Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Jigsaw Puzzle

By Kathleen Ernst

When I posted last month, I was on my way to a weeklong writing retreat. I wanted some serious quiet time so I could think about book three in my Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites series. As I settled into the cottage I’d rented, I noticed a jigsaw puzzle left for vacationers. I hadn’t done a puzzle for years, but it brought back happy memories.

Anyway, the week flew by. When I got home, a friend asked how many pages I’d written. “About twenty,” I told her. She seemed surprised. I think she’d expected me to produce a lot more.

The thing is, I wasn’t mid-book. I spent most of the week reading and scribbling ideas for the new location where book 3 will be set. Since my books have historical themes reflected in modern crimes, I needed to compile a list of possible topics given the area’s history. It’s a long list---lots to choose from.

As the quiet days went by, it occurred to me that starting a new novel is like starting a big jigsaw puzzle.

puzzle confused

Start by dumping out all the puzzle pieces. Throw away the box lid, because you don’t know what the final picture will look like. Then take handfuls of pieces from half a dozen other puzzles and toss them on the pile too.

Now, try to make some order from the mess! Most people start by finding their edges---the foundation for the novel. (For me, that meant clarifying where Chloe is, when she’s there, and why she’s there.) Next, get the corners in place. (I set parameters by identifying the possibly-criminal historical themes that resonated with me the most.) Finally, start playing with the remaining pieces, grouping them by color and texture, looking for patterns to emerge. In time it will become clear that some pieces don’t belong.

Right now, my forward motion is slow. I know that as I move forward, though, the pace will pick up. When I write the last few chapters, only a few puzzle pieces will remain, and it will be clear to see exactly where they should go. And finally, the last missing piece will pop neatly into place. Woo-hoo!


Then I’ll give myself a few days to tidy my desk, and start the process all over again. It’s even more fun than the real jigsaw puzzles I did as a kid!

Images: Renjith Krishnan/;


Keith Raffel said...

Interesting analogy, Kathleen. For me writing is more like it is for EL Doctorow who said, "It's like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."

Darrell James said...

Kathleen- My analogy has always been the Rubik's Cube. You start with a lot of mixed squares and keep working (the story) until all the colors line up. I think I like yours better.

Kathleen Ernst said...

Keith - I've always liked that one as well!

Darrell - I hadn't thought of that one, but that hands-on sense of working, working until something lines up is appropriate too.

If only I could come up with such clever analogies when I need them for a plot!

G.M. Malliet said...

I have a deep-seated fear that if you sent me to a writer's retreat, I'd spend the whole time reading, or doing puzzles, or staring at the sky - anything but writing. I'll have to test myself one day. Glad it worked for you!

Beth Groundwater said...

I like the way you think, Kathleen! My father and I are huge jigsaw puzzle addicts. It used to be that one of us would get one for Christmas and the two of us would stay up working it until it was done in the middle of the night. Now my family doesn't give us puzzles anymore. I wonder why?!

Kathleen Ernst said...

Gin - You might surprise yourself! I'd bet that ideas would be percolating, even if in the back of your mind.

Beth - Sounds like fun! It's so satisfying to fit that last piece in, isn't it?

Jessie Chandler said...

Kathleen, great analogy. I often think about writing as laying down the skeleton or the bones, and then filling in the musculature as the story evolves. Fun!

Kathleen Ernst said...

That's another good one, Jessie. Especially for mystery writers, eh?