Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Picking over the bones of the dead

I usually begin my morning at the computer, glancing over the news of the day on several websites. I may read one or two articles on each site – it’s especially interesting to see how each might spin the same story – but basically I’m trying to find out what happened while my part of the world slept.

A few days ago I ran across this story in the Toronto Star about the death of a woman named Joyce Carol Vincent.  The article originated at The Guardian and has gone around the world. Please read it and find out why. I’ll wait here for you while you do.

I know I’m not the only writer who saw news of this sad event in any number of media outlets around the world, but the story has really stuck with me for any number of reasons. Lots of questions the story raises scream out for answers, and those answers could provide the solid base for the storyline of a crime fiction novel. Here are a few that I have:
  • Why was Joyce Carol Vincent estranged from her family?
  • Seemingly, her public and private lives were very different. How did this dichotomy begin and persist? 
  • Was she murdered, was she ill or did she take her own life?

You can see from just those three questions that it would be easy to drop one or more of them into a plot and craft a compelling story. If you have a policeman character, it could certainly work very easily. How about an amateur sleuth? Joyce could be an old school chum or a former girlfriend. I’m sure everyone can see other opportunities. One occurred to me that I could use: Joyce was the former student of a music teacher (my protagonist) who became estranged from her for some reason, and he/she eventually wants to find out what happened to this brilliant, budding musician.

The point I’m trying to make here is that story ideas are all around us, yes, but sometimes we have to take something that might make us a bit squeamish – as if we’re picking over the bones of the dead. I know I would feel a bit, well, ashamed to be using the tragedy of this woman’s fate for what in actuality is a commercial venture.

But let’s face it: whether it’s made up from whole cloth, or the novelization of a real event, we crime writers earn our living by writing about the fallout from the end of a life. Whether it be violent (generally) or something more gentle, it is still about death. Whether the deceased is based on a real person, or completely imaginary, if we’re successful in our words, the reader will feel something emotionally.

And we will have done our job. The unease about how we go about accomplishing that is something else entirely.


aaron said...

Excellent post Rick!

This is my first post here, but I want to thank everbody else posting here for such thought-provoking ideas! Certainly many of the greatest 19th-century novels were based on pre-existing cases; Wilkie Collins' extraordinary novel The Woman in White comes to mind immediately. Of course, the Victorians also had a genre pejoratively called "the newspaper novel," so the quality and value of a novel isn't based on its origins but rather on the final product. That product is entirely in the hands and ideas of the author.

Rick Blechta said...

Aaron, thank you very much. I'm so pleased that you liked the post. And you’re correct: it’s very much up to the author to make the story his/her own.

The gold standard for me in this regard is Peter Robinson’s excellent take on what began as the Paul Bernardo/Karla Homolka murders, Aftermath. Even though a reader familiar with what these two people did could see how the plot would progress, Peter made it gripping and nuanced, using the bare bones of the original to flesh out a compelling and suspenseful story that came to a very different conclusion.

Thanks very much for taking the time to comment, Aaron. Hope to see you back again, sharing your thoughts with us.

Charlotte Hinger said...

I love the surprise element in discovering stories. Nothing we invent can equal the richness of the stories right under our noses in the real world.

Jenna said...

Some of these questions have been asked/answered in a film made about Joyce Vincent called 'dreams of a life', which you may find inspire your ideas further. The film has clips of people who Joyce once knew,including one or two past lovers, friends, old flat mates etc...discussing her character, lifestyle and death. The people interviewed were shocked at her isolation as she had once been perceived as being very friendly, sociable and outgoing. Very tragic and sad and of course, her death and social isolation continue to go unexplained...http://dreamsofalife.com/ is the website for the film

Rick Blechta said...

Hi Jenna,

I have no idea when your comment was made (their are no dates for comments, sadly), but thanks for bringing that documentary to my attention. Much appreciated!