The Pinecone Method of Plotting

What is the pinecone method of plotting, you ask? You’re probably picturing a complex chart with technical terminology and arrows pointing up and down.

Trust me, it isn’t that complicated.


One day this past August, while on a walk in the Wisconsin Northwoods, a dense green pinecone fell from a towering White Pine tree, nearly hitting me in the head. I looked up just in time to dodge another one. That’s when I noticed that the forest floor was littered with the immature cones. The culprit, chattering his disapproval from the branches high above, was one of the noisy, feisty local pine squirrels, sometimes called “the squirrel of squirrels” because their squirrelishness is concentrated in a compact form.

Pine squirrels live on the bounty of the forest—acorns, mushrooms, berries, buds—but they love, love, love pinecones. Especially the green ones. What matters are the seeds inside. By the time cones mature and turn brown, the seeds are gone. So in August and September pine squirrels harvest the green cones for winter storage, lopping them off and letting them drop for later collection.

And that brings me to plotting.


Whether a plotter or a pantser at heart, every mystery writer I know does a bit of advance plotting, at least mentally; and every writer enjoys those occasional serendipitous ideas that take the plot in a new and unexpected direction. The pinecone method of plotting makes those serendipitous discoveries more likely and usable.

The Pinecone Method of Plotting is simply allowing the random ideas that occur to you as you write to drop into your manuscript for possible later collection. Does a character tell an unexpected lie, for example? Will your protagonist find a clue that may nor may not prove relevant? Does a suspect’s facial expression or tone of voice signal guilt? How do the words you choose and the snippets of setting you include foreshadow plot points that may or may not turn out to be crucial in the end? Here’s the point: once you’ve finished the first draft and begin revision, you will know which of the immature thoughts you’ve dropped into the manuscript actually belong in the book and which must be discarded. But at least they’re there for later collection.

HERE’S AN EXAMPLE from A Legacy of Murder, Book 2 in the Kate Hamilton Mysteries

A young woman has been found dead on the grounds of Finchley Hall. The heir to the estate is a primary suspect, although he went missing years ago. Kate Hamilton interviews a man who knew the heir, and this man is certain the heir isn’t guilty. Here’s how it went:

    “The villagers say [the murderer is] Lady Barbara’s son, returned from Venezuela.”

    “To murder another young woman, yes.” Ivor Tweedy pursed his lips. “I’ve heard the rumors. That’s all they are.”

    “How can you be sure?”

    Ivor Tweedy replaced the tortoiseshell box in the drawer and closed it. “Because Lucien Finchley-fforde is dead.”

I was actually shocked when I typed those words because I hadn’t planned them. In the end, they turned out to be exactly what I needed.

Writers, do you have an example of a metaphorical pinecone you’ve dropped into a manuscript that turned out to be exactly what you needed later?

Readers, tell us about a favorite unexpected plot twist?


  1. This is great advice. I find that when I’m tired, I’m more able to come up with these pinecone-like ideas. Maybe because my mind is looser.

  2. In the fifth Nora Tierney English Mystery, The Evening’s Amethyst, I’d decided to use a cold case of a kidnapped child as a subplot. I was writing one of the flashback scenes when my pinecone dropped! It occurred to me the kidnapper’s wife becoming ill would up the stakes. How would the kidnapper handle taking care of a toddler? That led to a surprise twist at the end of the book few readers saw coming.

  3. I’m pretty sure my current WIP is like that forest floor right now. All pine cones. Now I just need to harvest the dang buggers 😁

  4. Brilliant concept, Connie! Thanks! I’m currently in the staring-off-into-space stage of reworking a story that wasn’t working but I know there’s potential deep down inside there somewhere. This technique may help me to find it.

  5. Connie, this concept is brilliantly simple, which is why it’s easy to overlook. It’s like finally figuring out where that fresh herb you picked out of the garden belongs in a recipe and discovering it’s the crown ingredient.

  6. Interesting analogy, Connie. I like it. All my writing is like pinecones. But then I get to a point where I go “Wow! I already wrote the perfect setup for that. It’s like my fingers are panthers but my subconcious mind is a plotter!

  7. Maybe I’ve been a pineconer all along and didn’t know it. In doing research, I’ve come across tangents that turn out to be incredibly useful. Researching arson for my upcoming mystery, WHEN THE HOUSE BURNS, I came across a Harvard Business Review article on arson as a metaphor for certain office behaviors, and that got me thinking. . .

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