Friday, June 26, 2020

How to Begin

Well, this day has gotten away from me. I remembered as I was heading off to bed that today was my day to post. But between an unexpected service call and an equally unexpected invitation to contribute an anthology, I forgot that it's Friday.
Rather than try to write about something, I'm going to ask for some thoughts about when and where to begin a story. My historical thriller is incubating as I work on other projects. But I need to get it done in the next few months. Current events are overlapping with my story -- case in point, HBO's decision to take down Gone With the Wind temporarily. It now has an introduction by Jacqueline Stewart, a film scholar. I haven't watched that yet because I'm torn. My thriller ends at the four-day premier of Gone With the Wind in Atlanta. I've done lots of research and gone to a museum in Marietta, Georgia. I'm going to watch the movie again, but I'm trying to maintain a delicate balance between what I know now and what my characters knew them. Stewart's introduction may be too much information.
 That brings me to a larger question. I could open the book on February 1939 with the Nazi rally in New York City, or April 1939 at Marian Anderson's Easter Sunday performance. In the first case, I start with the female protagonist; in the second, with my sleeping car porter, male protagonist. His story is the driving force in the thriller, but her story is going to be crucial to what happens in Atlanta.
Here are the two opening scenes in the rough first draft. Chapter 1 would begin the book with Ophelia's departure from Gallagher and arrival in NYC as the rally is taking place at Madison Square Garden.She accepts a ride from a couple who she doesn't quit trust. Jacob's first appearance is in Chapter 2. He goes to Anderson's concert, see Cullen, his foe, in the crowd and wonders why he is there. I could begin with Jacob, but then Ophelia's arrival in NYC would be dropped from the story. The reader wouldn't meet her until Jacob goes to Harlem. As is, the end of Chapter 1 would leave readers wondering what happened. 
Gallagher, Virginia
Monday, Feb. 20, 1939 
Ophelia                                                                                                                                                                                                           "All aboard!"    
Wheezing, trying to catch my breath, I stopped there inside the door of the colored car and looked to see where I should sit. A few people looked in my direction with blurry eyes. The others were asleep or trying to be. A man near the front coughed. A baby whimpered and began to cry. I started down the aisle, clutching the musty carpetbag I had stolen from the attic of the house I was escaping.
Washington, D.C.
Sunday, Apr. 1939
        Some lies are easy to believe, especially when people need to believe them. I thought about that later.
        But that Sunday afternoon all I had on my mind was getting my work done.
      As soon as I had finished my count of the sheets and blankets and my paperwork, I spoke to the conductor. Then I changed out of my uniform and almost ran out of the station.
      I was hoping to get there in time to get a place up front. The best I could do was half-way. But I was s close enough to see. I tugged up the collar of my coat against the brisk wind coming off the river and looked around.      



Type M for Murder said...

Really thoughtful post. Appreciated your insights about trying to reconcile the past with today.

Eileen Goudge said...

The latter excerpt is stronger and it's usually best to begin with the character who's the driving force of your narrative, as we know. BTW, I'm having the same problem with my new book which is set in the Minneapolis area and involves law enforcement (a racially diverse and non-racist police department, in my case.) Do I allow the zeitgeist to inform my writing? Will potential readers be less inclined to pick up my novel because of the geography of its setting? Wondering if other writers, crime writers in particular, are puzzling over the same issue.

Tanya said...

Hi, Frankie! I like your your Ophelia opening (#1) the best. I can see, hear, and feel what's going on. It draws in the reader immediately and raises a lot of questions: Who is this person? What is she escaping from and why?

Are you using first-person for both characters and switching POV with different chapters?

Have a great weekend!

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

Thanks, everyone. You understand my problem.

Tanya, yes, I am going to have only one POV per chapter. if I will alternate or spend longer time with a character before switching over.

I have gone back and forth between first and third person POV, but both Jacob and Ophelia are easier to write in first person even if I end up switching to third later.

I started out with 5 or 6 possible viewpoint characters. After discussing with my agent I am now down to no more than 3. I tried writing from the POV of Cullen, Jacob's white Southern foe, and I have no problem getting into his head. In fact, I find him fascinating. But, of course, the problem with that is that I can't be there without giving away too much.

I have the same problem with my undercover FBI agent. I don't want to reveal the agent's identity too early.

So that means my third POV character will probably be Evelyn, the US senator's niece who Cullen is courting. She has a newspaper column on culture and social events and she keeps a journal. So easy to simply use her journal entries to cover some of the major events during the year and her observations about the people in her orbit, including Cullen.

Eileen, I think that readers will be even more attracted to you book because of the setting. I would pick up a novel set in Minneapolis and involving the police.

I have multiple city settings (Washington, D.C., New York City, Northern VA, Nantucket, Savannah, and Atlanta). I'm just hoping readers won't mind being aboard trains and getting in a car for a road trip between Savannah and Atlanta.

Have a great weekend!