For the last several months I’ve been rewriting a mystery from first person to third. This was more fun and more rewarding than I at first expected and I’m pleased with the results. One of the best parts of the work was rearranging the plot and reworking and developing the subplot. I have a general rule that when this part of writing a mystery gets tedious, then it’s time to start over. That didn’t happen this time, and I enjoyed one of my favorite aspects of crime writing.
Setting up and working out a mystery is for me the same as working out a puzzle, or finding a new tool and learning how it works. I like moving pieces around, setting up clues, keeping track of lines of dialogue that can be used later, reworking a clue, slotting in hints in dialogue to guide or mislead the reader, or lifting and replacing scenes. Dorothy L. Sayers called this process of working out a plot a “tactile” pleasure, and indeed it is. I’m not talking about notecards; I’m talking about the mind’s perception that the hands, fingers, are moving physical items around on a surface.
Some years ago, I signed up for a design course to learn more about how designers work to help me think about book covers. It was a revelation. Never had I more truly understood the difference between a writer’s mind and that of a designer. The first lesson was to use our names in a design as a way to introduce ourselves. I fussed for days over fonts, letter placement (vertical or horizontal), and more unimaginative details.
The student work I remember best was a drawing of the letters of his name tumbling out of a cornucopia in random order. I never produced anything equal to the work of the other students but I learned to release objects as well as ideas from their given, or assumed, boundaries. Which, when you come to think about it, is kin to what’s happening in crime fiction—individuals breaking rules and crossing lines, violating boundaries and challenging others to contain them.
The term “boundaries” has come to mean an emotional guide we use to protect ourselves from others or establish areas where connection is possible. We establish rules of interacting, and talk at length about how to do this. But boundaries are also physical, lines on a map drawn between nations or neighbors. We think of them as fixed, but experience tells us they’re not. Mystery writers have no trouble rearranging the world to suit our purposes. It makes me think of Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill at the Yalta Conference in 1945, rearranging the map of Europe before the war was officially over.
Rearranging a plot is rarely so significant as Yalta but slipping the pieces out of logical, rational place can produce the startling results that jiggle the brain out of its comfortable path. Examples abound in the work of Anthony Berkeley, a writer of the Golden Age, in his repeated challenges to the idea of justice and the issue of justified homicide. By seeing an encounter between two people in terms of its individual steps, the writer can pull apart the entire progress and rearrange the steps into a challenge to the standard perceptions of crime and violence. Every time a writer makes a change in the story, no matter how minor, she is turning what is regarded as a straightforward crime into a plot, and leading the reader to break established boundaries and ways of thinking about a particular event. This is a useful skill that might well be applied to all areas of life.