Thursday, April 9, 2015

On the Art of Mystery.

"Who's that knocking at my door?"

Louis Shalako

What’s neat about writing the Maintenon Mystery series is that I really get into the part.

Who knows, I might have made a pretty good actor. In order to write the characters, I have to put myself into their heads and then look out through their eyes into their world.

With any novel, there are a couple of basic approaches to writing. One, you can get a piece of paper and either make a chapter list, (vertical) or draw a horizontal line and then sort of write things along it in consecutive order. This is perpendicular or at an angle to the line. The left-hand end of the line is the beginning, and the right-hand end is the end—and all the stuff that links them together is that highly-technical bit we writers like to call the middle.

A story has a beginning, a middle and an end.

I only plotted out my first novel. I at least knew how it was supposed to end.

In more recent works, I might have some idea of where I want the story to go, (or end). In which case, all you have to do is to back off twenty or so chapters and write towards that point.

By setting up the body in chapter one, by introducing certain plot elements, we introduce possibilities into the mystery. Every additional event only deepens the mystery until we have enough information to really get into our investigation. At the same time, we also eliminate other possibilities.

By setting out to write a detective mystery, a murder mystery, in some Walter Mitty-esque way, I get to live the fantasy. I get to be a hardboiled detective for however long it takes to get to the bottom of this mystery, to follow up all clues, account for all movements and leave no loose threads that can unravel the plot.

At that point I guess we take it to the prosecutor’s office, as our job is done.

An additional challenge is that it is historical fiction. I like a lot of stimulation and this helps to make it fun for me. I don’t know anything about France in the interwar period. Essentially, while my characters are fictional, France in September 1931 was real enough. It is the backdrop to all of the characters' actions and motivations. It has helped to form who they are. It was, looking back with the benefit of a little hindsight, a time with its own unique problems. It (the society, the time and the place), approached those problems, those challenges with a certain and rather unique set of attitudes.

Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

The more things change the more they stay the same.

While the technology of crime and prevention has changed, in some ways, the philosophy, the methodology really hasn’t. Attitudes towards crime remain the same, the crimes themselves may be different today than they were eighty years ago.

At this point in the project, (day fifteen) I have 34,000 words of a first draft, of a novel that might run from sixty to sixty-five thousand words.

To serialize something like that, as a work in progress, carries its own special risks and rewards.

Where do I get such confidence.

"I'd sure like to know where you get your confidence."
First of all, I’ve written four full-length Maintenon Mysteries before. I know I can at least finish the darned thing. I have also serialized The Mysterious Case of Betty Blue, a science-fiction novel. It was kind of impulsive to do that, as the story wasn't actually finished. It put a kind of pressure on me to keep going. That's because no one really likes to fail. And I was pretty sure I could do it.

Ah, but now I know I can do it.

In writing a serial, you want to write it well, first time out of the box. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t proofread, fact-check, edit for flow and content. But what’s even more important is that a writer learns to compose a greater work, at greater length, by sort of wringing it straight out of the head. You learn to write good, clean, professional copy. It’s a bit barren. The full novel will be more detailed. What’s neat with the serial is the opportunity to have fun with the illustrations. The actual book won’t have those and has to stand on its own without them.

With a mystery you need to offer enough clues, although a little misdirection doesn’t hurt. People should get to the end of it and go yeah. Of course. Why didn’t I see that one coming?

But of course they were all wrapped up in the story and couldn’t see the forest for the trees. Imagination is very subjective, and yet people have the marvelous ability to project scenes in their head with a little prompting. In that process, they have to absorb what they think is objective information, but of course it’s just me projecting illusions into the front of your brain.

I have to admit, it really is fun.

This writer never really wanted to be anything other than a writer of genre fiction—so-called pulp. 

One of the side benefits is going on a journey back in time to a place that is fascinating in and of itself—Paris in the 1920s and 30s. Everything from the clothes, the hats, the hair, the music, the city and the country itself is interesting. Every time and place sort of speaks for itself. CSI with all of its technology and special effects says much about where we are right now as a society. I would think the Maintenon stories at least offer a glimpse into another time and place.

Also, any print journalist of the golden age of newspapers, if they were any good at all, would cover spot news, their own beat, develop stories and features at greater length, generate story leads and ideas, and at the same time, represent the company. All that while turning in reams, literally reams of relatively error-free copy, every day, day in and day out. And I guess they probably did know their style-book. I will grant you that.

The basic goal is to write a couple of thousand words a day. This allows me to focus on what the end should be and at the same time, figure out the next couple of scenes. It all happens as quickly as possible, because of course I have other ideas and only so much time allotted.

We all face the same challenge in that sense. We never know just how much time we’re going to get in this life. I would sure hate to waste too much of it in introspection, navel-gazing and beating myself over a book that in the end can never be perfect.

With historical fiction, and with the attempt at a classic mystery novel series, the goal is to create a lasting work of art—

Let’s call it the art of mystery.


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