Favorite First Lines

Favorite First Lines

 “I was trying to remember if I’d ever been blindfolded before.

I didn’t think I had been, but the cloth on my eyes felt vaguely familiar, almost nostalgic. I couldn’t imagine why. The only images I could connect with blindfolds were kidnappings.”                      J. Michael Orenduff, The Pot Thief Who Studied Einstein

“Nearly thirteen thousand summers have passed since that splendid morning when the first human footprints appeared between these towering canyon walls. But in all the years since that singular event, not one good thing has happened here. This being the case, hardly anyone visits this remote and dreadful place—though the rare exception is worthy of mention.  Consider Jacob Gourd Rattle.”                     James D. Doss, The Witch’s Tongue

An effective opening says something that makes the reader sit up and pay attention. It’s not a warm-up, but the beginning of something. Something that sets the tone of the book and makes the reader curious or empathic or otherwise immediately engaged. Usually—though not always—it leads into the event that triggers the main plot.

I like the two I quoted above because both give the reader a strong sense of the voice and mood of the book. In the Orenduff example, the narrator reveals his personality, his sense of humor, and his ability to stay cool in bizarre situations. And of course, it raises the question: Why is he blindfolded? The reader is caught up right away, and I think it would hook newcomers to the series who are not yet acquainted with pot thief Hubie Schuze. They don’t need to know his name yet, or what he looks like, or that he’s in Albuquerque. That can come later, once they are pulled into the events.

The example from Doss sets a different tone. His omniscient narrator sees a big-picture view, hinting at something supernatural or evil, and yet doing so with a touch of humor. You can almost hear some Southwestern old-timer spinning a spooky tall tale. The lines create a sense of mystery about the canyon itself and the events—none of them good—that have happened there. And of course, the reader has to wonder who is Jacob Gourd Rattle is and what he’s doing in this cursed or haunted place.

Peter Heller’s novel, The Painter, begins with an equally powerful but entirely different type of hook.

“I never imagined I would shoot a man. Or be a father. Or live so far from the sea. As a child, you imagine your life sometimes, how it will be. I never thought I would be a painter. That I might make a world and walk into it and forget myself. That art would be something I would not have any way of not doing.”

This is backstory and introspection, a risky way to start a book, and one that seldom works. So why is it effective here? For me, it’s the juxtaposition of the startling first line with the narrator’s other unexpected life turns. Art and fatherhood suggest peace, nurturing, and creativity; shooting someone clashes with that image. Then, his compulsion to paint and his ability to vanish into his work suggest he is a passionate man who has things he’d like to forget. The interiority of this passage lets the reader know that this book will be as much about the protagonist’s inner arc as about the dark suspense that drives the plot.

I began Soul Loss, the fourth Mae Martin mystery, this way:

“The full moon was the only glitch in the plan. Too much visibility against the desert and the lake. He’d have to wait ’til he was sure the other campers were sleeping.

“Jamie stared down the slope from his tent to the shore. Depression grabbed him like a weighted net. He’d felt lighter after making the decision, but now the delay dragged him back down.”

Newcomers to the series may wonder who he is and why he’s on the verge of some desperate act. Readers who have been following the series know him and his history, and I meant to alarm them, to make them want to reach into the story and stop him.

Though I’m satisfied with my own first lines, I’m inspired to aim for even stronger ones in the future.  I have an opening line I love in book seven (as yet untitled and unfinished). I’ll have to move it from the beginning of chapter three to the beginning of the book, rearranging the chapters, but it might be worth the work.

What are your favorite openings and why?

Unwrapping a Book: Super Structure Analysis of The Shaman Sings

I hope you’re having a lovely Christmas Eve and that you’ll find some books in your stocking. My turn on this blog comes up on the fourth Thursday of every month, which makes me the Thanksgiving and Christmas person. I debated doing a holiday-themed post, since I didn’t do one on Thanksgiving, but I have one on my other blog, a free holiday short story I did as part of a B.R.A.G. Medallion authors’ blog hop. And over the holidays I have more time to read and write, as perhaps you do too, so I chose this time to thoroughly unwrap a favorite book’s structure. If you’re in the mood for something seasonal, here’s a link to the holiday story: https://amberfoxxmysteries.wordpress.com/2015/12/18/indiebrag-christmas-blog-hop-a-free-holiday-short-story)

If you’re in the mood to think about the craft of writing a mystery, keep going.

In previous posts on this blog, I’ve reviewed James Scott Bell’s writing guide, Super Structure, and shared why I love the mystical mysteries of James D. Doss. To teach myself to better apply Bell’s structural signposts, I reread Doss’s first book, analyzing how he used those story-line elements in his unconventional way, long before Bell wrote the book. (FYI: I worked hard to avoid plot spoilers while doing this analysis.)

Bell’s first signpost—The Initial Disturbance

This has to be the rock that starts the landslide of the rest of the plot. It can be a pebble or a boulder, but it shifts the status quo in the world of the protagonist, requiring change and action in response. In the first chapter of The Shaman Sings, the disturbance is the arrival of a coyote near Daisy Perika’s isolated trailer home at the mouth of the Canyon of the Spirits. This book is immediately set up to be deeply mystical and yet also funny. In a few pages of conflict between an old shaman and a spirit coyote—and her own thoughts, her inner conflict—it’s not obvious what the impact of the animal’s message will be, but the feeling is strong: there will be one.

Doss delivers the same disturbance—a premonition of evil—in the point pf view of an Anglo newcomer to the region, police chief Scott Parris, the second lead character. The disturbance comes around a third time in the point of view of a nameless stalker observing physics graduate student in a laboratory at night, a nameless stalker who understands what she’s doing scientifically, and who hears a Voice.

Doss inserts the second sign postThe Care Package—into these scenes. Daisy gives coffee and companionship to the eccentric shepherd Nahum Yaciti who comes to visit, and to share his premonitions. Scott recalls his last premonition was before his wife died. We see him as a man who has loved deeply and lost. We see Daisy as a difficult person but capable of friendship. And we see the student as vulnerable, alone in her endeavors.

Third signpost—Trouble Brewing

This explodes with the murder and then is doled out steadily. It accelerates when the readers knows the cops are after the wrong suspect and that there are three possible candidates for the real killer.

Fourth signpost—The Argument against Transformation:

Scott moved from Chicago to start life over after his wife died. He wants to get away from death and violence. In Chicago he saw enough of that without working homicide, a job he avoided. He hates looking at dead bodies. He’d thought a small college town would be a safe and peaceful escape, but now he has a murder investigation on his hands. Daisy doesn’t want to answer the spirit world’s call. She is old and tired. But the threat of darkness is demanding her attention.

Fifth and sixth signposts—The Kick in the Shins and the Doorway of No Return:

These are hard to pin down, because the book shifts points of view at every turn, even though it’s essentially an interweaving of Scott’s story and Daisy’s story. Scott’s new girlfriend, an investigative reporter following the same crime, plays a major role. A setback that strikes her could be seen as both the “kick in the shins” for all concerned and a doorway of no return for her and for Scott. This event is blended with a reminder of the otherworldly forces at work. Deciding to share her knowledge with the police is Daisy’s doorway of no return. This is also part of the next signpost. (In Doss’s two-protagonist structure, the essential pieces of the story that Bell identifies are all there, but the pacing and placement vary from Bell’s recommendations.)

Seventh signpost—The Mirror Moment:

Scott and Daisy both have visions of the victim that deliver puzzling clues about her. These come to him in dreams and to her in a shamanic journey. When she meets Scott, something extraordinary happens between them at the level of spiritual consciousness. Neither of them can deny the power of what they know and the need to act on it. The argument against transformation has been won by transformation. She has accepted the continuing burden of her gift. Scott is committed to not only solving murder, but accepting that powers he never believed in might help.

 Eight signpost—Pet the Dog:

Scott’s mix of patience and impatience with his inept officers, Slocum and Knox, is the closest I can come to identifying a “pet the dog” moment. Slocum’s ongoing incompetence sets many parts of the plot motion, so Scott’s tolerance of this particular cop is a key weakness, and yet a trait that makes the reader identify with him (at least the reader who would find it hard to fire a well-meaning but bumbling subordinate) and that’s the purpose of Bell’s “pet the dog” scene.

The last signposts—Mounting Forces, Lights Out, the Q factor, and the Final Battle

By this point in the book— the part which Bell in Super Structure describes as being like a raft going over a waterfall—I couldn’t slow my reading down even though I’d read the book before. To avoid spoilers I’m making this part of the analysis brief and skipping the mounting forces. Doss integrates the police work and Daisy’s mystical powers into a stunning final battle. He sets up his “Q Factor” at the outset—that thing which the lead can pull out and use to survive and keep going against all odds during the “lights out” moment. Scott, as a dedicated cop, of course has the motivation and the resources. Without the very beginning of the book, this perfect ending that blends both leads’ storylines wouldn’t work. What makes the finale succeed is that Daisy, as a shaman, also has motivation and resources.

 A few more words of review:

The complex plot and colorful characters make this page-turning read. Doss never wastes a character. Why have a boring person as the code expert when he could have an eccentric old British hermit, a retired mathematician who is having an affair with young librarian? Why have just any cop mess up a few times when it could be one like Piggy Slocum? And Daisy Perika is no stereotypical Indian wise woman. The Wild West moment between Officer Knox and Julio Pacheco is classic Doss comedy and drama. The way he uses point of view shifts and humor in a thrilling mystery is unusual, but he pulls it off and never misses a step on the path of building a story.

 A note to new readers discovering Doss:

This book is now labeled as the first Charlie Moon mystery. When you find Charlie to be a minor character, it may be puzzling, but at the time Doss wrote the first few books, they were called Shaman Mysteries. Then the author found that the shaman’s nephew, a Ute tribal policeman, was taking over, and he followed his characters’ wishes. The series became the Charlie Moon Mysteries, with his aunt Daisy’s shamanism still part of the stories, and with Scott Parris becoming a close friend as well as collaborating in investigations.

Mystical Mysteries

Mystical Mysteries

If I could channel the spirit of any author to mentor me, it would be the late James D. Doss of Los Alamos, New Mexico. I discovered him through a review in New Mexico Magazine and read all seventeen of his Charlie Moon mysteries, some of them more than once, and I know I’ll read the whole series again. Though I don’t attempt to write like Doss—no one else could—he influenced me greatly as a writer of unconventional and mystical mysteries, where the ordinary and the spiritual meet.

Here’s a short list of the things I love about Doss’s books:

  • Characters. Complex and eccentric, they surprise the reader. I love the ongoing characters and the unique, colorful people introduced in each of the books. My favorite one-book character is six-year-old Butter Flye in The Night Visitor. Doss wrote child characters with unsentimental realism. Butter is tough and strange and yet likeable, and I have never laughed louder or longer reading any book, let alone a mystery, than I did when I read the encounter between Charlie’s irascible aunt, the shaman Daisy Perika, and Butter in the back seat of a truck.
  • Spirituality. The visionary experiences that Daisy and her ward Sarah Frank have are written in a way that makes me feel as if I’ve taken the shaman’s journey with them. The spirit world is integrated seamlessly with earthy realism and humor that says Doss understood this aspect of Indian culture: the sacred and the comic are not opposite or incompatible. He mixed Catholic mysticism into the books as well with beauty and sensitivity, another Southwest truth. Many people adhere to both Native religions and Catholicism at the same time. My favorite character for expressing that unique blend of spiritual worldviews is Nahum Yacitii, the old Ute shepherd who apparently ascended to heaven in a windstorm and comes back to visit the few who can see him.
  • Language. I read a Doss book and I am in the place. When he takes us for walk in the Canyon of the Spirits with Daisy, I hear every step and smell and feel the air. Even the description of the nervous, jerky second hand of a ticking clock is a marvel of observation that sets the mood of a scene perfectly. (I leave you to find this treasure, also in The Night Visitor.)
  • Mastery of the omniscient narrator. Most writers can’t pull this off, but Doss could show the thoughts of every character in a scene without causing the slightest confusion or disorientation in the reader, often to humorous effect. He could even use the point of view of an animal—a bird, a deer, or a prairie dog—as the only witness to an event, and make it work.
  • Hanging out with the guys. Doss wrote real, not hyper-masculine, male characters. Charlie often fails to understand the women around him, but he does it so sincerely I like him for it. The friendship and repartee between Charlie and Scott give me a sense of hanging out with the guys in a way a woman doesn’t often get a chance to in real life, even when some of her best friends are men.
  • Humor. I get a kick out tall tales Charlie Moon tells just for the fun of it, pulling people’s legs. While the essence of each book is serious, dealing with life and death and love, there is a layer of humor as well, coming from the genuine interactions between characters and from their various eccentricities. Daisy is a spiritual visionary and also a quirky, cranky old lady.

Doss resolved the tangles of Charlie’s love life finally in the last book. I wonder if there were more books in his mind when he left this world, though. Daisy was the oldest living member of the Southern Ute tribe, and Sarah Frank, a young adult by the end of the series, was trained—somewhat—as Daisy’s shaman’s apprentice. Was Sarah destined to inherit all the spirits in the canyon, and the ancient little spirit-man living in a badger hole, the pitukupf? I’ll never know. It’s the sign of a good series, though—I still think about it. The characters live on.

This is revised from a tribute to Doss originally posted on http://amberfoxxmysteries.wordpress.com.