Blood Hollow: The Book That Took Me By Surprise

I’m often asked, “Do you outline?”

The answer (at least for the first nine novels I published) is yes.  I’ve done this for a variety of reasons, but one of the most important is that I need to know where the story is going.  What this does is free me from the question that can absolutely paralyze an author in mid-book: What the hell happens next?

I followed this process with Blood Hollow and had, I thought, a fine plot in place.  Here’s how I initially imagined the story.  It would be about a wild young Ojibwe man—a character named Solemn Winter Moon—who is accused of murdering a white girl.  Cork, who knows the young man well and has an emotional attachment, believes that despite all the evidence against him, Solemn is innocent.  Cork would go about doing what he does well, investigating in a rather stumbling way.  He would enlist the help of Jo, his attorney wife, to defend Solemn in court.  And Jo, ala Perry Mason, would extract a confession from the true perpetrator of the crime.

Looking at this basic storyline, I can see now that it seems pretty lackluster, at least on the face of things.  But I had a few twists in mind that would surprise readers.  And it would feature all the hallmarks of the series: the great northwoods setting, the Ojibwe culture, Cork and his family, and, of course, Henry Meloux.  I thought the story through, created my outline, and sat down to write.

Midway through the book, however, things changed dramatically.

Here’s how it happened.  I knew that at a particular point in the story Solemn Winter Moon would flee the murder charge against him.  During his flight, he would encounter wise old Henry Meloux.  Meloux would tell him that in order to face his reality, Solemn had to be a man, and he was not yet one.  Meloux would send Solemn on a vision quest that would initiate his passage into manhood.  It’s an old Ojibwe tradition called giigiwishimowin.  In my outline, I had Solemn receiving a fairly traditional kind of vision for an Ojibwe, one that involved an animal spirit of some kind.  But that’s not how I wrote it.

On the morning I was due to write the scene in which Solemn relates to Cork O’Connor the vision that he received during his quest, I sat down in the Broiler (the coffee shop where most of my books have been written), opened my notebook, and proceeded to give myself the surprise of my writing career.  The scene I wrote was nothing like I’d imagined.  In it, Solemn Winter Moon tells Cork that alone in a place called Blood Hollow, he spoke with Jesus.  Jesus was dressed in jeans, a flannel shirt, and wore Minnetonka moccasins.  Cork can see that Solemn has been profoundly changed.  And Solemn’s transformation causes Cork to begin to reevaluate his own spiritual journey, or rather his abandonment of that journey.  The story suddenly became about something entirely different than I’d planned, and the outline went out the window.

After I’d finished the book and looked back at that pivotal morning at the Broiler, what I realized was this: I wrote that scene in the week I learned that my mother was dying, and all the questions I’d been asking myself had changed, and the story reflected that in a profound way.

I still outline.  It’s still the most comfortable approach for me in writing a story.  I still dread waking up in the night wondering in a panicked way, What happens next?  But I also try very hard to be open to those unplanned inspirations of the moment that can, if I let them, make all the difference in the world.

8 thoughts on “Blood Hollow: The Book That Took Me By Surprise”

  1. Interesting how real life works like a cattle brand on the soul and invisibly guides the writer’s hand. Your story reminds me how J.K. Rowling decided to make Harry Potter an orphan after her mother died. Because of this, both Cork and Harry have deeper, richer fictional lives.

  2. This past June my son went up to the Boy Scouts of America’s Northern Tier Canoe Base to work as a “Charlie Guide”. On a whim I went into a bookstore and looked up Boundary Waters. Your title popped right to the top. Since that time the whole extended family has discovered your works and is now tearing though your series.

    After going up and poking around near Ely I can picture the setting and area. As I’m now in the middle of Blood Hollow I look forward to cracking open your next one.

    Mike – At the beach on Saginaw Bay near Caseville Michigan

  3. Kent

    Just finished reading Blood Hollow and I venture to say that it’s one of the best mystery novels I’ve ever read…. and I’ve been reading mystery novels for about 25 years. The pace is perfect and the plot twists and turns, keep me guessing right up until the end.

    Great, great read! Can’t wait to see what you do for an encore?

    Mercy Falls coming up.


  4. John,

    I should warn you about Mercy Falls. At the end, you’ll want to shoot me. But very quickly check out the next book–Copper River–from your library and you should be fine.


  5. Last week I concluded ‘Blood Hollow’ and it has left me thinking about all of the plot
    twists that you are so brilliant to include. Just when I think I have something figured out – BAM!
    You make a turn in the chapters that takes me in a different direction.

    I have your next book to start this week. I also have a friend who is now reading ‘Iron Lake’. It
    will be great fun to have another person interested in your mysteries to talk with about the very
    vivid characters you create.

    Best Regards, Pat from Colorado

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