Pantsing the Revision

That wasn’t the plan. I was cutting subplots, cutting back to one point of view, and changing some aspects of the crime, and I thought it would all work out in a predicted direction. Then I introduced a certain secret earlier in the plot, and out of the blue, my protagonist, Mae Martin, made a decision that changed everything.

It was a well-timed decision on her part, plot-wise. I’m at the Act Two/Act Three transition point, where the protagonist has to pass through her second doorway of no return. This choice she made, seemingly without my input, will raise the stakes for her exponentially, increasing the risks to her relationships and her reputation. It’s something only she can do, and if she doesn’t do it, there are risks to other people’s well-being. It’s a choice between two “bads.” (Meanwhile, in her romantic life she’s struggling with the choice between “goods.”)

The amazing thing to me about this unexpected turn she took is that it’s going to tie up all the loose ends, when it’s resolved.

At least, I think so.

I keep chapter notes as I go, something like a hindsight outline, noting Mae’s goal for each chapter and scene (I’m writing third person but only in her POV), the disaster or hook at the end, the loose ends each chapter has created that will need to be tied up, and the progress in the main plot and subplots. I suppose I can consider some of those notes a plan, since a few are quick sketches of what I can see coming next, but I can’t see very far ahead. Some parts of the original version have found their way almost whole into this revision, and others still might. I wonder if the end will. I liked it the first time around, but it may no longer fit. One of the biggest mysteries in writing a mystery is how my creative mind works.

A character in the work in progress used a phrase I didn’t expect him to say, referring to certain people as his and Mae’s “shadow families.” In the middle of the night, I realized that could be the title. It fits the plot and also the pattern of my titles: two words with a mysterious ring to them, suited to psychic mysteries without murder. The Calling, Shaman’s Blues, Snake Face, Soul Loss, Ghost Sickness, Death Omen … Shadow Family?

 

Clues, Clues Everywhere, or The Truth Hiding in Plain Sight

by Janis Patterson

What is a clue? I can hear all of you now saying “Duh! A clue is something the sleuth notices that helps solve the crime.”

Okay, that’s right – as far as it goes. The problem is, how do we make a series of clues that will help solve the crime that is neither so blatant that the story is over on page 19 or is so esoteric that the reader doesn’t understand it even after the crime has been solved and the clues explained?

I remember reading an Ellery Queen mystery (sorry I don’t remember the title – I was only seven or so) where the deciding clue was based on a particular letter of the Phoenician alphabet. The murder was cleverly done, as I recall, but the idea that both the killer and the sleuth (Mr. Queen) would be in the same rather mundane place at the same time and both know the Phoenician alphabet so jarred on my infant sensibilities that I remember it to this day. As I recall the setting was a house party at a rich man’s mansion, but I might be wrong about that.

Adding in clues is sort of like adding garlic to a casserole; too little and it is flat and uninteresting, but too many and it is unappetizing or perhaps even unswallowable.

In my opinion, the best clues are the ones that grow out of the characters and the storyline in an almost organic process. The truly best clues are the ones that sometimes even you don’t know are there.

An example. Years ago, when I was writing my first Janis Patterson mystery THE HOLLOW HOUSE I knew from the beginning who the murderer was going to be, but as I am a pantser, not much else. The story was ticking along quite well until about five chapters from the end, when I suddenly realized that my pre-determined murderer could not have done it. I floundered around for a while, then all of a sudden ‘Wow! Of course! So-and-so did it.’ And I wrote on, for another half chapter or so before once again it came to me that my new murderer couldn’t have done it. Truth is, from that first realization to the climax I changed the murderer some five times. Finally, as I was desperately trying to decide who did it, I suddenly realized who it was – someone I had never considered.

I don’t know why I had never considered this person, but it was perfect. The only bad thing was I knew I’d have to go back through the whole book and put in clues pointing to this person. Sigh. However… when I did start through the book, the clues implicating this person were all there already. I think I added two.

So – clues not only have to be there, they have to be subtle. How did I do it? I don’t know. The creation of a book, in case you hadn’t noticed, is very much akin to magic.

One way, I believe, was put forward by some famous mystery writer years ago – sorry, but I don’t remember which one. He said that the best way was to make everyone capable of being the murderer, then exonerate them one by one, just like your sleuth. I know there are those mystery writers who pre-plot every clue, and there are some who do it very well. Joy go with them. I can’t do that – I would be so bored that the book would never be written. I guess I have to be as much of a sleuth uncovering the truth as my detective.

Commercial : For those of you in the Denver area and those of you going there to attend the Historical Novel Society conference, I will be there both at the booksigning and presenting a paper on Egyptology and Elizabeth Peters. Ms. Peters (aka Barbara Michaels and Dr. Barbara Mertz) was an incredible author and a friend. She is very much missed.