Saturday, June 09, 2012

Deanna Raybourn: Things I Know For Sure

By Deanna Raybourn

Part of the How They Do It Series   

JH: We've got a special Weekend Edition of How They Do it this week, chatting with New York Times bestselling author Deanna Raybourn about a few things she's learned about writing. I met Deanna at the Dahlonega Literary Festival this past December, and while we weren't on any panels together, she was delightful to listen to and just plain fun to hang out with. (And she dares you to eat strange food, so be warned)
A sixth-generation native Texan, Deanna grew up in San Antonio. During summer vacation at the age of twenty-three, she wrote her first novel. Fourteen years and many, many rejections after her first novel, she signed two three-book deals with MIRA Books. Her novel Silent in the Grave won the 2008 RITA® Award for Novel with Strong Romantic Elements and the Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Award for Best First Mystery. The Lady Julia Grey series has been nominated for several other awards, including an Agatha, three Daphne du Mauriers, a Last Laugh, three additional RITAs, and two Dilys Winns. Dark Road to Darjeeling was also a finalist for the Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Award for Best Historical Mystery as well as a Romantic Reviews’ finalist for Best Book of 2010.

You can find her blogging five days a week at, and be sure to sign up for her newsletter, check out her contests and book trailer videos, and catch her latest appearances at Her latest book, The Dark Enquiry, is out now.

Take it away Deanna...

Once a year I open my blog up for a month to answer reader questions. Most often these turn out to be writer questions with lots of queries about process and craft. I never like to peer too closely behind the curtain to figure out how I do what I do—this is alchemy, after all—but there are five things I have picked up along the way that I know for sure:

1. Process varies from writer to writer. 

It’s easy, VERY easy, to get sidelined into the details of how writing ought to be done, but here’s the thing: there’s no right way. Paying too much attention to how other people do things takes you away from how YOU do things. And your methods are just as valid as anyone else’s so long as you end up with the very best book you can when the dust clears. I remember early on in my career reading two excellent books about craft—one by Janet Evanovich and one by Elizabeth George. Both of them are extraordinarily successful authors and yet their processes are as different as they can possibly be. Evanovich is a pantser, a gloriously spontaneous pantser who revels in finding her way as she goes along. George, on the other hand, is a meticulous plotter—to the point of writing 100-page outlines before she begins the novel. Neither of those approaches would ever work for me. I’m an organized pantser myself. I write a synopsis as a matter of necessity; my contract requires it and I do like to get paid. The synopsis is always as short as I can possibly get away with, and once it’s approved, I spend the rest of my writing time largely ignoring it. I like knowing broad strokes but not the minute details. Those I want to fill in as I go along, and I want to have a little breathing space in my plan to accommodate delicious things I find in my research. Which brings me rather tidily to point two…

2. Process changes. 

My modus operandi had always been to read all of my research and then begin writing. It worked perfectly well—until I got published. I wrote SILENT IN THE GRAVE over a leisurely two year period. Then, quite suddenly, I was under contract for five more books at a pace of one every nine months. The first three books shared the same setting—Victorian England; the fourth was in Transylvania, an exotic setting with comparatively little reference material to work from. But the fifth book was in India, both exotic AND widely written about. I had moved my setting from Europe to Asia for the first time, and this meant that I couldn’t take anything for granted, not animals, insects, food, weather. Every bit of it had to be thoroughly researched and I simply couldn’t do it within the time frame I had to work. So I started writing anyway. If I got to a point in the manuscript where I needed to describe a tree or an animal, I simple opened brackets, wrote “FIND TREE” or “FIND ANIMAL” and kept right on going. As it turns out, this is a monumentally effective way to work. Instead of reading an entire book on flora and fauna, I could go directly to the section I needed and find an answer in minutes. I carried through doing this with my sixth book, THE DARK ENQUIRY, and it worked even better. I was back in Victorian London for this book, and creating bracketed questions for my research led me to find very specific details I might have missed otherwise because I didn’t need to spend masses of time wading through loads of extraneous material.

3. If a scene isn’t working, turn it on its head. 

This is a bit of advice I picked up from hearing Phillip Margolin speak at a Sisters in Crime meeting decades ago. He made the point that if a scene isn’t developing properly but you need information conveyed, put the words into the mouth of another character. It can completely change the rhythm and feel of a scene. This isn’t a frequent problem for me—I often write mysteries where information must be conveyed by a single person who holds i—but when I do, this solution has proven invaluable. Just last week I was finishing up revisions on my current novel and realized something seemed off about a denouement between my main female character and a secondary character. When I applied his method, it immediately became apparent that I had chosen the WRONG secondary character to put into the scene. I made a quick switch and it immediately worked much better.

4. Choose fear. 

This has become my career mantra. In my personal life, I crave stability. I have been married for 21 years, I wear my seatbelt, and I don’t ride roller coasters. But whenever two options present themselves in my career, I always choose the one that scares me the most. I have had long periods—sometimes lasting over a year—where I am perpetually afraid because I’ve chosen to do something that terrifies me so much I haven’t the faintest idea of how I’m going to pull it off. But my subconscious knows better than I do. While I’m busy fending off panic, it’s working doggedly to put something together that is far better than what I ever believed I could do. Pushing those boundaries has built writing muscle and taught me a lot about how much I actually know—and how much I have left to learn.

5. Write on your own terms. 

There are people who say you must write every single day, that you must write x number of words per day, that you must write in a south-facing chair when Venus is retrograde and Pluto is in your seventh house. And to them you must say, “Hush.” Yes, you must write, and you must write often. Only you can decide if that means writing four hours every morning or seven hours over the course of the day or six hundred words in the middle of the night. I know my own rhythms and my own preferred time and length of writing session—mid-morning, 7-10 pages. I know that if I write more, I rush my pacing. I know that if I write less, I lose my spark. I know that morning is when my energy and creativity are highest and interruptions least likely. I organize my entire life around my mornings which are sacred. But while I can bang out my day’s word count in two hours or less, I also require masses of time when I’m NOT writing to organize my head. A tremendous amount of work occurs when I’m not actually at my desk. Whereas some authors are gifted at working out their plots on paper, I prefer to let my subconscious putter away. If I’ve reached a particularly sticky point, I will brainstorm but never at my desk. Brainstorming requires large sheets of blank newsprint and markers rather than a word processing program and big, sloppy diagrams that make no sense to anyone but me.

So there you have it—five things I know for sure about my own process. Bouquets of thanks to Janice for inviting me to come hang out in her corner of the blogosphere!

About The Dark Enquiry

Partners now in marriage and in trade, Lady Julia and Nicholas Brisbane have finally returned from abroad to set up housekeeping in London. But merging their respective collections of gadgets, pets and servants leaves little room for the harried newlyweds themselves, let alone Brisbane's private enquiry business.

Among the more unlikely clients: Julia's very proper brother, Lord Bellmont, who swears Brisbane to secrecy about his case. Not about to be left out of anything concerning her beloved—if eccentric—family, spirited Julia soon picks up the trail of the investigation.

It leads to the exclusive Ghost Club, where the alluring Madame Séraphine holds evening séances and not a few powerful gentlemen in thrall. From this eerie enclave unfolds a lurid tangle of dark deeds, whose tendrils crush reputations and throttle trust.

Shocked to find their investigation spun into salacious newspaper headlines, bristling at the tension it causes between them, the Brisbanes find they must unite or fall. For Bellmont's sake—and more—they'll face myriad dangers born of dark secrets, the kind men kill to keep….


  1. It was great to meet you at the Dahlonega Literary Festival last year. Thanks for the mention!

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  3. Loved this! I'm such a huge fan of Deanna Raybourn!

  4. "No right way to do it"

    I second that!

    But it's neverthelss interesting to hear about how others work their magic. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Deanna is one of my favorite authors, and I can't wait to see what the next book holds. These posts on following your instinct and doing the thing that scares you are outrageously timely. =)

  6. Great advice! Love Deanna Raybourn's work too :)

  7. What I took from your advice is the permission to do it your own way. I'm going to check out your web site. Thanks for the writing advice!

  8. I truly enjoy Deanna Raybourn's writing. This post was a nice, though too short(!), insight into her approach.

  9. These are very good tips on the writing process. There is no one size fits all for the writer.

  10. What sensible and sane advice! Thank you so much for bringing things down to earth, as sometimes I feel such a failure for not being like X, Y, Z are or advise a writer to be...

  11. Great advice and more yummy books to put on my "to Read" list...Thanks to both Janice and Deanna. :)

  12. So agree with #1 and #5.

  13. Thanks so much for this. :)

  14. Thanks for another great post. I am teaching a class on writing fiction and this will go up on our class wiki.

  15. I always love reading Deanna's advice. She makes me think it IS possible to write a good story while scaring the beejesus out of me all at the same time...

  16. Thanks for telling us there's no "one" way to write. Instead, we must find what works for us. But I love some of your process and will consider adding it to my own.

  17. Glad y'all found it helpful--and very glad to have picked up some new readers. Welcome! Thanks again for letting me come play, Janice. ;-)

  18. Thank you for the wonderful advice and encouraging words:)

    I love Lady Julia and totally enjoyed The Dead Travel Fast. I cannot wait to read more of your work.

    Thanks again,

  19. Thank you for your advice to quit listening to the shoulders - as long as in the end you have the best book possible. I do try to write daily, but sometimes there is this thing called life. It is good to let go of the guilt and focus on the important things, like the writing.

  20. This was great - I love hearing authors talk about how they do what they do. Deanna's blog is a daily treat for me at work :)

  21. Super article! Very encouraging to me!