Posted tagged ‘mystery’

Rumpole Rests His Case

April 6, 2008

Another weekend and another audio book. This time around I listened to several short stories in the Rumpole Rests His Case collection by John Mortimer. If you’re not familiar with the Rumpole series, it’s sufficient to know that Horace Rumpole is a bemused yet skilled barrister in the British courts. Though the series is contemporary, you can’t help but feel that old-tyme English sense to it. (Many of these stories were produced into a delightful television series some years back starring Leo McKern, who was certainly the perfect actor for the part since Mortimer wrote the character specifically for him.)

Rumpole is surrounded by dozens of colorful characters, and though he does manage to solve crimes or at least see that justice is done, these stories aren’t so much about the mysteries involved as the delightful character interplay. The story “Rumpole and the Teenage Werewolf” is a good example. Given the clues that are presented, it’s easy to know whodunit by the halfway point in the story. But the fun is seeing how Rumpole manages to pull off the resolution given that the entire British justice system is resisting him. In fact, several points of “evidence” that the reader would need to know to solve the mystery aren’t given until Rumpole uses them, so the (tired) old adage that the reader must have all of the facts isn’t observed. But the mysteries aren’t the point of these stories. The characters are.

I’ve often thought that the British can do mysteries better than the Yanks. I’m not sure why that is, but I think it has to do in part with the more rigid social structure of their society. If (fictional) people can be sorted by fairly reliable categories then the structure of mystery plotting can be more solidly built. Bounders can then be readily used as the culprits. Also, the British have such a profound pedigree in the mystery genre that I think it is in their blood. Americans seem to do better with gritty police procedurals, so each to its strength.

Chapter 8.5

March 30, 2008

As I’ve been writing Finnegans Afoot, I realized somewhere along the way that I needed a chapter inserted in a section I had long since finished. (I’ve mentioned this in earlier posts.)

I started work on that chapter yesterday, and I was delighted to find that I managed to squeeze more than a thousand words out of my brain in one sitting. The chapter has two important tasks. One deals with plot. I need to establish an event that will be brought up in the climax. The other deals with tone. I need to inject a bit of tension at this point of the story.

While doing this, I’m finding plenty of room for presenting a bit more depth and range to my characters. I’ve read on other blogs and in those many how-to-write-fiction articles that nothing belongs in a story that doesn’t advance the plot. I think this is misguided because there is more to a story than merely the plot.

I want my characters to be regular people, the kind of people that a reader can identify with. I have no trouble with fantasy or science fiction or noir, but the characters in these stories must be credible (in their context, of course) or I’m not going to sustain my interest. If I use this retro chapter to help make my characters credible (and accessible) then I think I have advanced the story, even if some of it doesn’t really advance the plot.

I have asserted that half of a story is in the telling. Sometimes plot can be almost a secondary thing.

Chapter 13 is finished

March 29, 2008

I don’t know why I had so much trouble earlier finishing this chapter of the Finnegans Afoot story. I guess I needed to let it incubate a little longer in my head because when I sat down to work on it this morning, the material just flowed onto the page (well, onto the screen). As I’ve noted before, I’m certain I began writing this story prematurely, and I suspect that manifested itself in my struggles with this chapter. But each step I take on this trail (hiking being the activity in the novel), the easier it gets.

Though there is little action in this chapter, it has some important work to do. Mostly it is set up for the dash to the climax coming in the next few chapters. But it also must do some character development work. I needed to make a serious revelation about a certain character, and I needed that to cause another character to change her motivation. But the revelation had to come casually, during easy conversation between two of the women in the story. Even so, it had to cause a complete rethinking by one character about another.

This revelation (am I being too coy about it?) came to me late in the imagining of the novel. It isn’t really key to the plot development, but it is to character development, and I’m glad it came to me. Nonetheless, I’ll have to go back to the earlier chapters and sow the seeds for this matter so it doesn’t seem contrived when it finally arrives. That shouldn’t be a problem. The hints for it will be overlooked by the other characters, even by Ann Finnegan, my sleuth, so I think they can be slipped in easily since no one will understand their importance at the time.

So as I envision the story now, I have four more chapters to write (plus the chapter I need to squeeze in for earlier in the story). Is that months of work or weeks? I wish I knew. I have so much more I want to write and so little time for doing it.

It happened again!

March 25, 2008

I was sitting at my desk yesterday, working for the man, and an idea popped into my head for a completely new Finnegans novel. I quickly grabbed the notepad I keep nearby for these moments and begin scribbling down the idea.

It just kept blossoming. All through the day I was grabbing the notepad to get more of the thoughts down on paper. By the end of the day I had more than a thousand words of first day notes for a completely new novel. I now know with certainty the first sentence and the last sentence of the eventual novel (he said, tentatively).

It will also be a very different Finnegans novel. The characters will be the same. The setting will be the same. The murderless nature of the mystery will be the same. But it will all be profoundly different, too.

I’m grateful for these moments of epiphany, and I attribute them in part to liberal applications of iced tea in the morning. (Also, I’ve come to know my characters and motifs so well that I can easily set the players in motion based on the slightest premise. I simply have to sit back and watch. And take rapid notes.)

I wish, though, that I could get some of the existing projects finished before these new ones come charging in.

More about names

March 24, 2008

Following up on my earlier post about naming characters, I thought I’d give you some of the background on my two Finnegan characters and how they came to have the name they do.

Greg Finnegan is a retired English professor. He has built himself a small reputation as a scholar of Midwestern regional literature (and this is important in the Finnegans Deciphered story yet to be written) . Echoing Hemingway, he tells anyone who will listen that “all American literature began with Huckleberry Finn.” In his early days as a teacher he gets pinned with the nickname “Huckleberry Finnegan” (which gets explained in the yet-to-be-written Finnegans Begin story), and this nickname manages to pop up — to his embarrassment — in each of the novels. Thus I needed a last name that served this purpose.

I had originally intended to call them Flynn rather than Finnegan, since “Huckleberry Flynn” resonates better. However, my stories involve the Finnegans staying in bed and breakfast inns in each novel. (Sometimes this is the setting of the mystery. Other times, it is merely the base for a mystery on another stage.) So when I began writing these stories, I decided to look into the genre to see if anyone else was writing bed and breakfast mysteries. There are plenty of them. Most prominent, perhaps, is Mary Daheim, and tragically for my plans, her protagonist has the last name of Flynn (though not in the earlier novels). Thus there would have been too many coincidences between her (published) stories and my (hopeful) stories. So they became Finnegan rather than Flynn.

Greg’s first name is the name of a friend, and as I said in my earlier post, doing this allows me to better picture the character and his behavior in situations because I can easily picture how my friend would do so. Ann’s name, however, has more work to do. I intend to explore that in Finnegans Begin, but suffice to say for now that “Ann” isn’t all there is to her name.

house burning as metaphor

March 22, 2008

I recently read the book An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England by Brock Clarke. I’d seen it heartily recommended on another blog, so I swept my reading pile off my desk and grabbed the novel from the library (having waited my turn after eleven other readers before me finished it).

I had understood it was a mystery, more significantly a mystery without a murder, so I was eager to read it. The novel was a mystery, at least the framework was. Someone is burning down the homes of famous writers in New England, and the protagonist, who had once done the same thing by accident as a youth, is considered the likely culprit. He spends the novel trying to figure out who is burning the houses, all the while trying to escape the clutches of the police and of his past life. And while there is no murder, there are three deaths, one of which falls in the “Hollywood justice” category of too neat wrap up.

But you should not come to this book expecting to read a mystery novel. This story transcends that genre. The mystery is, as I’ve already said, merely the framework for telling a deeper, more personal story. The burning houses are a metaphor for the destruction of family and the cleared ground that allows the building of a new family. And if you read past the grim subject matter, this is also a comic novel. What is most significant about it, though, is something that is rarely spoken of in the mystery genre: narrative voice.

The protagonist is the first-person narrator of the story. He is a bumbling (by his own admission) comic/existentialist hero whose past catches up with him and then carries him (eventually) to a better place. He tells his story in a wry, self-referencing way, and throughout you get the sense that the author has never once lost his point or theme. Like all really good novels, every word is at work in this story. It may be comic, but it is not fluff.

As I said, don’t come to this book for the mystery. You’ll probably figure out whodunnit pretty quickly. And the unfortunate consequence of looking at this as a straight mystery novel is that you may be put off by the strong, unmistakable, and consistent comic voice. (So many commercial mystery novels are either too gritty or too bland in the voice department. Someone needs to blow some fresh air into that genre.) But if you come to this novel interested in exploring the oft-neglected component of narrative voice, you will be rewarded.

Progress report

March 9, 2008

Well, I did not make much progress on chapter 13 of Finnegans Afoot as I had hoped this week. Too many competing demands for one thing.

I did transcribe a lot of notes I’ve been making for all of the many stories swirling in my head. When the time comes to write each of those, I’ll certainly be read.

So I’m looking hopefully toward a new and more productive week. I’ll be sure to let you know how it progresses.

Are you a Marple or a Poirot?

March 3, 2008

I think most mystery writing can be divided into these two categories: Jane Marple or Hercule Proirot. Even though Christie’s fiction is a little dated and has passed into the realm of “classic,” I think her approaches to weaving the mystery story are universal and timeless, for the most part.

Jane Marple was a little old lady. She wasn’t a person of action, nor did she have extensive education (she trained to be a nurse) or international experience (though she did travel). What she had, though, was a keen understanding of human nature, and while she lived in a small, remote village, all of the quirks and base motivations of human nature were there for her to observe. She solved the mysteries Christie set before her by understanding relationships and motivations. She could liken whatever crime or behavior she saw to characteristics of people in her village. She wasn’t going to chase down a perpetrator or hold a gun on anyone. She enlisted others to do that. Her mysteries were more character driven.

Hercule Proirot, on the other hand, figured things out with his “little gray cells.” Many of his mysteries hinged on the wrong word spoken imprudently or something discovered in the wrong place. His solutions were almost mathematical as he figured out timing or placement or other details. Train schedules seemed to play a part in many of his mysteries. He always figured out the “trick” that the mystery hinged on. And while he was rarely a person of action, he had been a member of the Belgian police force in his youth, and his friend Captain Hastings (like Watson) carried a revolver.

Christie had other sleuths. Tommy and Tuppence Beresford were a dashing young couple, and while they were clever, much of their crime-solving skill revolved around their youth and their ability to take action and risk. Harley Quinn, the one that Christie said was her favorite character, found a different route to serving justice: supernatural alliances.

I like to think that my sleuths, Ann and Greg Finnegan, are Marples. At least I try to create their mysteries from this direction. As I’ve noted, most of their stories don’t involve actual crime (and certainly not murder), but as I’ve also noted, there is plenty of evil that people can do that isn’t in the law books. When the Finnegans fix a problem it isn’t because they have pistol whipped anyone or deduced something from blood splatter patterns. Most of their stories culminate around the morning meal at the bed and breakfast where they are staying. They discern solutions by understanding the natures of the people involved.

Update 14MAR21 – I could throw Sherlock Holmes into this discussion and classify him as mostly Proirot, though I think I great deal of Holmes’ “deductive” work relied on the still mostly rigid class structure of the time. I’ve said before that I believe the class-based society was why the British excelled at mysteries, and the more freewheeling society in the U.S. was why we excelled at thrillers and police procedurals.

Keeping Afoot

March 1, 2008

I made the rip-roaring start on Chapter 13 as I had hoped to this morning, writing about 1300 first-draft words. That gets the chapter going, and I have a clear view of where it should go from here. An interesting character revelation. A new resolve in another character.

I’d been making a lot of notes lately for earlier chapters in Finnegans Afoot, and I spent some time adding those to what I’ve already written. It’s all good, of course, and it advances the story progress, but I’m glad I also got to make a major step made into the final story sequence, where the narrative moves into the crisis.

I also have some notes to earlier works (Finnegans Awake and Finnegans Festive) that I spent some time fooling around with. That makes Awake now “ready” for submitting to agents, adding a couple of hundred words to its slim count. I’ve tinkered some more with the pitch for that story, so maybe I’ll scrape together the fortitude to start actually sending out some queries.

In other news, I received a rejection for a Finnegans Festive query I’d sent about two weeks ago. Although the agent’s citation said she was accepting new writers, her response said that the agency has stopped taking them so they can concentrate on their current stable of authors. I suppose what I got was a form letter, but at least I got that much. There are probably a half dozen agents who have never responded to my queries at all after six months.

Chapter 12

February 23, 2008

Time for my weekly progress report, I guess.

I finished Chapter 12 of Finnegans Afoot. It’s where I turn up the tension level a bit as we approach the crisis a couple chapters hence. The chapter is a little lean, but I expect that with a first draft. Some of the ideas in it will flesh themselves out more as I ponder it all and how it relates to the rest of the story.

The way I currently envision it, I still have four more chapters to go; plus I have a chapter to squeeze into the narrative already written. As I suppose is the case with most writers, I’ve been imagining these final chapters for so long that it will be a relief just to get them written.

Then the whole novel will get a quick read through as I try to polish some of the retroactive inserts I made to the earlier part and do more prep work for later developments in the story. This novel has evolved more disjointedly than the others I have written. I think I noted that I started writing this one too soon. I hadn’t fully imagined the story. Thus a lot of plot, tone, and even character ideas have come to me late in the process, and I’ve had to jigger the story to get them to fit.

After that, I think I’ll put the story to rest for a while as I focus on something else (Sleep of Reason, of course). I can come back to it with a fresh eye after that and probably bring a good critical eye.

I guess everyone has a unique creative process. I just hope this one isn’t mine. I’d much rather have the whole narrative in mind, with all of the characters clearly envisioned and the various plot points sufficiently developed, before I begin to write.