The Writing Process (my version, anyway)

May 25th, 2014

Michael W. Sherer, a very fine thriller writer who deservedly sells a lot of books, suggested that I join in on something called a “blog hop” in which various writers take turns blogging about a common theme — in this case, their writing process — linking forward and backward in the hope that readers will click their way merrily along, being exposed to writers and books they might enjoy. You can find his blog at

night blind 2

I can tell you right now that you’ll enjoy Sherer.  The two books featuring Blake Sanders, a necessarily nocturnal hero (he has some issues that make him more comfortable at night) who can literally find his way around Seattle blindfolded, especially hit me.  The first is Night Blind, and I recommend it. Both it and Night Tide, the second, are free for the Kindle at the time of this writing.

As Michael told me, a  blog hop is sort of a blog chain letter.  I have unmixed feelings, all negative, about chain letters, and yet here I am, participating in one.  Two wonderful writers, Catriona McPherson and Jeri Westerson have agreed to play, so at the bottom of this post you’ll find something about each of them, along with a link to their respective blogs, where their version of this thing will appear on Monday, June 2.

Is anybody still reading?  Okay, the question-and-answer portion:

1. What are you working on?

I’m currently in the schizophrenic position of being in pre-publication mode on two books while trying to write two more. The ones that are coming out are the fourth Junior Bender, Herbie’s Game, which Soho will release on July 15, and the sixth Poke Rafferty, For the Dead, which will appear in better stores everywhere, as they say, in November.  I don’t usually make this claim, but I think they’re both pretty good.


The books I’m trying to write are the seventh Poke, The Hot Countries, and the fifth Junior, King Maybe.  The Hot Countries has the potential of being quite different if I can finish it; I’m trying to do something I’ve never done before, and it seems to be working out. Oddly, it’s the more familiar elements of the book that are giving me trouble, but I guess something has to, or it wouldn’t be my writing process, which has trouble built into it.

King Maybe has two great (I think) plots, and the primary challenges are how to braid them together and how to get Junior out of a corner into which I have very effectively painted him. There are times I wonder why I don’t just get a job as a crossing guard.

2. How does your work differ from others in this genre?



Oh, boy.  Does it differ?  Is there even such a thing as “this genre?” Taking the four writers whom I’ve named here–Michael, Catriona, Jeri, and Pat–they all write books that are very different from each other’s and from mine.  The whole genre thing really pushes my buttons.

But okay, here’s an answer of sorts.  I think I try to do what most good writers try to do, which is to put character first, last, and always. Novels are about characters, regardless of the “genre.” Plot is what characters do, dialogue is what characters say, narrative is the prism through which we see characters’ perspectives.  Setting is a place, as experienced by characters.  When I said above that I had what I think are two good plots for King Maybe, what I meant was that two characters came to me, each pulling a story behind him/her.

But it seems to me that my books are–like pretty much everyone else’s–the story of a person who.  That’s always seemed to me to be the basic definition of a novel (or a play, for that matter): it’s the story of a person who.  The hell with genres.

ftd from soho

3.  Why do you write what you do?

Like (I think) every other writer, I write books I would like to read.  Whenever I start a book, my goal is to write something that, if someone else wrote it, it would land on the top of my to-be-read pile.  (That’s purely figurative because my TBR “pile” currently has more than 300 books in it and I have no room with a high enough ceiling to allow them to be stacked singly on top of each other.)

So I start out hoping to write one for the top of the stack. Then, as the book gets longer and all that shiny, perfect abstraction turns into actual words, many of which are not the right words, I lower my sights.  By the end, I’m hoping for a story that makes sense and means something to someone somewhere.

But however imperfectly I may render them, they’re all stories I would like to read.  I think we all have an instinctive grasp of the dos and don’ts of the kind of story we like best.  It would be silly, I think, to try to write anything else.

 4.  How does your writing process work?

Since I start from character, I can’t outline.  I begin with a person, or three or four, and a sense of the situation, and then it’s as though I drop those characters, like a lot of little ball bearings, onto the surface of my desk and watch them roll around.  Because some of those ball bearings represent people who are in relationships, groupings tend to form and re-form.  As the characters develop and as new characters stroll in, they get all ideas of their own, and I almost always follow them. I am occasionally praised in reviews for my plotting skills, but the fact is that I have no idea what the plot will actually be until the characters take me there.


At some point, usually about 60% of the way in, I make an outline, but it’s a retroactive outline.  For each chapter I list the chapter title and number; the day in the story (1, 2, 3, etc,. plus day of the week); the primary location(s); and a summary of what happens.  This is partly to remind me where I am, but the main objective is to find balls I instinctively left in the air–loose ends, something unresolved or ambiguous or misunderstood.  It’s amazing how often these tickle my brain, giving me exactly the prompts I need for the final sequences.

A friend of mine, an Oscar-winning songwriter named Robb Royer, once said that writing isn’t actually like architecture, in which you construct something; it’s more like archaeology, in which you uncover something that was already there.  The trick is to have the patience to uncover it without forcing it into a new shape, or, even worse, breaking it.

By the time I’ve done this retroactive outline, I usually have an idea of where the book is going.  Bits and pieces of it come to me as I do whatever I’m doing, and I write them all down in a file called WHERE WE’RE GOING.  Most of that material finds its way into the book, although there’s always also a major surprise or two at the last minute.

So that’s my process, and I’m stuck with it.

Playing it Forward

When Michael slogged this off on me, it was on the condition that I rope more writers into sharing their own process and then passing it on to yet more writers.  Here are the two writers who came out to play.  The pieces will appear on their sites on Monday, June 2.

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Catriona McPherson is the Agatha, Bruce Alexander, and Macavity winning author of eight preposterous 1920s mysteries, set in her native Scotland and featuring the gently-born but rather kick-ass Dandy Gilver. The latest – DANDY GILVER AND A BOTHERSOME NUMBER OF CORPSES (Minotaur) – won a second Bruce Alexander award for best historical novel at Left Coast Crime. Her first contemporary stand-alone – AS SHE LEFT IT (Midnight Ink) – was a Kirkus top 20 pick for 2013, was shortlisted for the Calamari at Left Coast, and is currently on the shortlist for the Anthonys and a Foreword Reviews BOTYA. The second – THE DAY SHE DIED – came out in May, and Kirkus called it “a tour de force, a creepy psychological thriller that will leave you breathless.”  Catriona is the current vice-president of Sisters in Crime and lives in northern California with two black cats and a scientist. She is also great, great company. You can find her online at 


L.A. native Jeri Westerson combined the medieval with the hard-boiled and came up with her own brand of medieval mystery she calls Medieval Noir. Her brooding protagonist, Crispin Guest, is a disgraced knight turned detective on the mean streets of fourteenth century London. Her latest, Shadow of the Alchemist, was named the Best of 2013 by Suspense Magazine, and the newest, Cup of Blood, will be released in July. Jeri’s Crispin Guest books have been nominated for a variety of industry awards, from the Agatha to the Shamus. She is president of the Southern California chapter of Mystery Writers of America and former VP for Sisters in Crime Los Angeles. Jeri speaks all over the Southland about medieval history, including as a guest lecturer at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana and Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, CA. See more at

That’s all, folks — but check these blogs out on Monday.  All these writers have something great to say.



4 Responses to “The Writing Process (my version, anyway)”

  1. Maria Yolanda Says:

    Thank you, Tim, for taking the time to share your process. Very insightful reading. Love you.

  2. Marilynne Smith Says:

    I see now why your books are so interesting: characters rolling around on your desk. That may account for the fact that I never know what’s going to happen next.

    Thanks for writing. I love your books.

  3. Shannon Savvas Says:

    I do like the architecture vs archaeology analogy – opens all sorts of possibilities(there must be a pun in here somewhere).
    Your books are a recent discovery – I’m madly preaching to the unconverted.

  4. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Thank you so much, Shannon, and please accept my apologies for not answering you earlier. I’m in the final throes of delivering a book and it seems to be a Cesarean. And I’ve added you to the newsletter list, too.

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