The Shield of Horatius and Outlines
The previous posts had two sections, but this is all about a single topic: outlines. I mention my middle-grade mystery here because this post shares my original outline. This provides some insight into the writing process. Well, that’s my goal.
How important is an outline? It is crucial. Crucial, that is, if you want to write well and stay on track. Why? Writing is the communication of ideas through printed (whether on a screen or on paper) words. Even a book is an idea. The Shield of Horatius started with this thought: What if an artifact of a legendary Roman hero survived to today?
Several questions and ideas sprung from there: how could it happen? How do we navigate Roman history to make it plausible? How could it be found after millennia? Why was it lost? How long has it been lost?
See a need for organization? No question, but many of these questions were answered as I wrote, not before the writing started.
Before the writing started, I made the most simple outline possible. Basically, I created the Table of Contents (TOC). Below are both my original TOC and the final version that appears in the books.
It was that simple. I referred to the eleven items as the book developed. Other writers create much more intricate outlines. Do what makes you feel most comfortable. My preference is leaving things loose so there is plenty of room for change. Clearly there was change here, two chapters are crossed out.
The first was “A Shadow in the Hall.” It was my original intent to have Chapters Four, Five, and Six occur in the same location. At some point I realized it would slow the story down, the pacing would be far too slow. So Chapter Four remained where it was, and Chapter Five happens in a location a few blocks away. The characters move as the story moves.
The second editorial change was deletion of “The Golden House.” This is a reference to the huge residence Nero built called the Domus Aurea, Latin for “House of Gold.” I wanted the characters to visit, but there were two problems. First, the house was lost for a long, long time. When Nero was killed, the people hated him so much they buried the house and drained the artificial lake next to it. The site of the lake, by the way, is where the Colosseum stands today. Nero’s death came just four years after the house was built.
A second problem was an actual visit to the Domus Aurea is difficult because the site isn’t stable. Restoration work is underway and part of the site reopened at the end of last year, but it was closed when I wrote the book. Both of these factors meant the house was not a plausible location.
Reality sometimes interferes with creative choices.
Chapter Eleven is still there on the pre-writing side, but, unfortunately, the Pantheon is only discussed in the book, not visited. The reason for the visit was problematic because the Pantheon is today a functioning Catholic church. So I used the location secondhand and with pretty good results, but not until Chapter Thirteen of the actual book.
I encourage you to do a simple outline, even if you usually make detailed preparations for writing. When you write, it should be fluid. If things go well, the story flows. That is not to say it cannot be done another way, it just makes any new decision much more difficult. For example, if you come up with a brilliant change to a character or scene in the beginning or middle of your book, then everything else must shift to accommodate the change. How willing will you be to make the change? Leave it open and trust your writing instincts.
Do it your way, but make sure you do it. Even the most basic outline gives you a path. When we travel, we don’t note all the streets we drive past. Instead, we mark the turns. We do that because the turns are significant. If we know the map well enough, we might even think of an alternate route, and might be forced to do so if we come upon a closed road. Flexibility is important to reaching the end of the journey.
Thank you for taking a few moments! Please share your thoughts on outlines.