Wednesday, May 11, 2011

"Agatha," as you know, means "good"

I have mentioned that I'm working on a new novel, what my friend Davin Malasarn calls “everything but a detective novel inside a detective novel.” That is to say, the framing story for the book is a murder mystery, which sort of acts as a scaffold or a backdrop for what I’m actually writing about.

I’m not particularly interested in writing detective fiction. Over the years I’ve read a number of Agatha Christie books (Christie is the main touchstone for the surface elements of my narrative), I’ve read the Sherlock Holmes stories and the Poe stories and the Iain Pears “Jonathan Argyle” mysteries and I’ve watched “Foyle’s War” on DVD and any number of mystery films, so I enjoy the occasional “classic” detective story but I can’t claim to be a huge fan of the genre. I don’t know any of the current writers and (though people are constantly recommending that I read this or that book or writer especially now that I’m actually writing a detective book) I honestly have no interest in seeking out more mysteries than I’ve already read. I like a few corners of the genre passing well but no more than that.

There are fun things about classic detective stories, and those are what draw me to them. I like the eccentric investigator and I like the puzzle quality of a good mystery (although most mysteries—and I’ll just say it—are pretty weak as puzzles; the chain of evidence rarely leads the reader to the conclusion the detective reaches, and most of the time the writer hides evidence from the reader, which is cheating so I don’t really like the mystery aspect of most mysteries because it’s done poorly). So you might ask, if I have such a dilettante’s relationship with detective fiction, why I’m writing a detective story.

The main reason is that a specific character occurred to me, and I wanted to explore her interior world. She happens to be a detective, an eccentric with a loaded pistol loose in 1930’s America. As I thought about her character, I got a bunch of ideas about things I wanted to write about (which is synonymous for “things I wanted to think about”): relationships, geopolitics, religion, sex, alienation, “otherness,” trust, work, war, home, marriage and divorce. A lot of stuff that has got nothing to do with a murder investigation. There’s also the idea to be explored of things people think but don’t say—how our interior lives can be completely secret but rule our exterior lives invisibly, the absolute unknowableness of the core of someone’s being.

So the murder investigation conducted by my protagonist is merely an excuse for me to talk about all this other stuff. Yes, I am working hard to make sure that the puzzle aspect of the mystery works and that there are no improbable rabbits coming out of hats in the third act, and that the reader sees all of the clues alongside the detective, but as I say that’s all just a framework. The mystery plot is just a machine, no matter how complex it is, and creating that isn’t enough to keep me interested in the novel. In fact, since the majority of that sort of writing is merely pushing pieces around on a game board, if you will, I could get really bored writing the book. So what I’ve done is make every single scene—every interaction between people—an excuse to talk about one of the larger issues listed above. I also am encouraging myself to find something really bizarre to work into every scene. That’s turning out to be easier than I thought, because if you just take a few minutes and observe people, we are a weirder species than we usually realize. Everyone, if you look long enough, is an eccentric. So I’m trying to keep exposing the secret spaces of my characters’ lives; that’s the mystery I’m writing. And it’s going well, I think.

16 comments:

  1. You've made me wonder how much we choose our story from a desire to pursue the outer structure, and how much from a desire to infuse that structure with, as you put it, “things I wanted to think about.” I've had this problem where there are certain ideas I want to explore, but they need a framework, a recognizable form that people want to read...

    Tara Maya
    The Unfinished Song: Initiate

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  2. For me it's been different from story to story. I knew I wanted to write about this character, knew I wanted to play with the conventions of classic detective stories and also knew that I wanted to write about relationships and the idea of "foreigners." The actual murder mystery took a lot of work to come up with and is mostly secondary to what I really want to do.

    For my previous book I had the story, by which I mean the plot and the characters, and the themes and depth of ideas came about in the writing and I was surprised by some of them. I also changed my conception of the second act based on what I thought the book was "about," once I figured that out.

    For the book before that I had the idea that I wanted to "do something" with Hamlet and I looked to Shakespeare's own time to give me ideas, and I also deconstructed the play somewhat. The major themes also were discovered during the writing and the story got changed to reflect them.

    The detective story is the first novel I've written where I didn't have the final scene already sorted out before I really got going with the writing. I knew who the murderer was going to be and how the mystery was resolved, but I couldn't "see" the ending of the narrative for a long time. Now I know what it is, and we get there through character development more than through plot, which is what I like to do.

    The idea of form is going to be very interesting when I write my next book, because I'll be working with a sort of spiral-shaped narrative. We'll see

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  3. Scott, this was really cool to read, thank you! I'm so interested in your detective book. It sounds a lot like what I did with Monarch - a spy story as an excuse to explore a certain set of characters in a certain setting that I love. The spy story is just a framework and that's it. That's why I hesitate to really call it a thriller because it's not.

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  4. Yeah, Monarch is really about the main characters figuring out what they'll do with the rest of their lives. The existential problem. Career changes and mid-life crises! But with guns and terrorists and conspiracies and kidnappings getting in the way! Are those spoilers?

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  5. No, those aren't spoilers because they aren't the real story. :)

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  6. This is in line with what I've heard from some panel speaker about "story" being a vessel through which some message is communicated. I never wrote that way before, but Cyberlama fits that definition well. I'll be curious to see if I like it or hate it when I'm done. I'm currently oscillating.

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  7. If you're oscillating, then you must be...a fan. Which is good!

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  8. If you break a blade off an oscillating fan and turn it on afterwards it hops around the room.

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  9. Goodbye moving air. It would be an interesting story to see why someone would intentionally break a fan. ;)

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  10. They'd do it to test Davin's theory. And then they'd have a broken fan but they'd like it more and they'd start breaking pieces off other things to see how they change from functional to sort of art objects. It would spread from their apartment to other people's homes, and the office, and shops and so on. "It's not broken, it's just experienced."

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  11. That would be the coolest art installation piece ever, especially if everything was connected to the same power strip. I think I have a youtube video to make.

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  12. My interest is in literary fiction, also, and what you are doing sounds like the sort of thing P.D. James does in what little I have read of her work. I purchased a few of her books some years back at a yard sale and never got past page one, because her detective seemed to spend more of his time musing about his family relationships than he did on the actual case. It seemed like a lot of inferior psychology grafted on to a traditional whodunnit.

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  13. Tim: I confess I've never heard of PD James. I think what I'm doing is more like what Nabokov did in "The Real Life of Sebastian Knight," which pretends to be a biography of a novelist but is actually a rumination about writing and an examination of the narrator. Or perhaps what I'm doing is more like Shakespeare in "King Lear," which is supposed to be about a king passing the reins of power but is more about family dynamics. Or maybe what I'm doing is more like Faulkner in "As I Lay Dying," which is supposed to be the story of a mother's family taking her body home for a funeral but is really a story about love and family and poverty. Not sure. Maybe it's more like "The Manual of Detection" or one of the Borges stories based on Poe. Maybe it's wholly unlike any of that. Hopefully the only people who read my detective novel and expect a typical murder mystery are the same sort of folks who would be disappointed to discover that "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" doesn't actually teach one how to work on a motorbike! We'll see. Whatever it is, I think it's going to be a good book.

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