January. The beginning of the new year seems an appropriate time to talk about beginnings. Such as, how to begin a novel, or story.
Where is the beginning? Is it where the protagonist enters the action? Or at a point deep in the back story, a place that can be glimpsed in a prologue?
The decision of how best to start a writing project is a personal one that varies from writer to writer.
Kindred Crimes, the first Jeri Howard novel, introduces my Oakland-based private investigator. I toyed with several different beginnings and wound up with the traditional private eye opening scene: Jeri meets with her new client in her Oakland office. The man is looking for his missing wife. Seems like a straightforward case. Or is it? All is not as it seems. That much is revealed in the first two paragraphs. And as Jeri delves deeper into the case, she discovers much more.
Man, woman, and child posed in front of a thick green Christmas tree, its branches laden with silver tinsel and gold balls. He stood behind her chair, hands resting lightly on her shoulders. Her blond hair fell in waves past the collar of her red dress. In her lap she held a cherubic toddler. They smiled at the camera, the image of a perfect middle-class nuclear family, caught forever in a five-by-seven glossy.
“When did she leave?” I asked.
The second Jeri Howard book, Till the Old Men Die, took me in a different direction. An earlier version began with a scene in which a woman with a shady past shows up at the history department office at the California State University branch in Hayward, California. The shady woman wants the papers belonging to a professor who was murdered some months ago in what appears to be a random mugging. Upon reading that version, a fellow writer commented that it was a shame reader didn’t get a glimpse of the murdered man while he’s still alive. I obliged, in a brief prologue that gave readers a look at how the man was killed.
I also included a prologue in Take a Number. It wasn’t back story. Instead, it was the only time Jeri meets the man she’s investigating, Sam Raynor. Jeri’s client is in the process of divorcing this abusive man. As he talks with Jeri, he tries to charm her. When she calls him on his bullshit, he reveals his nasty, manipulative personality. The next chapter backtracks, describing how Jeri got involved in the investigation. We meet her client and get some background on the case. The husband has money but known that California is a community property state, but he’s hiding it from his wife.
Then, of course, he winds up dead. His wife is the most immediate suspect, but Jeri discovers a long list of people with motives to kill him. As Jeri says:
Sam Raynor was the biggest slug who ever oozed across my path. Anyone who wanted to kill him would have to take a number and get in line.
With the Jill McLeod series, featuring my traveling Zephyrette in the early 1950s, the first two books, Death Rides the Zephyr and Death Deals a Hand, start out in a chronological fashion, with Jill on one of her train runs aboard the train. The third book, The Ghost in Roomette Four, starts with the ghost. How could I have a ghost and start any other way? It’s late at night and Jill sees something she can’t explain. A spectral presence, or maybe she’s just tired.
I am not seeing this, Jill McLeod told herself. But she was.
Light shimmered at eye level, about ten feet in front of her. The apparition seems to have no source. None, anyway, that Jill could discern. What’s more, she could see through it.
Jill took a step toward the light. It brightened, then dimmed. She took another step. The light flickered and moved into roomette four.
For my recent Kay Dexter mystery, The Sacrificial Daughter, I went back to the client-in-the-office beginning. Kay is a geriatric care manager who helps people care for elderly family members. As the book starts, she’s meeting with a prospective client who is having a difficult time with her mother. This first chapter introduces Kay and her profession and gives the reader an idea of why someone would hire a care manager.
“I’m at my wit’s end,” Sheryl Garvin said.
I could see that.
She had the stretched-too-thin aura of someone who wasn’t getting enough sleep. Her voice sounded tired.
Beginnings. One hopes that they lead to endings. I’ve got a good start on the book I’m working on. Now that January is here, it’s time to get to work and finish it.