relatively blind, so that I don’t form an idea for a story and then become disappointed. In this case, one particular paragraph grabbed my attention:

Our analogue of the Pinkerton Detectives, mixed with a bit of Detective Dee and more than a smidge of James West from Wild Wild West. Our “citified dandies” who use gadgets and tech.

I immediately pitched the idea of a detective story in this setting, and Gareth gave me the green light. This led to more specific research, including a lot of questions about the legal and political structures of this franchise.

But remember how I mentioned ancillary research? Far West is a kind of Wild West/steampunk setting with Asian influences, so I had to also look into criminal investigations and technology from the 19th century. Luckily, my Sherlock Holmes project meant that I had most of the resources on hand and fresh in my mind (part of the reason I made the pitch, if I’m being honest), but the point was that I had to do a fair bit of reading before the rough shape of the story took shape in my mind.

At a certain point, I had enough details in my head that I needed to start writing them down and banging them into an outline. I am a writer that lives by outlines. I have tried to write without an outline, but every time I end up getting lost half-way through the story and giving up. Every time I outline, I can finish the project. The down side is that sometimes it takes me weeks to get an outline strong enough for me to start writing, and some projects have died in the outline phase. Still, it’s better to have it die after a few pages rather than a few dozen (or hundred).

In this case, I did spend a few weeks just working on the outline. People who have worked with me as a developer have remarked on my clear, thorough outlines, but the ones I write for myself aren’t so clear. The first pass is usually just a hand-written list of details. I try to put them into some form of shape, and notice gaps which I then try to fill. For this story, I knew I was looking at a story of at least 5,000 words, and using the Lester Dent formula, I wanted to have a couple of twists and a couple of conflicts before the end.1 In my notebook, I literally drew four boxes and scribbled facts, twists, and conflicts in each one to make sure I had the right balance. I immediately noticed a very soggy middle and a weak ending, so over the course of a week I wrote it a few different ways. At one point a key piece (the reason behind the murder) popped into my head, and the whole outline fell into place. I created a new SpringPad note (something I can easily get to on my computer, phone, or iPad for refeerence) and write a list of bullet points, covering the key facts of the backstory (since the murder happens before the story starts, I had to make sure those facts are straight as I introduce them), and the three or four things I needed to do each 1,500 words or so.

Then I started writing my first shitty draft, which I’ll get to in another post.

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  1. I have a different way of interpreting Lester’s formula — I should write a separate blog on that sometime.