Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Pants-er or Recipe-er? Guest Post by Leslie Karst

LESLIE KARST: Pants-er or Recipe-er?

Authors are often asked whether we’re plotters or pantsers—do we plan out our story lines in advance and outline them in detail, or merely start writing and just see what happens?


I’ve been a devout plotter for most my fiction-writing career. And for my legal writing career as well, when I worked as a research and appellate attorney. Though truly, I can’t fathom how anyone could draft a legal brief without doing at least a little outlining. (Oh wait, come to think of it, I do believe some of those sloppy motions I received from opposing counsel over the years might well have been written without a whole lot of advance planning....)


When I set out to draft my first Sally Solari mystery, even the thought of sitting down with only a vague idea and then simply writing a mystery novel scared the heck out of me. You have to plant clues, after all, and red herrings, and suspects. How could you do that just willy-nilly? (Asks this list-making, check-everything-three-times, Virgo.)


But what’s interesting is that when it comes to cooking, I’ve always been the exact opposite. Sure, I love to read cookbooks. And my favorite day of the week for the newspaper is when the food section comes out, so I can peruse the recipes, maybe learn a new technique for rolling out pasta, and drool over all the seasonal ingredients highlighted that time of year. 


But I don’t tend to use recipes when I prepare food. In this area of my life I am a full-on pantser, tasting my sauce, adding a dash of this or that, then tasting it again. I don’t worry about messing it up, because I have a solid understanding of the chemistry of cooking, so I know instinctively what will work and what won’t. (This is the reason I’m not a keen baker—for it’s pretty darn hard to use a seat-of-the-pants method when you’re making a cake or a baguette. Bakers don’t even call them “recipes”; they refer to their preparation methods as “formulae.”)


But here’s the thing: over the years, I’ve gradually become more and more of a pantser with each of the books in my series. I had the opportunity to sit on a panel a couple years ago which included the talented Laurie R. King, and when we were asked about this plotter/pantser thing, Laurie talked about how she’d been a complete plotter for her first four books, but then switched to the seat-of-your-pants method. “By then I’d figured out how to do it, how to write a mystery novel,” she explained, “so I figured, why not try it the other way? And it worked.” She’s been a devout seat-of-the-pantser ever since.

I thought a lot about what Laurie said that night, and when I embarked on this fifth novel in my series, The Fragrance of Death, for the first time in my life, I decided to throw caution to the wind and went at it without a fully fleshed-out plot. (Mind you, I did have an idea of how the book would start and finish and whodunit, but that long middle was merely the germ of an idea.)


And you know what? It was fun. But a little scary, too—especially when I’d finish a scene and then have no idea where I was going next. I found myself going on long bike rides and talking aloud to myself, asking, “What would Sally so in this situation? What if X happened to her, and then she reacted by doing Y?” The walkers along West Cliff Drive where I like to ride likely wondered why the heck this strange gal was pedaling along talking to herself about murder and mayhem. 


But hey—as with Laurie, it worked, and I’m exceedingly pleased with how this new book turned out. So perhaps I’ve made a permanent switch—maybe all those years pantsing it in the kitchen without a recipe has paid off in my writing career!


The daughter of a law professor and a potter, Leslie Karst learned early, during family dinner conversations, the value of both careful analysis and the arts—ideal ingredients for a mystery story. Putting this early education to good use, she now writes the Lefty Award-nominated Sally Solari Mysteries, a culinary series set in Santa Cruz, California. The next book in the series, The Fragrance of Death, releases August 2, 2022.


1 comment:

Laurie R King said...

I can’t remember ever claiming to be a planner, but absolutely, I inhabit the “organic”school of writing now!

Go, Leslie!