“Never have I felt such menace.”
That was the first line of my first mystery.Chilling, n'est pas? I had no idea what to say after that.
The main character was threatened by something—but what?
Where? Immediately, the public library that had been a favorite hangout of mine sprang to mind.(Very Hitchcock-like. Shadow of a Doubt-ish. An ordinary person trapped in an extraordinary experience.) What could be more innocent than the stacks of a public library? But why would anybody feel menace? Something supernatural? I discarded that right away. I don’t care for fantasy novels, and I especially don’t like mysteries that feature ghosts, aliens or other such unnatural beings. It feels like cheating, somehow. No, my mystery would have real people experiencing real menace, with a real world explanation for the feeling.
I know! The villain would wear a particular kind of scent that only my heroine (I decided my main character would be female) could perceive. Or maybe she was allergic to something that was connected to the villain. Okay, she’s in the library and she gets the hives or something whenever…Naah. (Sound of crumpling paper.)
I tried again. My heroine would go to a college reunion. That’s the ticket! Years ago, Julie’s sweetheart, Cal, died from a fall right before college graduation. His roommate, Jeffrey, is also at the reunion. Jeffrey is the author of a famous novel called The Thing With Feathers that has become a classic, but he has never produced any more books. Eventually we learn that Cal was the actual author of TTWF and that when Jeffrey accidentally killed Cal in a scuffle, he decided to publish the roommate’s book as his own. Jeffrey is secretly remorseful over this and the climax of the story takes place on the roof of one of the Gothic campus buildings, with Jeffrey clinging to a gargoyle. (The campus was surprisingly similar to that of my own alma mater, Huntingdon College, in Montgomery, Alabama.) The story was coming along fairly well when a TV movie came out with virtually the same plot. Who would believe I had made the idea up myself? Nobody. (Crumple, crumple, crumple.)
(That wasn’t the first time Hollywood has stolen an idea of mine. I wrote a fanciful short story about a woman who encounters her younger self—a little girl—and learns a great deal by bringing her home and introducing her to her own children. This idea came out of the wistful wish that I could have known my own little girls when I was a child. It was a great story, but Bruce Willis came out with a movie right about that time called “The Kid” with the very same story line. Ah well!)
It’s surprising how many false starts you can come up with before you get rolling with a plot. Back to the public library. Tossing out the “Never have I felt” sentence, I decided to use that venerable building—the old one I grew up using, of course—and planting a corpse there. Things started to pop then. As the setting, I would use the hometown I grew up in. Of course, many changes have taken places there since I went away to college and never really returned, but I ignored those. This town would be the one of my memories, with the same streets, the same old silver diner, the same high school building, even the same ferryboat. (I changed the name of a few streets, because I didn’t want people writing me, saying, “You should know that Brinkerhoff Street doesn’t end at that block any more.”)
My working title was Dear Hearts and Gentle People, which I considered heavily ironic, because some of those people weren’t so gentle at all. The song by Johnny Mercer has always been a favorite of mine. (I was copying Mary Higgins Clark, who liked to use song titles for her books.)
My main character was to be a high school English teacher. I’m not sure why, except that I always imagined I’d be one someday. I’d spent some time substitute teaching in my daughters’ high school, and was relatively familiar with what went on. Amelia Prentice came to life on the page gradually. I’d had several teachers in high school who never married. One had devoted her life to an invalid parent. Amelia had that kind of self-sacrificing character, but in the story she was now on her own, her parents having died.
I was well into the story of Amelia when my real-life aunt began taking chemo. To amuse her, I started sending her chapters as they came out. She would telephone me with critiques, which were quite helpful. The best thing she said was, “This story needs a little romance.” I fished around for somebody to match up with Amelia and remembered that I’d mentioned the newspaper office. A newspaper editor would match well with an English teacher, but since I’d never been a huge fan of romance novels, these two wouldn’t simply fall into each others' arms immediately. Besides, a story is better with a little romantic tension. (Gil was named after a student teacher I’d had in 5th grade and his last name, Dickensen, came from the poet, first name, Emily.)
Amelia needed a sidekick, a foil, and I patterned her neighbor Lily in part after my (aforementioned) aunt. Attractive, sassy, prone to gossip, Lily sprang to life immediately. In fact, her personality was so strong, it threatened to overpower Amelia’s. It took a lot of effort on my part to hold Lily down to Second Banana, but I managed.
So a pattern emerged. I would frame a situation and the appropriate people would appear and take on form. Amelia is knocked unconscious in the public library and encounters a policeman, Dennis. The fun part about Amelia is that, as a teacher in her early 40’s, she has taught almost everybody in town who is younger than she is. Dennis was one of her first students. Lily and Amelia travel on a ferryboat across Lake Champlain. On this ferryboat, they meet up with eccentric Professor Alexander Alexander, whose life’s work includes a search for the famous Lake Champlain Monster. (Since there really are people searching for the monster, nicknamed Champ, there was a lot of crypto-zoological material from which to draw. Fun.)
Humor seemed to come out of the situations themselves. I must have a fairly strong sense of the ridiculous, because I enjoyed seeing Amelia take shelter inside an old-fashioned circular clothesline or watching Lily trying to politely avoid a clearly smitten Professor. I made myself laugh when Amelia, while babysitting, submits to being made up like a clown, then has to welcome a puzzled Gil into her home.
I read a valuable writing suggestion once: “When you’re stuck with your plot, have them get in trouble or eat something.” It works! I used that suggestion when I wanted to move things along, and I had Vern (more about him at a later time) call Amelia on the telephone after he has witnessed a shooting. It’s this situation that eventually draws Amelia and Gil back together and moves their relationship forward. At one point, Amelia stops in at a local diner and encounters a suspect. That came out of this very bit of advice.
Mind you, there were many, many false starts. I wrote several terrible romantic scenes between Gil and Amelia and one really ineffective climax scene. While it is heartbreaking to have to delete huge hunks of writing representing untold hours of work, streamlining is worth it. Another excellent slogan is, “If it doesn’t move the story along, delete it.” In the beginning, I had to delete several pages that lovingly described Amelia’s neighborhood, as she remembered her happy childhood. There was really no reason at all to have that in there, so pfft! (One thing to be thankful for: it’s much easier to take stuff out on a computer than it was when one wrote on a printed page.)
Next week, I’ll talk about Vern, villains, titles and beyond. I hope this inspires somebody to undertake to write something they’d like to read!