Tag Archives: mystery

Under Water

On July 30, 2016 a thousand-year rainfall event triggered flash flooding in Ellicott City, Maryland, demolishing businesses, wrecking cars, and killing two people. A historic strip situated along the bottom of a valley, the town is no stranger to flooding. Major floods occurred in 1868, 1923, 1952, 1972, and 2006 before this latest event.

Rising waters in the nearby Patapsco River produced most of these floods, although the culprit behind the 1972 flood was the remnants of hurricane Agnes, and this most recent flood came top-down rather than bottom-up, due to runoff from higher ground that had nowhere to go but into the historic district.

Flooding being a tragic but inevitable part of the Ellicott City’s history, sooner or later it probably has to figure into some kind of story set in the area. So I say to myself, “Self, it might as well figure into your next Howard County mystery.”

Thus,  the plot wheels are turning in my head. Please bear in mind that this is all very preliminary.

It occurs to me that the flood waters, which gouged out the sidewalks in front of area businesses, exposing the undersides of buildings, might simultaneously reveal something more sinister. The remains of a murder victim? A valuable artifact stolen in the past and never recovered? Documents testifying to some dark and hitherto unrevealed event?

It further occurs to me that a flood might provide cover for a crime. If someone goes missing just then, it might be assumed they fell victim to the deluge.

And finally, it occurs to me that given the number of times Ellicott City has faced down floods, a crime committed and obscured in one flood event could be uncovered as a result of another. Wouldn’t that be interesting?

These being preliminary ruminations, nothing here counts as a spoiler. But I’m pretty sure Rick Peller and crew will find themselves wading into treacherous waters before too long.

An “Ice on the Bay” Milestone

A couple of days ago, I completed the first draft of Ice on the Bay, my third Howard County mystery. Its completion coincides with another change in my life: a job change. For the past 10 months I’ve been making a two hour commute by car, train, light rail, and foot from my home in Baltimore County to northern Virginia. Today is my last day there. On Monday, I assume a new position much closer to home.

Both changes impact my writing. The completion of a first draft is a time to sit back, relax, and recharge. Not that I don’t continue writing. I currently have two other projects in the works: my SF/humor novel Space Operatic, which is about two thirds complete, and the rewrite of a manuscript my father left behind. But now I need to get some distance from Ice on the Bay, so that I can evaluate and revise it.

The job change means I won’t have writing time on board the commuter train anymore. Much of Ice on the Bay was written while riding the rails. I won’t know how my writing life will be arranged until I see what the new position is like in terms of schedule, commute, and work load. In previous positions, I often wrote on my lunch break. That may or may not be possible this time.

Either way, change provides new inputs for writing: new people, new experiences, new settings. All parts of life are interconnected, even if only in subtle ways, and any of it could be fodder for the next story.

 

The Umpteenth Draft

If you’ve ever written anything, including term papers for school, you know what a first draft is: a complete but unedited work. So what comes next? Well, you say, obviously editing. And you’re right. But what kind of editing?

Broadly speaking, the adventure starts with overall structure and gradually works its way down to typos. Although not always that neat, once a first draft is done it’s time to step back, draw a deep breath, and look at the big picture.

Ray Bradbury, in his mystery Death is a Lonely Business, summed up the process rather graphically. His lead character, a writer, develops a friendship with a local police chief. The police chief, it turns out, harbors literary ambitions, so the writer helps him get started. His key advice: “Throw up into your typewriter every morning. Clean up every noon.”

That’s worth remembering, if only to remind you how good your first draft likely is.

These days, few of us use typewriters. Via computer, it’s easy to edit as you go, and I regularly do that. Most days before writing anything new, I get a running start by rereading what I wrote the prior day and cleaning it up. By the time my so-called first draft is done, it’s already been edited substantially. Even so, it won’t be free of structural problems, substandard writing, or scads of typos. It remains a first draft in spirit, if not precisely in number.

Usually I crawl through a story at least three times before I’m happy with it, after which my wife tears it apart and makes me fix it up again, often contributing new material along the way.

These rewrites are not merely finding better words or fixing spelling errors. I rearrange material, throw out entire scenes and start them over, and add new scenes. I fix glaring continuity errors, plug up holes, and expand upon ideas.

To take one small example, in Ice on the Bay (my current work in progress) , I introduced a stack of boxes at the back of a room in which a murder had occurred. At the time, I didn’t have any plans for them. I didn’t even know what they contained. Nearing the end of the first draft, I realized that Eric Dumas, the principal investigator of the murder, never bothered to ask what was in them, much less look for himself. He should have. And once he did, it turned out to be important.

Completing the first draft may seem like a lot of work, but once it’s done, the real work begins. And until it’s done, one doesn’t have a story worth reading.