• West Cork Literary Festival 2021

How Pantsing-to-Plotting Made a “Serious” Author Out of Me by Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger

Writing.ie | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | Plotting and Planning
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Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger

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True story: A couple I know received free windows from a friend who ran a window business. When it was time for that couple to build their house, they took them to the architect and said, “Please plan our house around these.” That is exactly how I approached writing my first historical fiction series. And boy did I make my life more difficult.

Another true story: I’ve written since I was a child, but in 2005, I drove over the Austrian border at the Reschen Pass in my red 1995 Nissan Micra and became a historical fiction author. All because of one scene.

But let me back up here because I really want you to picture this. You’re heading to Italy over Innsbruck and the Austrian Alps (think Heidi). You’ve got a gorgeous winding mountain road leading you higher and higher. Then the world just kind of alpine-plateaus. There’s a creek bubbling along to the south, you’ve got lush meadows and flowers competing for cows, then you see it: the sign for Reschenpass. Passo Resia. You cross the border into Italy.

Nothing changes.

There are still Tyrolean-styled block houses. They’re still selling Speck and apples. Wait, no. There’s a pizza place. OK, you are in Italy. It’s time to blast Eros Ramazzotti! And then, before you can reach for the dial… BAM! Right in front of you, nestled between the mountain peaks, is a blueberry-SnoCone colored lake that stretches nearly four-miles to the southern horizon. As you pass through another Tyrolean-styled town, you’re really close to the lakeshore. And your mouth just drops, because why the heck is there a 15th-century church tower sticking out of a lake?

The truth is, I might have been predestined to write historical fiction. Number one, it was what my grandmother did. Number two, I always devoured books about places and eras past. But life is not a straight line to anywhere for anyone. So it took that trip to South Tyrol for things to fall into place.

I took a walk on the promenade of that reservoir, that church tower following me at every angle. I asked the locals what had happened. Someone told me that beneath that lake were the ruins of two large towns and five hamlets. Italy got this part of Austria-Tyrol after the Great War and the Fascists needed electricity to prepare for the next one. The valley was flooded.

I imagined what that must have been like. That’s when the ghosts rose. First, a young woman, who wanted to own the family farm. A boy, who was kind of the “village idiot”; a feisty woman innkeeper; a very large, quiet man, on whom anyone could depend. A traveller. An affair. A dog. Blood in the snow.

I started writing sketches. I wrote bits and pieces for this “story” I was going to write. I started doing research and because that research was mostly in German and Italian, and it was back when Google still translated Erdbeeren from German into “earth berries” instead of strawberries, I needed a lot of time to figure out what had happened in this South Tyrolean valley. Like five years, and many trips down research rabbit holes.

In 2010, I sat down to write the book(s). I had those characters who’d joined me on that first trip, and I had those sketches and pieces—I had a lot of “windows”. I needed to build a house. I knew what had to happen (the valley had to be flooded) and I knew that I wanted readers to understand how such a thing could happen. I thought it was just a matter of bridging one end to the other with, well, windows?

By the time I finished the first two books, I realized I had a darned good story but if I was to continue, I needed an outline. I went back and wrote a synopsis of the two books and found I had a ridiculous amount of plotlines to tie up. So many pretty windows. So much pain.

I rewrote the books. By Book 3, I essentially knew this would be more like 4 books (it’s now 6). I had also learned the term “pantser”—an author who writes by the seat of her pants. And the strategy was killing me. It was taking me forever to get any single book done. As uncreative as I thought the task had to be, I forced myself to make an outline. I was so certain that I would never be brilliant, that my creativity would suffer, that my voice would squeak and stagnate. So my first outline was kind of… Well, would you put a house made of Legos onto the real estate market? Yeah. No.

Then came the epiphany. I had an idea for a novella. A friend sent me a documentary about the subject and I played it in the background when something an expert said rang like an answer to a question I hadn’t asked yet. I sat down and mind mapped an entire novel in 15 minutes. I stared at the paper in disbelief and something was telling me not to stop. Get it down into chapters. Two hours later, I already had the first chapter finished and 13 others outlined. In six weeks, from start to finish, I wrote a professionally-edited novella and had it to market a few weeks after that.

I felt truly accomplished. I hit the next book idea, outlined, saw all the (relevant!) research I needed to do and, suddenly, I was more precise about what I was looking for. I still hit surprises along the way, my characters still find their voices, and lead me to ideas much better than my original ones. I let it happen because I have a roadmap. Not just a beginning and end with a black hole to fill, but a map. Even when you take detours, you can find your way back when you have a map.

I’m now a sworn plotter. Though, a short story can still “spill” out of me, I always have a plan. I am faster and more accurate and, when I wrote my 7th book, it got snapped up by a publisher two weeks after I submitted it.

I also still write “windows” for my characters but only when I’m stuck. What do I do with them? I look through them to the road ahead.

(c) Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger

You can find Chrystyna at www.InkTreks.com.

About The Girl from the Mountains:

1942, Czechoslovakia: The story of one young woman’s exceptional courage in the darkest days of World War Two, set against wild and beautiful forests and mountains.

Magda’s blood runs cold when she sees the German trucks coming up the road. Surrounded by dappled forests and tranquil lakes, she has felt far away from the war raging elsewhere. But despite having friends in high places, her Jewish employers have been living on borrowed time and now the Gestapo have come for them.

In a few hurried moments, Magda is asked to protect something more precious than the silver and jewels the family will leave behind. Their newborn son Samuel.

The local Resistance help Magda to hide Samuel nearby, and she agrees to remain in the house to serve the Nazi commander, while passing messages and supplies to their secret network. But when Magda is caught, she is forced to flee into the high mountains with a price on her head.

With the Nazis in pursuit, and nothing left to lose, Magda will do whatever she needs to in the hope of one day reuniting Samuel with his parents. Even if it might mean laying down her life to win the freedom of those she loves…

This heartbreaking wartime epic of love, bravery and survival will stay with you long after you have turned the final page. Perfect for fans of My Name is Eva, The Alice Network and The German Midwife.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger is the author of 9 historical fiction books, 3 of which appear in 2021. She is a Historical Novel Society Short Story and Independent Publishers Award winner among other accolades. Her latest release, The Girl from the Mountains, is a gripping and moving WW2 novel based in the Sudetenland and published by Bookouture/Hachette UK. You can find Chrystyna at www.InkTreks.com.

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