How I Write: A Voyage of Discovery
Whether inspired by a situation, place, or social issuethe plot in my novels inevitably stems from a flaw in one or more of the characters. Mercurial farmwoman Glenna Flint in Harvest of Bones, my second Ruth Willmarth mystery, is modeled after a great-aunt whose husband of five stormy years disappearedand family legend says she did him in. She never told! But out of this character and her "secret" and her quick temper, came the plot: years later Glenna's rented greyhound digs up a hole to reveal a skeletonher husband, Mac, full of pitchfork holes. And everyone, including Glenna, thinks she did it.
So there I had the germ of a plot and my main character (other than my dairy farmer sleuth). I often milk family and friends, but make a collage creation, taking parts of one person, and another, throwing in myself and memoryexaggerating certain behavior, giving each character a distinctive voice. I make changes, so that in the end the facts are all lies, but the characters, hopefully, ring true.
But all I had in mind as I sat down to write that novel was Glenna's temper and failing memory, and the death of her estranged husbandnothing more. Many writers construct an elaborate outline before they startI just can't. Asked by St. Martin's Press to do an outline for my fourth mystery, Stolen Honey, I had to write the whole bookin order to write the outline.
So I just plunged in. For Harvest of Bones I didn't know who killed Mac until the endand then it turned out that four people were involved! And as I developed the character of the most obvious killer in Stolen Honey, I realized that he could not possibly have killed. So with that book I had to go back and turn one of my red herrings into the strangler.
For me, then, writing a novel is a voyage of discovery. I rarely know what the novel is about until I'm at least two-thirds through. I discover theme and plot as I work through the process. I try to stay open and ignorant, run behind my characters and hope I can catch up with them. But of course I can never wholly lose control, or the characters might wheel about and strangle me!
Anyway, I'd miss those surprises if I planned ahead! I might not even want to finish the book. What a bore to know what happens in advance.
I've done a lot of amateur theateracting, directing, et al., and so I write in scenes. I try to visualize my characters as if they're up on a stage. I note their reactions, their use of props (telephone, gun, pitchfork); I hear them breathe, sigh, hesitate, scream. I see them cross their legs, wipe their wet brow, or sneak up behind someone. I feel their fear, anger, love, hate.
Then each morning I write to almost the end of a scene, and before I quit for lunch, make a brief note of what might happen in the next scene. And I won't have writer's block the next morning, because I can start with the end of yesterday's scene, where I've a pretty good idea of where I'm going. Though that might change, too!
For my fifth and latest, Mad Cow Nightmare, I put a young woman on the run who might have been carrying the germ of the fatal human variant of mad cow disease, and who might have killed her abusive lover. I kept her running most of the book, while I moved back and forth into the points of view of sleuth and other characters (I always write from multiple viewpoints, it's fun getting into all those heads). I didn't know whether the woman really killed that nasty lover until the end. And then, whoa! I was so excited writing the climax to find out whodunnit that I couldn't type fast enough!
And as we writers all know, these characters live on in the head, become one's shadowy neighbors, one's alter egos. Just think! Except maybe for the actor, how can one ordinary person like you and me live so many livesand all at once? I guess this is the real mystery.
Originally published in Mystery Morgue, '05
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