Sunday, February 21, 2010

Of Cemeteries and Other Plots

I’d like to welcome back this Sunday’s guest blogger, Barbara Fradkin. Why welcome back? Because she is one of the original members of Type M and has agreed to stop by and bring us up to date on what she’s been up to. Barbara is also an excellent writer, and to prove that we can talk about her back-to-back Arthur Ellis wins for Best Novel, a feat that no one else has accomplished.


Mystery writers have some very strange adventures in the course of writing that dreaded first draft. Which is why next month I will be sampling smoked meat at the world-famous Schwartz’s Main Hebrew Deli in Montreal, and last month I was traipsing around the cemetery with my camera in pursuit of the perfect tombstone under the perfect tree. I was following the twists and turns of Inspector Green’s latest case, Beautiful Lie the Dead, due out in the Fall of 2010.

I subscribe to the ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ school of mystery writing, which is to say I start the first draft once I have an opening scene. I usually have a vague idea what the theme of the book might be — in this case, love — but it might turn out to be something quite different once it’s finished. I usually have a dead body to start the story off, and a few characters I’d like to explore. However, I have no idea whodunit, no idea where the story might go nor how my detective might actually solve the case. He and I are in it together. Occasionally we rush from scene to scene when the ideas are flowing well, but more often we inch forward together, scene by painful scene.

This is a very stressful way to write a book. It guarantees lots of shredded pages and sleepless nights. I used to think I was alone in this folly, but I’ve discovered lots of writers who admit, often proudly, to flying by the seat of their pants. Never use an outline, they brag. ‘Too boring, too predictable. I love not knowing what’s going to happen.’ Some writers can’t imagine how you can plot without knowing where you are going and without careful planning of clues, red herrings, and all those twists and turns that keep a plot percolating. The secret to that, of course, is rewrites. Once I’m finished and I know what the actually story is, I can go back to fix it, plant clues, strengthen characters, create diversions and all that craft stuff. But first I have to have the creative stuff. And for that, I must let my mind roam free.

It’s terrifying, exhilarating and full of surprises. I know it’s not for everyone, but it’s the way that works for me. I always figure that it must make my book unpredictable since if I don’t know whodunit, how can the reader possibly know? I also think it makes the story evolve out of the characters, rather than imposing a plot move on a character because that’s what the outline dictates. That’s because at each turn, one of the strategies I use to feel my way forward is to ask ‘what would this character do next?’ If it’s Inspector Green, maybe he’d visit surviving relatives, or ask the Ident unit what they found, or interview witnesses on the street. If it’s one of the victim’s family, they might poke around in the victim’s things, or question his friends, or lie to the police. Everyone in the book has an agenda and a goal, and the fun is in pushing them forward, interweaving them, and throwing surprises their way.

This is not to say I’m flying blind. I have guideposts. I keep notions like scene structure, tension, pacing, and story arc in mind. I think ‘okay, it’s time to slow down’ or ‘time for a surprise’. Having asked the question ‘what would this character do next?’, I then ask ‘But is that interesting or exciting enough?’ ‘What if this happened instead?’ Most fun is the question ‘What will give my detective the most complications?’ I cook up possible scenarios while walking the dogs, emptying the dishwasher, or driving the car. I’ve had my best eureka moments on boring Highway 401 between Ottawa and Toronto. Once, afraid that I would forget some brilliant idea, I pulled off the highway into the parking lot of a liquor store and scribbled the whole thing down on the back of an envelope.

When flying by the seat of your pants, you never know when a small fact or character introduced early in the book will blossom into a major plot development. In Beautiful Lie the Dead, I had some key characters originate in Montreal, my childhood home. Little did I know that a hundred pages further on, Inspector Green would spend two days in Montreal investigating an old death, and that of course, as a true smoked meat aficionado, he would have to visit Schwartz’s. And where Inspector Green goes, I have to follow. Research has its benefits.

This foray into Montreal also gave me the inspiration for the title and the cover. No first draft is truly complete until the story has its perfect title and cover art. I could not imagine a title and cover determined by a publisher’s marketing department. In Beautiful Lie the Dead, in dreaming up complications for Green, I made another character travel to Montreal with his own agenda, which involved visiting the grave of the father he never knew. While describing him slogging through the snowy graveyard, I had the vision for the perfect cover art. Beautiful, bleak, evoking a sense of a death unresolved. And from that image came the title. And off I went to the cemetery to take photos I hoped would capture that mood.

The photos are now in the hands of the publisher’s cover artist, but the finished draft sits before me, waiting for rewrites. That’s when my more analytical self takes charge, and tempers my imagination with realism and polish to make a compelling, coherent whole. That works for me. Other writers, I’d love to hear what works for you.

You can learn more about Barbara at And I encourage you to do so! Thanks very much, Barbara.


Vicki Delany said...

Thanks Barbara. It's alwasy fascinating to read an author's approach. You take quite a wholistic approach - text, title, cover. Me, I outline roughtly, but don't usually have a title until the book is completely finished, and I don't worry about the cover much at all.

Charles Benoit said...

I like that guidepost metaphor. I once thought I was a 'all-mapped-out- kind of writer until I met writers that really write that way and I realized I was using the wrong terms. Your method is still a bit too loose for me but I'm probably more in your camp than the other.

Marisa Birns said...

I haven't written a mystery...yet, but the writing I have done is from the "seat of the pants"school of thought.

Though I didn't know it had a name!

I read so many authors who explain their carefully constructed outlines, where they know exactly how it begins, continues, and ends. I always wish I learned how to do that.

It is lovely to read your writing habits. As with you, once I finish writing and do all the rewrites needed, I look at it and think something along the lines of, "So that's what I was writing all along." Always pleasantly surprised.

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