The First Line

In every creative writing class the instructor is sure to note at some point the importance of the first line. These few words should grab the reader, and lead her into the rest of the story. We all know the classic first lines by Tolstoy and Chekhov and Chandler and Christie, but those don’t really help us with writing our own. I didn’t always recognize the brilliance of some first lines, which made coming up with my own even harder.

At first the issue seemed to be to write something intriguing. For the first book in the Mellingham series, I wrote and rewrote the first line along with the first chapter, writing, in the end, three first chapters and stacking them one in front of the other. In the end I was persuaded to cut most of them, and I ended up with what I thought was a pretty good first line for Murder in Mellingham. “It had been some time since Lee Handel had ventured out willingly on a social occasion, but his wife, Hannah, had reassured him that this party would be safe.” This line sets the stage for the evening to come but not much else. That line introduced the first of seven titles in the Mellingham series.

The first line of Under the Eye of Kali, the first in the Anita Ray series, was even less connected with the story to follow, but it set the scene nicely. “Guests from various foreign countries began filling up the Hotel Delite dining room, taking every seat at the main table—this was a small hotel, only eight rooms, with the owner’s, Meena Nayar’s, suite on the top floor, and that of her niece, Anita Ray, above a separate garage.” This was the first of four books, with a fifth one waiting on my desk.

You would think by the time I came to write my thirteenth book that I would have mastered the art of the first line, but you’d be wrong. Below the Tree Line opens with what I regard as a terrific line, but it isn’t necessarily the best first line for a mystery novel. But I didn’t come to this conclusion until recently. Below the Tree Line opens with this: “On the third night Felicity lifted the shotgun from its place in the cabinet, and this time she loaded it.” There isn’t much wrong with this line as it stands, but it doesn’t tell you as much as you might think about what’s coming next.

After publishing dozens of shorts stories and thirteen novels, I tried a new approach in creating the perfect first line. I don’t know if the result is perfect, but I established a definition of that first sentence that works for me. I now consider the first line as the apex of a pyramid, and the story is within that pyramid. Whatever happens must be traceable back directly to the first line. This by itself means extraneous scenes, extra characters, digressions into backstory, or a humorous or romantic subplot that is more filler than mystery, are all to be excluded.

In my current novel, now with my agent, I rewrote and reworked the first line more than a dozen times until I had something that, like a math or drawing compass whose points never deviate as they draw the circle, could embrace the entire story, holding each part in tight, streamlining and smoothing the narrative. This, then, is the first line of So Comes the Reckoning: “The first time Renee watched a man die, she was eleven years old, kneeling beside him as he lay on the ground.”

As I wrote the 82,000 word story I kept that first line in front of me and asked myself repeatedly, Is what I’m writing now linked to that statement? If not, why not? It was hard to find myself jettisoning entire chapters because I seemed to think they were needed but could find no connection to the first line and its implications. Why was she there? Why was this a first time? Why did she not, as an eleven-year-old child, run away or at least stand apart? The implications of those words kept me on track.

Since then I have come to appreciate the difference between a good snappy sentence and a good first line to a particular novel. They are not necessarily the same. The challenge is to combine them in such a way that the story unfolds from those opening words. It’s an ongoing challenge.

The Other Reason I Write

This is an exciting time. Crime Spell Books has just announced the list of stories and writers that will appear in its first Best New England Crime Stories anthology. This is the nineteenth such anthology after Level Best Books announced it was discontinuing the series last year.

Last fall two of my colleagues and I agreed that the cessation of the annual anthology by Level Best books was a sad end for a publication we all loved and two of us had worked on. Leslie Wheeler and I had been editors and Ang Pompano had published stories in the anthologies. But I had another reason for being disappointed.

I was one of the original founders of Level Best Books, along with Kate Flora and Skye Alexander. There’s something wonderful in creating something that lives after you—and doesn’t need you to prosper. That was the Level Best Books anthology.

In 2003, when we began, print-on-demand hadn’t yet taken hold and become the easy, accessible (and cheap) process that it is today. As the first editors, we chose paper, dealt with printers and shipping, and hand delivered books to bookstores and events. We advertised and promoted. And that came after reading and selecting stories, editing and proofreading. And back then proofreading meant reading the printed text against the paper manuscript, looking for errors in composition and type setting, not in the writing of the story. The process is so much easier today that any writer can put together a collection of stories and publish it digitally and through POD with or without technical help.

Creating this new anthology satisfied something in me that I don’t usually find elsewhere. I love the process of making something. Yes, I write stories and novels, and have a number of both out circulating with editors. I cannot imagine a life without writing, and indeed I’ve never had one without it since I was a teenager. But the finishing process has its own special appeal—there’s a tactile pleasure in putting together the front matter and back matter, arranging the parts felicitously. I get some of the same pleasure from matting and framing a photograph for the few times I’ve done an exhibit of my work. That form of satisfaction is probably why I do needlepoint and embroidery, and used to sew all the time. Sometimes I arrange tools and equipment in the garage or cellar for their appearance rather than practical reasons. I may end up a sculptor making assemblages or found art pieces. I love using my hands. But I’ll still be writing.

The point of all this, I suppose, is to share with all of you those aspects of my writing self that don’t often come out. I talk so much about writing—how to do this or that—that I sometimes forget that each of us who writes has more going on and other ways of being creative and finding a sense of accomplishment than the one part we talk about on line. The beginning of the resurrected anthology is one of them for me. So while all the writers are celebrating having their stories in the new anthology, which I fully understand, I’m celebrating making another object that will satisfy another part of me.

So where do I get my ideas?

One of the questions I have come to almost dread is the standard one about where I get my ideas for a story or a novel. The question is frustrating because no one really knows where an idea of any sort comes from. These things pop into our heads and we either play with them or toss them. But this morning I was trying to recall a thought about a particular memory that had been nagging at me. And that got me thinking about story ideas.

Some of my story ideas are not story ideas at all but arrive first as an experience I’ve heard about or undergone and can’t quite shake. One day, while still employed in social services, I was working quietly in my office when a conversation beyond my door caught my attention. A woman waiting to see her social worker had gotten into a conversation with the volunteer on the desk, and they were exchanging information on what happens after you’ve been convicted, served time, and are released. The man explained that the County House of Correction bus took you back to where you were originally picked up, usually right outside the courthouse. As he pointed out, you were wearing the clothes you had on when you were picked up. In his case, he was wearing shorts and was sentenced to six months. He was released when it was January and snowing. The woman said the situation was different for women. No one provided transportation for women. She got a voucher for a bus or train ticket and had to walk to the station. Two stories grew out of this overheard conversation.

I had seen the navy blue bus before, along with the man checking off names, and never really thought about it. Now I did. In “Kenny Orslow Shows Up on Time” (Mystery Weekly February 2020), a young man is convicted of buying drugs and shows up at the bus stop at the appointed time, but he’s not on the list and the officer won’t let him on. Kenny is now homeless and stranded—and desperate. I had a lot of fun with this story.

The second story grew out of the differences between how the men and women were treated. In “Francetta Repays Her Debt to Society” (AHMM October 2014) a young woman is released from prison but no one is there to meet her. While away, her boyfriend died and she has nowhere to go. She makes her way back to her hometown and arrives at her cousin’s apartment. The cousin is cool and then surprisingly friendly.

The overheard conversation took place in the early 2000s, but it stuck in my imagination for years until I figured out what to do with it. Another odd bit of information came to me more than thirty years ago. A college student drowned in a snow-covered reservoir. The chief of police attributed the accidental death to the student being from the Midwest and not recognizing that the flat expanse was not a field or pasture but a body of water. That comment stuck in my head for years until it emerged in “The Pledge” (AHMM July/August 2020).

Years and years ago I came across a poster of cartoon faces (like the smiley face) showing a range of emotions, with titles underneath—rows of little round faces each with a different expression. This had been developed as an aid for autistic children learning coping skills. This made me wonder how a person otherwise capable could manage in a world where human interaction seemed so opaque. That question lingered in the back of my mind for years (probably decades) until I finally got an idea, which appeared in “Picture This” (Saturday Evening Post, online edition Friday, April 30, 2021).

When one of these factoids, or odd bits of information, comes to me, I don’t think, Oh, there’s a story here. I just remember it because it seems so peculiar, so different from my regular life. Most of my short stories and novels grow out of this kind of tidbit. Right now I have a few of these rattling around in my brain and I’m not sure what to do with them. One involves a man probably in his sixties. He parked his pickup out front of my house and knocked on the door. He wanted to know if I would trade some of the apples in my tree for a bucket of his—he had several buckets in his truck. I agreed because, why not? While he harvested what he wanted (“Please, take more. I can’t use them all.”) he told me about all the fruit trees in Salem that were on public land and therefore whatever they produced was free for the taking. He’d been harvesting, hence the filled buckets in his pickup. I know he’ll end up in a story but I can’t say when.

Meanwhile I’ve been working on a story about an inept hustler who learns damaging information about a friend and tries to use it as leverage with a drug dealer. The idea came from an interview with one of the guards at the Stewart Gardner Museum. A reporter tracked him down in a shabby apartment in a small town and told him some people thought he was in on the robbery. His comeback? “Would I be living here if I had been?” We’ll see where that one goes.

So when someone asks me where my ideas come from, the answer is, Well, it’s complicated. Mostly from life.

Hemingway and Me

The multi-part series “Hemingway” by Ken Burns was required viewing in my household. I was glad to learn he wrote every morning, liked learning that not every story he wrote worked, and listened carefully to how he incorporated material and people from his life. But I especially liked getting a look at his edited pages. Unfortunately, even on pause I couldn’t get close enough to read what he crossed out and revised.

Some years ago I was able to see an edited page by F. Scott Fitzgerald, where he changed two words. Two words? I had to believe that the page on view was close to the final edit, and not the first draft.

Hemingway’s edited pages grabbed my imagination because I have a suspicion that any page of mine that isn’t heavily edited isn’t finished, and is not worth reading. Over the years I’ve always wanted to write a perfect paragraph and then another and then another after that and on to the end of the story. But it has never happened. During a workshop years ago the leader asked us to write one perfect paragraph, which I did. It was so good in her view that she sought me out afterwards to talk. I still have the paragraph—unattached to anything else. Any effort to try to use it as the opening of a story has failed miserably. After literally decades, it sits “perfect” in its own little world. I don’t know why, but I suspect it is because the emphasis was on the writing and not the story. The character, whose presence is limited, goes nowhere because the paragraph isn’t about her. It’s about writing.

Every story I write, short or long, seems fabulous as I write it. Then I finish it and read it over, and conclude that it is unarguably horrible. So begins the rewrite. By the time I’m finished I’ve been through ten or more drafts and I’m still not confident that I’m really finished, but it seems time so I send it out. I confess to a tendency to send out a story too soon, but it gets it off my desk and makes me think about it. When it is rejected, as is most likely, I reread it and figure out a better ending. Endings are a trial for me, but if given sufficient time to think about whatever one I’ve settled on, I can generally improve it. I have greater confidence then, after messing with the thing for a couple of months, and send it out again. This can go on for quite a while, but each time the story gets better.

I tried to explain this once at a library talk. People nodded—they’re invariably polite at these events. But then I pulled out the edited pages—several versions—of the first chapter of the mystery I was currently working on so people could see what an edited page looked like. Their eyes popped open. They got it.

No story of mine is going to work unless it is revised and rewritten almost a dozen times. And after watching “Hemingway,” I’m glad to know I’m not alone among writers. 

Managing the Timeline

One of the features of a mystery that can be hard to pin down is the timeline. Right now I’m reading stories submitted for the first title of the new Best New England Crime Stories series to be published by Crime Spell Books, and one of the stories has a major problem in the timeline. I read through the story enjoying the characters, caught up in the setting, and satisfied with the end—until it dawned on me that the main clue happened after the important incident. The writer had muddled the sequence of events.

Most of us have heard the saying “Time is fluid,” and many of us have experienced the truth of that statement. Add to that the unreliability of memory, and you can see the problem. (This morning I thought it was Sunday and was shocked at how thin the Sunday paper was—a truly tragic shrinking of the Boston Globe.) A good story idea—strong characters, quick pace, good twists—can fall apart if the time line is not carefully worked out. It’s important to track the time.

The best advice may also be the most basic, so basic in fact that we sometimes forget to mention it. Let the reader know at the opening of every chapter and every scene exactly where she is. Does the opening signal a new day? Make it simple but precise: “The following morning, even though it was Saturday, Emily went to work as usual.” Is it a change in time of day? “After four hours at her desk staring at a screen, her eyes tearing up, Emily felt she was entitled to a lunch break—a long one.” Has a week passed? “The following Saturday things were no better, and Emily was still dragging herself into the office to keep up with the piles of busy-work her boss kept dropping on her desk—on his way out for a shortened work day. Emily was beginning to hate even the word golf.” 

Some writers can finesse this level of detail but when I reread their fiction I find they are clear in their own minds where they are and thus it is clear in the reader’s mind how things are progressing. It shows in the story development. You as writer have to know where the characters are or the reader won’t know.

When I’m working on a story long or short I keep track of important details on lined paper (you can use note cards or a spreadsheet or Scrivener—it doesn’t matter) of each chapter and scene. In the left-hand margin I note the time for each chapter or scene; then I note the activity of that scene. I need to know who said what to whom but just as importantly when. Introducing the back story has come to mean for me a new scene or chapter, but the change in time or setting has to be just as clear. “Emily hadn’t expected this level of drudgery when Hank hired her. She remembered that smile, and from the interview she expected a higher-level position. Had it only been three months?”

I may muddle these all together in a draft but as I revise I tease out each time change and make it explicit. When I can see the progression in time and place in my notes I have a better sense of how the story is developing. Do I need to add a twist? “Emily was warned by a co-worker not to complain—the last woman who did so had a terrible car accident and hasn’t worked since.” Have I spent too long on building up the conflict? “Emily remembered the first time Hank asked her to pick up his dry cleaning and the snide glances of the women who worked in the shop.” If the time moves forward in the backstory that needs to be marked also. “But the kicker, the proverbial straw, for Emily was when Hank asked her three weeks ago to pick up a gift at a women’s shop and rewrap it for him. She assumed it was for his wife. But in the box she was startled to find a negligee not in his wife’s size. That did it for Emily. It was time to take action.”

When I’m finished with the first draft I have a clear sense of pacing and direction. I can see easily if I’ve spent too long on moving forward instead of arriving at my destination. Crafting a clear timeline helps with character development (have I spent too much time or not enough on introducing someone?) and pacing (did I put Emily in enough danger, threatening her job security and her own safety before she chooses to act?), as well as keeping me clear on where I’ve been and when. 

A good, clear timeline will ensure I will end up where I want to be. And now, it’s all up to Emily.