Christopher Columbus and the Discovery Method


Discover: verb. to see, get knowledge of, learn of, find, or find out; gain sight or knowledge of (something previously unseen or unknown).

Before I begin, let me note that I’m not addressing the issues of the treatment of indigenous peoples by the early explorers. I’m simply looking at the accidental discovery of the Americas.

One might argue that Columbus didn’t “discover” the New World since people already lived there. Others may point out that Norsemen landed in Newfoundland hundreds of years before Columbus. But the discovery in 1492 was the singular event that led to a worldwide understanding of the geography of our planet and resulted in an exciting new age of exploration.

In the fifteenth century, many European leaders longed for quick access to the riches of the Far East, but land travel to Asia was perilous. The only known sea route was by sailing south along the west coast of Africa, around the Cape of Good Hope, across the Indian Ocean and on to Asia. But that was a long, slow journey.

Into this moment in history stepped the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, and as we all know, he proposed a different solution to the problem: sailing directly west from Europe to Asia. Columbus wasn’t the only person who believed the Earth was round – most educated people of that era agreed – but he was the one who was willing to risk his life on it.

Columbus was an excellent seaman and one of the most experienced navigators of his time. However, the data he used to calculate the length of the voyage was faulty. The circumference of the Earth was considered to be much smaller than it actually is, and the Asian land mass was thought to extend much farther to the east than it does. Using these data, he calculated the distance from the Canary Islands to Japan to be about 2,400 miles. Actually, it’s more than 10,000 miles. One can only wonder if he would have attempted the voyage if he had known the true distance.

By 1484, Columbus had drawn up plans for a westward expedition into the Atlantic Ocean to fulfill the dream of finding a faster route to Asia and its riches, but his request for support was turned down by every government he approached as being too risky.  Undeterred, he kept trying, and eventually he secured funding from several sources including the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. The rest, as they say, is history.


Perhaps we can define Christopher Columbus as the first hybrid plotter/pantser. (Okay, now you see where I’m going with this.) There are a lot of similarities. Columbus had an end goal in mind, but he didn’t simply hop in a boat and head out. His persistence and hard work got his voyage funded. He used the knowledge that was available to him at the time to plan his voyage (albeit his calculation of the length of the trip was woefully mistaken). He was a skilled navigator who had made many successful voyages around the coasts of Europe, and he wisely decided on the starting point from the Canary Islands to take advantage of the favorable trade winds. Still, to set sail into the unknown was an act of courage and faith that I suspect few had then or have today.

Of course, he could not have foreseen the magnificent surprise that awaited him some weeks after he set sail.


The Discovery Method in writing is often defined as pantsing or “writing by the seat of your pants.” But maybe it’s closer to the Christopher Columbus hybrid method. Is using this approach a way to happen onto an idea or a phrase that we wouldn’t have come upon otherwise? Will the discovery method offer us the opportunity to learn more about ourselves by launching into the unknown with a partially-developed plan? Is it possible to produce a work that is new and revolutionary through the discovery method?

So, TKZers: Are you a plotter? A pantser? Or a hybrid plantser? Have you happened onto any unexpected discoveries in your writing? Maybe you’ve experimented with a new idea to extend yourself beyond the safe haven of what has always worked for you.

Is the possibility of discovering something new worth the risk of failure by launching out into the unknown?




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About Kay DiBianca

Kay DiBianca is a former software developer and IT manager who retired to a life of mystery. She’s the award-winning author of three cozy mysteries, The Watch on the Fencepost, Dead Man’s Watch, and Time After Tyme. Connect with Kay on her website at

28 thoughts on “Christopher Columbus and the Discovery Method

  1. Up until a month ago, I would have called myself an outlininer/plotter. I think it’s been ingrained in me since high school, where we were required to outline every single paper in detail.

    I had tried pantsing several times, was uncomfortable with it, and dissatisfied with the sprawling results.

    But Debbie Burke often refers to her first draft as her “discovery draft,” so I decided to try it on as a state of mind, rather than as a writing process for my current WIP. I had a rough outline (scene titles in my Scrivener document) and a barebones draft. The results were much better than I expected. I zoned into a discovery mind-frame and fleshed out an entire novel-length first draft in three weeks. New plot points and character traits popped into my head, most of which I kept. It’s a cleaner draft than my usual, too, so the editing is progressing quickly.

    I haven’t gone total pantser, though. I like having an idea of how the novel begins and ends before I start writing, even though those elements may change drastically. And I like using Scrivener scene titles as working guides.

    Now, I’d say I use a hybrid process, thanks to Debbie.

    • Good morning, Truant! Sounds like you’re sailing along smoothly in your writing. A novel-length first draft in three weeks is impressive. Debbie Burke has influenced many of us with her experience and wisdom.

      My method is similar to yours. I like having the general idea of the start and finish, but I appreciate the latitude (now there’s a good sailing term) to be creative about the journey.

      Good luck on your WIP. Let us know when you sight land.

    • Wow, TL, thanks for your kind words. Glad the method worked for you!

      When people ask which is the best way, the answer is always “the way that works for YOU.”

  2. I consider myself a Planster. I have a vague plan, know some things that are probably going to happen, but I rarely see beyond the headlights.

    • Good morning, Terry.

      You’re in good company. Wasn’t it E.L. Doctorow who said, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

  3. It all boils down to trust. If you believe your characters (like your neighbors, the folks down the street, and even complete strangers) can live their story without you telling them what to do and say and how to feel, then simply let them live it. You can be their access to a keyboard, and both you and your readers will be amazed at what goes on over in that other world.

    • Good morning, Harvey!

      I guess every writer has to find his or her own method of story-telling, and it’s always fascinating to hear you talk about how your characters drive your stories.

      Sounds like you take your readers on a trip to a new world with each story. Have a great writing day.

  4. Great post, Kay. I love analogies. in fact, my subconscious is always searching for analogies. It’s one of the ways we learn, so this is doubly great – an analogy about learning.

    I imagine there will be some spirited discussion today, but that’s good, also. Just tie yourself to the mast, and don’t get washed over the side of the ship by the waves.

    I like your definition of the “Discovery Method” or the hybrid method. I bet most of us, if we’re honest incorporate a component of this into our method. First we have to learn the basics, the structure that works, the “signposts” along the way. Then we set out, each of us with a different degree of courage to explore. Some have a tight agenda, some just know that India is out there over the horizon.

    I am a hybrid “plantser” (love that hybrid word). I started out as a plotter, but found I was always changing my outline as I went. I tried (once) pantsing, or writing “organically” as some would say, with a serial on Vella. Wow, by halfway, I was looking for a life line, and pulled out JSB’s “Superstructure” and refreshed my memory of the “signposts.” Now I play with Google Docs, set up an outline with the H1 headings (Chapter titles) showing up in a nice list on the left, so I can hop from chapter to chapter. I “explore” with a sketchy rough draft in Google Docs, then I set out in Scrivener, exploring and looking for gold, while Google Docs is always open behind Scrivener when I want to take a peek.

    The fun of exploration on the trapeze, with the safety net (of a rough outline) below to catch me. Wow, it’s fun!

    Have an explorative and safe day!

    • Good morning, Steve!

      You’re right about analogies — they’re like white cheddar popcorn — I just can’t get enough. Since I started writing creatively, i find that I relate just about everything to writing.

      You found yet another analogy — each of us has to explore a lot of territory to understand the craft of writing and how we can adapt our own style to it. I agree with you that both the journey to find our individual method and the writing that results are great fun. (And we don’t have to worry about getting lost at sea.)

      Tying myself to the mast …

  5. Native Americans had been living here for hundreds of years before Columbus allegedly “discovered” it. What followed can only be described as genocide. For that reason, I am not a fan. But I do get your point, Kay. Even planners get lost “in the zone.” When that occurs I prefer to know how to get back on track, or I adjust the plan. Some pantsers don’t realize that we’re not married to our plan. When the story zigs or zags in unexpected ways, we can always rework the plan. Nothing’s drawn in concrete. 🙂

    • Good morning, Sue!

      I truly admire writers who outline the story before they begin. Doesn’t that make the execution of the writing easier? Once the outline is complete, I imagine the author sailing along from point to point without “re-calculating” the route.

      But your point is well-taken. The author doesn’t have to be lashed to the plan. Sounds like the best of both worlds.

  6. Great insights, Kay. One of the great joys of writing is the unexpected discovery, whether it’s a plot twist, a character’s secret, or a revelation about life.

    This line jumped out: “he was the one who was willing to risk his life on it.”

    Not only do we as writers need to take that risk, so do our characters. They must want/need something badly enough that they go for it despite terrible odds.

    One consolation: we writers hardly ever get eaten by sharks!

    P.S. Thanks for your kind words but I only pass along what I’ve learned/stolen from other people.

    • Morning, Debbie!

      “One of the great joys of writing is the unexpected discovery,” — you are so right. I have been surprised at the number of times that something happened in one of my stories that I didn’t see coming. It is a joy indeed!

      And it’s so great to be willing to risk it all and not worry about being eaten by the sharks. 🙂

      Thanks for all you do.

  7. Great post, Kay! I began as a pure discovery writer, went over to the outlining side of the force, but still am attuned to the serendipity of discovery in progress. I typically keep a novel journal for each book, and, as I draft (and revise) I’m updating plot points, revisiting what the story is about from the 30K foot view, etc.

    Where I have to be careful with outlining is not letting the perfect plan be the enemy of the good one. Too often I find myself over-considering where the story might branch, rather than picking a direction and running with it.

    Have a wonderful Monday!

    What saves me every time is focusing on story structure. If I remember that, I’m in a good shape, and can fill in “the blanks” with confidence.”

    • Good morning, Dale!

      Sounds like you’ve found the perfect lane for you by being sensitive to the possibility of changes in the plan.

      I saw a lot of wisdom in your statement “Where I have to be careful with outlining is not letting the perfect plan be the enemy of the good one.” In my software development days, we had a saying: “Don’t let ‘best’ get in the way of ‘better’.” You’re smart to recognize the possibility of a maelstrom.

      Have a great writing day!

  8. Excellent analogy, Kay. I won’t enter the “discovery” debate, but I will throw my socks in the hamper on planning vs pantsing. I’ve played for both teams. My first fiction work (10 years ago, now) was planned out like the Invasion of Normandy. Seriously. I had a huge whiteboard, flip-charts and flow-charts, and outline after outline.

    That was a lot of prep work. I evolved into more of a spontaneous planner and “discovered” the zone, although “indigenous” scribes had occupied it for hundreds of years before I arrived. I loved it there and set up shop with pantsing ala Dean Wesley Smith’s Writing Into The Dark. *nod and wink to ole Harvey over there*

    Now, I’ve slowly sailed back to the homeland of planning. I’m in the Pre-Duction phase of a new series. Once again, there’s the flowcharts and flip-charts although my shop is now too cluttered with motivational props to allow a huge whiteboard. Hey! Has anyone else found these things called stickynotes? They’re grrrreat 🙂

    • Good morning, Garry!

      What a journey you’ve had — and what a great way you described it here! I’ve read your descriptions of the phases of your writing routine. Maybe you should write a post about how and why you developed your current technique. (And include a picture of your office.)

      It’s interesting that so many of us have transitioned from one technique to another in our writing experience.

      Sticky notes? I love ’em. I’ve mentioned before that I use the three-door closet in my office as a story board by sticking post-it notes for characters, plot points, suspects, and everything else in the three-act structure. It’s quite a technicolor display as the novel takes shape.

  9. The archeological discoveries on Oak Island, Nova Scotia, are showing that Columbus was very late to the party, perhaps by several centuries.

    Anyway, I’ve always been a hybrid plotter and pantser. I figure out where I’m going before I start, but I leave the other details for while I’m working. I describe it as having a line of jewels ready and in order, then I create the filigree to turn it into a bracelet.

  10. “Perhaps we can define…Columbus as the first hybrid plotter/pantser.” LOL! You led me down the garden path! In re garden paths, my blog post, “Brainstorying…,” describes, among others, a writing metaphor found in “The Garden of Forking Paths,” by Jorge Borges.

    But regarding pantsing/planning, based on observation, on RLS, and on Carl Jung, it’s my theory that our “inner writer” is an autonomous and quasi-sentient entity, independent of our own intellect.* Planner or pantser or both, that is their secret, and since they are our true creative center, their preference is what matters.

    We may think we boldly go where we’ve never gone before, but our inner writer is far ahead of us and has already planted signposts along the way. Two examples:

    (1) On page 91**, MC needs a special object. Lo and gee whiz, he’s already got it, thanks to the intervention of another character on page 48, with zero planning on my part.
    (2) Discovering a 2400-word story on my drive, written from my MC’s POV at 3 a.m., two years earlier.***

    * This accounts for “The Zone,” sleepwalking, deja vu, and Freudian slips, plus 2 dozen other phenomena, some disturbing. Though I call it “The Guardienne” elsewhere, its concept of protecting us can be dysfunctional, especially in the presence of ethanol.
    ** Silver Dream.
    *** Details on yesterday’s short story writing thread.

    • Wow, JGuenther, there’s a lot to digest here!

      I know what you’re saying about the inner writer. I have also had the experience of needing something in a late chapter and realizing I had inadvertently set it up in an earlier one. That’s a mystery to me.

      • Yes, Kay, my mentor, Edith Battles, also mentioned this as a frequent phenomenon. Keith Richards wrote the opening riff for “Satisfaction” after he’d passed out. John Guare found he’d already written the opening scene for “Muzika” in a note to his father 2 years earlier, and totally forgotten it.
        When an athlete is “in the Zone,” the feeling of invincibility is due to the Guardienne’s euphoria when it takes control, bypassing the relatively much slower frontal cortices. The Guardienne Hypothesis Project is on ResearchGate, if you’re interested further. It is a major factor in alcoholic relapse. Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde was based on an actual case.

        • Geoffrey, I took a look at the ResearchGate website. I hadn’t known of its existence before. I was amazed by the Guardienne articles you wrote.
          I’ve long been interested in the relationship between aerobic exercise and creativity. Do you suppose some atavistic response to running can engage the brain’s Guardienne, giving rise to enhanced creativity? I am obviously not knowledgeable in this area, but I’d like to pursue doing a blog post on creativity.

          Thanks so much for this information.

  11. Good morning, Marilynn!

    Looks like we have more hybrid plotter- I love your description of the jewels that will make the bracelet of the story.

  12. I’ve always called myself a discovery writer. What people call a pantser, not how discovery writing is described in the above post.

    I start with a character and a setting, and write to find out what happens — much like I read.

    I am reformed. I once was a plotter/outliner. The outlining part was enjoyable enough, but to sit down and write hundreds of pages of an actual manuscript when I knew what was going to happen sucked all of the enjoyment of actually writing out of me. It was like giving myself spoilers.

    Oddly enough, the vast majority of my favorite authors claim to be non-outliners as well. I imagine there’s probably something in that. Possibly planners tend to be readers of authors who are heavy outliners and vice versa.

    But, that is for smarter people than I to study. I just have to love the writing to actually do it. And I have a hard time loving it, if I know what is going to happen.

    • Good afternoon, Tony.

      A reformed plotter — I love how you describe your experience with outlining. We all have to find the thing that works for us.

      From complete outline at the outset to no outline at all, there are well-respected writers all along that continuum. It sounds like you ‘ve found your place.

      Have a great writing day.

  13. Hi Kay! I guess I’m a hybrid. Before I start writing, I have to know the main characters, the crime and why it happens now, not last year or next year, and a general sense of the ending. I don’t have to know who did it…that will come out as I write. Enjoyed the post!

    • Hi Patricia!

      Most peoplle who responded fall in the hybrid category. Having the framework of the house in place, we can rearrange the rooms however we like.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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