Tag Archives: true death

In the Beginning…

Have you ever read a story that completely failed to engage your attention? Probably so. How long did you stick with it? Fifty pages? Ten? Five? My personal low was two pages when reading an old science fiction novel my dad owned. I think I started that book three times over the course of several years and never made it past the second page.

Why does this happen? Basically, it’s a structural failing. You see, every story needs a structure, and that structure can be stated very simply: beginning, middle, end. As straightforward as that may seem, writers don’t always figure it out. When they don’t, the result can be a story in which nothing seems to happen, and when nothing happens, readers quickly get fed up.

So what is this beginning, middle, end thing, anyway? Well . . .

The beginning is where main characters are introduced, the setting is established, and the principal conflict is set up.

The middle is where most of the events play out. Lesser characters may be introduced and additional conflicts may arise. Throughout, the tension increases, the stakes get higher, the challenges become tougher. Even if the characters meet with small successes, things generally get worse for them.

The end is where the main conflict is resolved and loose ends are tied up. Compared to the rest of the work, this part is relatively short for one very good reason: resolution of the main conflict removes the tension and, thus, most of the interest.

Reread that last bit. No tension equals no interest. Books that fail to engage your attention are likely books lacking tension, or at least books with tension well-hidden. Maybe the writer spent the first ten pages providing background before presenting the main conflict. Maybe the initial conflict wasn’t much of a conflict. Or maybe it’s just you. After all, different people have different tastes and interests. Decades back my wife recommended a novel to me that, upon reading, I found stultifying. She couldn’t believe it. One of the main characters had suffered a serious injury and spent most of the novel at death’s door! How could I not be interested? Unfortunately, I didn’t care much about that character for whatever reason, and nothing much else seemed to be happening while he was busy almost dying. Oh, well.

Personal tastes aside, a story’s beginning has an important job to do: it must draw the reader in. To that end, writers employ what is called a hook. The hook is simply something interesting or unusual or dramatic that makes readers want to find out what’s going on. It’s what carries the reader past the first paragraph of a short story or the first page of a novel. It isn’t necessarily the main conflict, although it could be. It provides the vital infusion of tension without which readers won’t become engaged.

If I may, I’ll use my own writing as an example, since I know it so well. The Fibonacci Murders opens with a statement from a key character, mathematician Tomio Kaneko, about why he was involved in a murder investigation. In the course of this short passage, he states that had he not become involved, he would have been spared injury. The main conflict (a sequence of murders that take on a serial killer aspect) doesn’t start immediately and Kaneko’s involvement comes well into the novel. But I needed to get him onto the scene early because of the key role he plays. So I decided to introduce each chapter which a personal statement by him. The opening statement injects some menace because the reader knows that he’s going to get hurt. That point only happens near the end (technically, in the late part of the story’s middle), but its foreshadowing creates an element of tension that (I hope!) draws the reader in.

In True Death, I handled it a bit differently. We first meet a guy sitting alone on the porch of a run-down cabin out in the mountains and through his musings find out that he regards himself as dead. Clearly something tragic has happened to him, but just what will only become clear late in the novel. At the outset, we don’t even know his name. Ice on the Bay opens with an actual crime being committed, a botched robbery at a veterinary clinic. You’ll read that something has gone horribly wrong, but you won’t immediately find out what.

These three examples, different as they are, share a common theme. You meet someone to whom something bad happens, but you don’t get any details about what it was. With any luck you want to know the details, and that’s what pulls you into the story. As the old writer’s addage puts it, “Shoot the sheriff on the first page.” To which I might add, “But don’t reveal who shot him. Or if you do, don’t let on why they shot him.” Give the reader something to worry about, then keep them worried. That’s tension. That’s what keeps them reading. That’s a good beginning.

But, of course, that’s only the start . . .

The Girl With No Pants

On Saturday, August 13th, I held a True Death book signing at the Barnes & Noble store in Ellicott City, Maryland. For a relatively unknown author, signings largely consist of waiting for people to notice you. A few will, and if you’re lucky you’ll sell a few books. Even so, I find that time passes quickly, and the handful of conversations and sales make it worthwhile. But will it make for an interesting blog post?

Nah.

Instead, let’s talk book covers. One customer, looking at True Death‘s cover, remarked, “That doesn’t look like Howard County.” And he was right. It doesn’t.

The cover (it’s at the top of the right margin of this page) features a roughed-up woman in tattered clothing carrying a briefcase and walking into the distance. Some think the image is designed to attract male readers. A friend of one of my daughters jokingly asked, “What’s the next book called, The Girl With No Pants?”  But no, that’s not it, any more than the landscape is Howard County.

The book deals with the death of Sandra Peller, Detective Lieutenant Rick Peller’s wife, in a hit-and-run accident four years earlier. Because she is central to the novel, I wanted Sandra on the cover. Because she died on a road, I wanted her on a road. Besides, an image of her walking down a road would symbolize her departure from earthly life.

So my wife Kathleen and I searched Dreamstime, an online image library where we have an account for our publishing company. Dreamstime and other libraries license images for commercial use royalty-free, charging a relatively small fee: tens of dollars as opposed to the hundreds or thousands an artist can cost.

We looked for women walking down country roads and found several possibilities, but none of them were quite right. And then Kathleen discovered exactly the right one: the roughed up woman trekking down a desolate road that stretches into the unknown. The stark landscape emphasizes the feeling of desolation.

No, it’s not Howard County, and maybe the lady appears pantless, but one couldn’t ask for a better image to introduce the story. And even though I can’t see her face, I’ve become convinced that, yes, that really is Sandra Peller.

The Making of “True Death”

While The Fibonacci Murders began with a vague idea (see The Making of the Fibonacci Murders), True Death‘s origin was even more nebulous. I started with the title. Don’t ask where that came from. I have no clue. But it’s a neat title, no?

A title without a story, though, that’s rather a problem. Most titles reflect some key aspect of a story, such as the characters (MacBeth), the locale (The Martian Chronicles), primary events (The Fibonacci Murders), or key themes (Sense and Sensibility). Without a story, how can one devise a suitable title?

No matter. I had a neat title, obviously one that bespoke a theme. But what is true death? An author might choose from several interpretations, but at the time I had in mind a particular sense: death of the soul. As a Baha’i, I view a person’s physical death not as their destruction but merely as passage from one form of existence to another. Spiritual death, while not obliteration, distances us from our Creator. It harms us in a way physical death cannot.

But a theme isn’t a story. Most often, I discover themes as I write, so here I approached it exactly backwards. The opening scene, with a  broken man in a rocker on the porch of a run-down cabin, was in essence a statement of the theme, made while searching for the story:

The run cut into the base of the mountain, twisting and turning with the land, bubbling past old farms, past pine and spruce and deciduous trees waking from winter slumber, gurgling beneath small bridges on gravel roads, down past a mansion built by some retired executive looking to get away from it all, down through the gap between the mountain and its neighbor, down to join with the river just south of Centerville. A paved road kept the water company, winding through the mountains alongside it. Where the run entered the gap, splashing over a series of rock steps, an unpaved track slipped southward into the trees, climbed the slope, and ended at a small, run-down shack.

On the porch, a man in a scarred old bentwood rocker creaked back and forth, back and forth, his blue eyes directed at the treetops yet not focused on them. Few ever saw those eyes, but those who did frequently remarked how old they seemed compared to the body that hosted them. Vietnam veterans said he must have seen serious action in Afghanistan or Iraq; his eyes were that kind. Others speculated he had lost a wife or a child, or both. Not that anyone knew. He rarely came to Centerville, and then only to buy food. He arrived like a shadow, conducted his business, spoke to no one, and left like a faint breeze falling still. Whatever tragedy had befallen him, it seemed to have drained most of the life from him.

Had he talked to anyone, had anyone uttered such speculation, he would have shook his head. He was, in fact, already dead.

Now I had a character with no story, only a slight improvement. Fortunately, at about the same time a story presented itself. With True Death, I wanted to delve into the backgrounds of detectives Rick Peller, Corina Montufar, and Eric Dumas. In The Fibonacci Murders, I’d mentioned that Peller’s wife had died in an automobile accident four years previously. I realized I could build upon that by turning it into an unsolved hit-and-run. With that and the broken man from the first scene, I had sufficient material to spin a tale.

That’s how True Death began. Where all the twists and turns came from, well, that’s another story.