Mystery mystery

In my first post I mentioned that I’m working on a book. I’m maybe halfway through, pagewise. It’s a mystery. I’ve never written a mystery before, and I’m confused about everything (often my state in the middle of a book). Although I’m almost certain what the crime is, I’m not sure who committed it, and I have no idea how my main character is going to solve it. When I’ve introduced new characters, I’ve been misleading about who is good and who is evil, and I’ve misled myself as well!

My only certainty is that writing is magical and if I muddle along, tossing in this and that, the pieces will settle into place, little by little. I imagine myself in the ocean, bobbing along in a bathtub-style boat. I have no engine, no sail, just pitifully small oars. There will be storms and close calls, but eventually rowing and the current will lap me to the shore of the island called The End.

So my confusion isn’t the subject of this blog. The subject is how to keep the reader reading when the main character, the sleuth, isn’t at the heart of the action.

I asked my friend, young-adult author Suzanne Fisher Staples how she did it in her mystery Dangerous Skies. The narrator, Buck, is the best friend of the accused, Tunes. Suzanne says she opened with an idyllic scene, Buck and Tunes fishing together on what “felt like the first day of the first spring ever.” Buck is so happy at the beginning that, when trouble starts, we know exactly how much he has to lose. His precious, precarious friendship is enough to carry the reader through the book.

Alas I can’t ask the authors of the other mysteries I’ve loved, so I’ve been speculating. Some people enjoy mysteries for the puzzles. These devotees track clues and try to solve the crime before all is revealed. Not me. Amateur sleuthing isn’t why I read whodunits. So I can’t write that kind of mystery. Luckily, the genre is broad.

Lately I’ve been reading Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. My favorites are the ones that feature the City Watch, which are mysteries. (Note to kids: check with your librarian. The series seems fine to me for kids ten and up, up, up.)

Discworld plotting is complicated. Scenes switch frequently. We’re with one character for a few pages, then with another. I can never figure anything out, so I’m along for the ride, which bumps along. Terry Pratchett stops for asides. And footnotes. Ordinarily this would annoy me, but he’s so funny I don’t mind. The laughs and Pratchett’s wild imagination keep me reading. In every book I go green with envy, wishing I had thought of this idea or that one. I don’t much care what happens, as long as no beloved characters die.

Dr. Watson, the narrator of the Sherlock Holmes novels and stories, is rarely in danger, and yet the books are page-turners. Watson represents the reader. We trust his emotions, and we like being in his company. What he feels, we feel. Sherlock Holmes, the detective, is spellbinding, a magician, the best kind: drama mixed with misdirection, and who can look away from that?

Sometimes I stick with a mystery because I’m getting an education. The Tony Hillerman series is about Navajo culture. Jonathan Gash (definitely adult) writes about antiques. Dick Francis writes about horseracing. The plots may be slow, the characters not so lovable, but I’m in and I stay in because what I’m learning is so interesting.

I’ve read every one of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe detective series. In these books, the charm and the beautiful prose win me over. The detective, Nero Wolfe, is almost never in danger, because he almost never leaves his apartment. His assistant, Archie Goodwin, who narrates, is hardly ever endangered either. I don’t mind. I adore the way Archie teases Wolfe and how Wolfe needles back. The details of their life tickle me: the orchids, the meals, the cases that Wolfe has to be bullied into taking. Delicious.

So there are many possibilities: Suspense – we can make the reader worry about the sleuth, even if her danger is different from the victim’s. A puzzle – for writers who aren’t me. Humor – nobody stops reading if he’s laughing his head off. Drama and sleight of hand. Fascinating facts. Fine writing.

I don’t know how much of this I’ll get in my first or second draft. I already plan to step up the humor on that happy day when I finish and start over. However it goes, though, I’m having fun (sometimes), and I’m saving what I write.

The whited sepulcher

Thanks, many, many thanks, to everyone who posted to my first blog or emailed me about it, and thanks for putting the word out. I feel supported and encouraged and not as if I’d flung words into outer space.

Usually I wake up in the morning muzzy-headed, but a few weeks ago I opened my eyes, thinking, What does whited sepulcher mean? Can’t say where the question came from, but I loved the combination of these gloomy and atmospheric words. Anyway, I looked the expression up. A sepulcher is a tomb, and whited means whitewashed. A whited sepulcher presents himself or herself to the world as good, but when you scratch the surface, evil oozes out. An apparent saint, an actual stinker.

Since that morning the phrase has stayed with me, and I keep poking at it, like a loose tooth. During my years (twenty-seven!) working for New York State government, I had two bosses who were terrible people, worse than inept; they didn’t mean well. Everyone who worked for them knew it, so they weren’t as much whited as grayed. But when I was in college and for a few years after, one of my professors really fit the bill, at least to his adoring followers – and I was one. He was smart, interesting, and expert at sniffing insecurity. He ruined lives. I don’t know what would have happened to me, if my husband hadn’t clung to my pinkie toe and pulled me free before I was sucked into the vortex.

There’s enormous power in the whited sepulcher. In fiction, we can draw close to that power without being scarred. I haven’t written anything about a whited sepulcher yet, but I’d like to. When I teach my summer writing workshop for kids at the Brewster, New York, public library, I’m going to start with a whited sepulcher exercise.

The prompt will be to describe the villain, inside and out. Where does she live? Is her home rent free because the landlord is in her thrall? What things does she surround herself with? What does she wear? What’s in her pockets or purse or backpack? How does she smell? What’s her voice quality? Does she have any virtues? Does she think the same way the rest of us do, or is even her thought process different? For fantasy writers, is she human or some other kind of creature, an evil fairy queen maybe? For horror writers, is she the family labradoodle? Does the whited sepulcher have to be an individual, or might it be an organization – a business or a charity, for example?

The second prompt will be to invent the ideal victim for the whited sepulcher, the prey she’s always seeking, the human key that unlocks her wickedness. Describe the victim as thoroughly as you described the villain. Then tell what about him makes him vulnerable? What signals does he give out? Does he have inner resources that eventually will protect him and maybe even expose the whited sepulcher? Or is he doomed?

The last step, naturally, is to put the two characters together in a story. When you do, the most important decision may be point of view. Will the story’s voice belong to the whited sepulcher or to her mark? Or might it alternate, or belong to an outsider? With whom will the reader sympathize? I wonder what the circumstances are of their meeting. In the course of your tale, be sure to show how the whited sepulcher spins her web, and show the moment, if it comes, when the victim realizes he’s being drawn in.

But whatever you do, have fun, and save what you write.

Writerly Thoughts

This is my first blog ever, and fear of the blank blog is as bad as fear of the blank page. For my blogging life, I intend to post once a week, and I will probably blog mostly about writing, but I don’t know that for sure. I’ll see how it shapes up. If you are reading this, I would welcome a post to tell me what you’re interested in reading from me.

Right now and for a long time to come, I’m working on a new book and having to introduce new characters and thinking in particular about describing them physically. If I try to do this only from my imagination, the result isn’t very interesting. I think about size of features, eye color, hair color. It’s like thinking about houses. If I picture houses mentally, I think, wood or brick or stone or artificial siding, tin roof or shingle, ranch or colonial. But if I drive around and look at houses, I have much more information.

Same with people. Looking at them helps. But I don’t like to stare. So I look at photographs and portrait art. For example, when I wrote The Wish, I wanted the main male character not to be either classically handsome or hideous. I went to my high school yearbook (from yikes! 1964) and paged through it, as I am doing right this minute. And there is so much to say. You – and I – may not want to go into this much detail, but the shape of every upper lip is different, and the space between lip and nose is different. In some faces the width or narrowness of the chin determines the curve of the lips. In other faces, lip shape and chin shape have nothing to do with each other. When I did this for The Wish, I found a boy whose eyebrows met over his nose, forming a unibrow. Now, I went to a huge New York City high school, and I didn’t know this boy or how his eyebrow may have ruined his childhood or not affected it at all. I lifted it off his face and gave it to Jared, and that unibrow helped pull the plot along.

For the new book, I looked at drawings by early sixteenth-century artist Albrecht Durer, and found a profile view of a youngish man with a plump face, uplifted eyebrows under small mounds of flesh, as if he might sprout horns, a flat nose with two bumps, small lips, several descending chins, the topmost of which stuck out almost as far as the tip of his nose. I couldn’t possibly have made him up out of my imagination.

Of course, when you’re looking for physical description, you probably want a face and a body to go with the character. This Durer guy doesn’t have a face I’d give to a poet. It’s a shrewd face. I bet he can add a long string of dollars and cents in his mind. I bet he can size up a person in a second. He could be a merchant or a shady character who lives by his wits.

If you’d like to use this post as a writing exercise, look at photographs and portraits – but not of models and movie stars, no strictly gorgeous people. Find one that interests you. Describe the character that might belong to the body – or go against type and describe a personality that seems accidentally planted there. Write a story about him or her. As I say in my book, Writing Magic, have fun, and save what you write.