Thursday, November 19, 2009

Let’s Sit Down, Think This Through, and Play Fair

Sixty thousand words into my current project, I’ve hit a point in the novel where my sleuth needs to sit down and think the crime through. Of course, beer leads to clarity of vision, so the protagonist is at a bar, drinking Coors Light, and doodling on a cocktail napkin.

This scene is a break in the action that serves two purposes.
The cerebral component of a successful crime novel is a big reason why I love reading and writing the genre. I don’t outline. Maybe that’s why some reviewers have praised my plots while others have criticized them. Either way is fine; as I’ve said before, I don’t want to know where I’m going before I start. Writing is simply too hard not enjoy being my book’s first reader.

I do take copious notes as I work my way through a novel, though. And my protagonist’s pause to think is also a chance for me to review my notes, which include questions that need to be answered over the duration of the story (who drove the car that slowed down as it passed Max in chapter two?); potential directions in which the book can go (if the autopsy results show that Margaret was pregnant, three more people are now suspects); and who did what and the reasons why (she can ONLY be a red herring now because she is going to tell four people at school that she hasn’t spoken to him in months).

There is another reason for the break in narrative action, and this one might be more important: It provides a chance for me to briefly outline some of the information mentioned above for readers. Not all of it, of course, but some.

“Playing fair with the reader” is something I first became aware of when studying Edgar Allen Poe’s classic Five Rules of Detective Fiction, years ago. However, the concept of “playing fair” became clear to me on a hotel bench at the 2006 Malice Domestic Conference near Washington, D.C. I had gone outside for some air and took a seat next to a lady who was reading a paperback cozy. Several times, she stopped reading, flipped to a blank page at back of the book, and jotted something down. I asked what she was doing.

“Keeping track of clues,” she explained and went on the say she wanted to solve the crime before the sleuth. I have never forgotten this woman—or the way she reads a mystery. She has become my “ideal reader,” the one I think about as I work my way through my novels.

And in the scene I’m writing now, she’s right there with my protagonist and me at the bar. Her beer is on me.


Charles benoit said...

Coors Light? I thought you said gave Jack a beer.

Donis Casey said...

I don't start with an outline, but I often have to outline myself out of the morass I get myself into by the middle of the book