Discovering My Process Writing an Alternate History Epic

by | Apr 8, 2020 | General

It’s virtually a maxim of cinematic discourse that Alfred Hitchcock planned his films in excruciating detail. In Writing with Hitchcock, Steven DeRosa noted that Hitchcock supervised his writers through every draft and always insisted that they tell the story visually.

Hitchcock’s films were extensively storyboarded to the finest detail. He told Roger Ebert in 1969,

“Once the screenplay is finished, I’d just as soon not make the film at all. All the fun is over. I have a strongly visual mind. I visualize a picture right down to the final cuts. I write all this out in the greatest detail in the script, and then I don’t look at the script while I’m shooting. I know it off by heart, just as an orchestra conductor needs not look at the score. It’s melancholy to shoot a picture. When you finish the script, the film is perfect. But in shooting it you lose perhaps 40 percent of your original conception.”

Hitchcock was not alone in his worship of exhaustively detailed preparation, even if not all directors felt their work was complete well before the cameras rolled.

It’s no different with prose fiction writers, many of whom ply their craft more like meticulous engineers working from comprehensive blueprints than inspired adventurers on a mysterious journey into the unknown.

It’s one way, but not the only way. Scholar and novelist Julie Zigoris wrote that,

“For my second novel . . . I decided to forego the kind of planning I did for the first. If my story changed so much while I was writing it, what was the use of nailing it down in advance? I thought about Joan Didion’s ‘I write to know what I think.’”

Later in the process of writing that book, Zigoris would return to her earlier method of outlining key scenes before writing them.

I will confess: I’m no Hitchcock, and I had no second thoughts like Zigoris.

After a lifetime in academia, boxed in by the canons of scholarship, when I decided to write a novel about the fictional adventures of Hitler’s real valet, Heinz Linge, I had no idea in what genre it would fit or fall, how long it would be, what specific exploits Linge would engage in, or what his mental processes would comprise.

All I knew going in was that I intended to be constrained only by the actual historical timeline. What happened, happened. The only difference would be in the who, how, and why.

Those would not be small differences, and would provide more than enough material for the story, whatever that turned out to be. For example, I was determined that Linge would be unlike the character of Stevens in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, or even the real Linge as presented in his (as-told-to) autobiography.

I kept faith to these basic decisions throughout, in happy knowledge that the actual writing—unrestricted by an outline—would be an exciting adventure, not a tedious fait accompli.

If you’re a writer, which method (plotting / outlining, making it up as you go, or some hybrid of the two) do you find most effective and inspiring to your creative process? Let me know in the comments!