When the Story Writes Itself

Nancy J. Cohen

Have you noticed how you plod through some books you’re writing and others seem to write themselves? Why is that, do you think? Peril by Ponytail, my upcoming mystery release, was a breeze compared to some of my other stories. I had a wealth of research material from my trip to Arizona. Not only did I stay on a dude ranch similar to the one where Marla and Dalton honeymoon in the story, but I explored a copper mine, hunted spirits at a haunted hotel, toured a cave, visited ghost towns, and more. With such an abundance of historical and sensory details, I had too much material for one book. The story sprang from the setting and the characters I’d placed there. Photos brought me back to the locale along with my detailed notes. I didn’t lack for words to fill in the pages.


My next story, Facials Can Be Fatal, is a different story…figuratively as well as literally. Based back in my hairdresser sleuth’s hometown, it involves a client who dies in the middle of getting a facial. The method of death tripped me up, and it took me weeks to decide Howdunit. Then I created my ring of suspects, but it wasn’t enough. The spark was missing. When I hit upon a historical angle and the idea of a deserted theme park, those two elements hit the ball into the field. Now I was off and running. I’d needed that ember to ignite the flame of creative passion.

Now I’m writing the sequel, since #14 in my series directly follows book #13. Normally, I write a detailed synopsis before the writing process begins. In this case, I wrote four pages of plotting notes that essentially go from Point A to Point B without much in between. A mystery doesn’t work without twists and turns. My normal synopsis runs 12-15 pages. But just by winging it, I’m already up to page 40 in the story. I’m not sure where I am going. I have hazy images of the suspects and their motives in my head. And I haven’t yet hit upon the angle that’ll make my pulse race.

Do I need it? Maybe not.

I sit down every morning with the blank page in front of me and my five pages a day goal, and those words somehow get filled in. I expect at any time to get stuck due to insufficient plotting, but it hasn’t happened yet. This is a different kind of mystery for me. It’s not a “dead body up front” kind of story. There’s been an accident, and we aren’t sure yet if it was intentional or not. Meanwhile, I’m going with the flow to see where it takes me.

Does this happen to you? Are some stories easier to write than others? What do you think makes the difference?

10 thoughts on “When the Story Writes Itself

  1. So far, I’ve found all the stories difficult at one point or another. I tried writing my current project without an outline…doesn’t seem to work for me…so now I’m plotting. The plotting is going well, however, and I’m excited.

    Where I find that the story writes itself is with individual scenes. Since I use Third Person Multiple, I’ll find that a particular character will basically write the scenes for me. This time, I have three POV characters, and each is writing their scenes for me, whereas before, not all the characters were that independent.

    I suspect the reason for the difference is that this time, I refused to write any scenes until my characters were real people to me. Now that they’re alive in my mind, I’m letting them do their thing… and, most of the time, ‘their thing’ is way better, way more complex, than anything I could imagine.

    Love that magic !

  2. So far, I’ve muddled through 16 novels with vague ideas of character conflicts, goals, and motivations. I track where I’ve been, not where I’m going, but yes, some books are easier than others. Right now, I’m starting what (I hope) will turn into a new series, or at least a trilogy, and since I don’t know my characters yet, and I’m *trying* to lay some groundwork for future books, it’s been slower going than the previous ones.

    • It always hard to start a new book, let alone a new series, at least until all the characters have appeared “on stage” for the first time.

  3. Nicely done, Nancy. For me, “easy” and “the book writes itself” are a function of the depth of my story planning, coupled with my accumulated learning curve. When the planning feels rough, the writing also goes less than smoothly, which for me proves one shouldn’t transition from planning to drafting until the plan goes down smooth. In the case of someone like you, schooled in craft, I think that a “book writes itself” experience means you’ve landed on a great story, inherently. We should all celebrate when that happens! Best of luck with this and all your projects. Larry

  4. Larry, I hope the story is inherent as you say. It does spring from the characters and situation in the previous book so it’s like a continuation. I am afraid I might slam into a wall along the way, but we’ll see. I do have an idea of the suspects and their motives. This is a different kind of plot than I normally do as well, which is good. It’ll surprise me along with my readers.

  5. I mostly write seat of my pants. I get an idea and I have the idea where I want to end. I just start writing. The best part is when my characters start taking over and the plot fills itself in. I love the feeling because I know I’m on the right track and it will be a good piece of work.

  6. Yes, Nancy, I don’t know how else to explain it except when the muse is whispering the story, it’s my job to get it on paper. I don’t have to plot that one much. The story just takes over. I love the excitement of a story that just flies out of me. Other stories are because of my work ethic of daily writing. It doesn’t make the books less good, but it does make it a harder to get plot. I struggled with how to keep the character terrified my upcoming a gothic romance. It was routine and rewriting that made that work. Other stories don’t need my personality to get out of the way so much and are easier to feel. Glad to see I’m in your company on this one…

    • Definitely you’re in company on this one, Vicki. Usually I’m a lot more comfortable plotting things out in advance, but that’s not possible with my current WIP. I’ll keep going on it as long as I can until I hit a snag.

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