Writing Mysteries as a “Pantser” by Margo Bond Collins

Until the first time that I participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo.org), I didn’t actually know that I was a “pantser” (a seat-of-my-pants writer) as opposed to a “plotter” (a writer who works out the entire plot before beginning to write). But, that year, I wrote my first complete novel without ever trying to decide beforehand what would happen.

Before then, I had sketched out probably hundreds of stories that didn’t get written—in part because if I already know what’s going to happen, I get bored with the story. I didn’t know that about myself until I wrote without the safety net of an outline.

What I love about the way I write is that often my characters surprise me. They take off in unexpected directions, changing the story and, in the process, reveal more of who they are and why they do what they do.

The problem with this method (or lack thereof) is that I write mysteries—books that require carefully developed plots with clues designed to both help the reader figure out the mystery and allow the reader to be surprised at the end of the novel. Mysteries require careful planning.

I’m not a planner.

This can be a problem.

But I’ve learned to compromise. For example, I wrote Waking Up Dead when I lived in Alabama for a few years. I remember driving to work one morning and seeing just a wisp of fog move across the statue in the middle of the town square. The statue was of some Civil War figure, and thought that it looked oddly ghostly. In between teaching classes that day, I started writing Callie’s story. About halfway through, I figured out that I was going to need to solve the mystery before the characters did! So, at that point, I decided where I was headed, generally—but I let the characters take me where I needed to go.  Much the same thing happened with Fairy, Texas—I saw the sign for the cutoff to the town (it’s a real place!), figured out the basics of the story, and let the characters guide me.

That has become my standard method of writing: I start with just the barest idea, letting the characters set up their problems for me. Then I figure out what the overall issue is that needs to be solved. I try to stay out of my own way while the characters move from point A to point B. And then I go back and do a reverse outline to see what’s missing.

But I’m fascinated by writers who can plot out a whole story from beginning to end and still finish the novel.

Maybe one day I’ll try that again.

Then again, maybe not. I’d hate to plan that far in advance.

Guest Blogger Bio  

Margo Bond Collins is the author of a number of novels, including Waking Up Dead, Fairy, Texas, and Legally Undead (forthcoming in 2014). She lives in Texas with her husband, their daughter, and several spoiled pets. She teaches college-level English courses online, though writing fiction is her first love. She enjoys reading urban fantasy and paranormal fiction of any genre and spends most of her free time daydreaming about vampires, ghosts, zombies, werewolves, and other monsters.

Connect with Margo:

Twitter: https://twitter.com/MargoBondCollin  @MargoBondCollin
Goodreads Author Page: http://www.goodreads.com/vampirarchy



Coming Soon:

Be sure to add Fairy, Texas to your Goodreads bookshelves: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/19502285-fairy-texas


  1. I too have this problem. If I write a synopsis for my story, my mind says, "Oh, that what happens and loses interest." It took me a while to figure out why I would begin a project then lose interest. I wish I could work from an outline, it would be so much easier. Thanks for sharing your writing style. It's good to know I'm not alone in this.

    1. Scarlet: I've recently started writing for an editor who likes to have a full synopsis before I get started writing, so I've been trying to learn to NOT GET BORED. It's been an interesting process--I haven't quite figured it out yet, but I'm working on it! :)


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