Tag Archives: ice on the bay

In the Beginning…

Have you ever read a story that completely failed to engage your attention? Probably so. How long did you stick with it? Fifty pages? Ten? Five? My personal low was two pages when reading an old science fiction novel my dad owned. I think I started that book three times over the course of several years and never made it past the second page.

Why does this happen? Basically, it’s a structural failing. You see, every story needs a structure, and that structure can be stated very simply: beginning, middle, end. As straightforward as that may seem, writers don’t always figure it out. When they don’t, the result can be a story in which nothing seems to happen, and when nothing happens, readers quickly get fed up.

So what is this beginning, middle, end thing, anyway? Well . . .

The beginning is where main characters are introduced, the setting is established, and the principal conflict is set up.

The middle is where most of the events play out. Lesser characters may be introduced and additional conflicts may arise. Throughout, the tension increases, the stakes get higher, the challenges become tougher. Even if the characters meet with small successes, things generally get worse for them.

The end is where the main conflict is resolved and loose ends are tied up. Compared to the rest of the work, this part is relatively short for one very good reason: resolution of the main conflict removes the tension and, thus, most of the interest.

Reread that last bit. No tension equals no interest. Books that fail to engage your attention are likely books lacking tension, or at least books with tension well-hidden. Maybe the writer spent the first ten pages providing background before presenting the main conflict. Maybe the initial conflict wasn’t much of a conflict. Or maybe it’s just you. After all, different people have different tastes and interests. Decades back my wife recommended a novel to me that, upon reading, I found stultifying. She couldn’t believe it. One of the main characters had suffered a serious injury and spent most of the novel at death’s door! How could I not be interested? Unfortunately, I didn’t care much about that character for whatever reason, and nothing much else seemed to be happening while he was busy almost dying. Oh, well.

Personal tastes aside, a story’s beginning has an important job to do: it must draw the reader in. To that end, writers employ what is called a hook. The hook is simply something interesting or unusual or dramatic that makes readers want to find out what’s going on. It’s what carries the reader past the first paragraph of a short story or the first page of a novel. It isn’t necessarily the main conflict, although it could be. It provides the vital infusion of tension without which readers won’t become engaged.

If I may, I’ll use my own writing as an example, since I know it so well. The Fibonacci Murders opens with a statement from a key character, mathematician Tomio Kaneko, about why he was involved in a murder investigation. In the course of this short passage, he states that had he not become involved, he would have been spared injury. The main conflict (a sequence of murders that take on a serial killer aspect) doesn’t start immediately and Kaneko’s involvement comes well into the novel. But I needed to get him onto the scene early because of the key role he plays. So I decided to introduce each chapter which a personal statement by him. The opening statement injects some menace because the reader knows that he’s going to get hurt. That point only happens near the end (technically, in the late part of the story’s middle), but its foreshadowing creates an element of tension that (I hope!) draws the reader in.

In True Death, I handled it a bit differently. We first meet a guy sitting alone on the porch of a run-down cabin out in the mountains and through his musings find out that he regards himself as dead. Clearly something tragic has happened to him, but just what will only become clear late in the novel. At the outset, we don’t even know his name. Ice on the Bay opens with an actual crime being committed, a botched robbery at a veterinary clinic. You’ll read that something has gone horribly wrong, but you won’t immediately find out what.

These three examples, different as they are, share a common theme. You meet someone to whom something bad happens, but you don’t get any details about what it was. With any luck you want to know the details, and that’s what pulls you into the story. As the old writer’s addage puts it, “Shoot the sheriff on the first page.” To which I might add, “But don’t reveal who shot him. Or if you do, don’t let on why they shot him.” Give the reader something to worry about, then keep them worried. That’s tension. That’s what keeps them reading. That’s a good beginning.

But, of course, that’s only the start . . .

An “Ice on the Bay” Milestone

A couple of days ago, I completed the first draft of Ice on the Bay, my third Howard County mystery. Its completion coincides with another change in my life: a job change. For the past 10 months I’ve been making a two hour commute by car, train, light rail, and foot from my home in Baltimore County to northern Virginia. Today is my last day there. On Monday, I assume a new position much closer to home.

Both changes impact my writing. The completion of a first draft is a time to sit back, relax, and recharge. Not that I don’t continue writing. I currently have two other projects in the works: my SF/humor novel Space Operatic, which is about two thirds complete, and the rewrite of a manuscript my father left behind. But now I need to get some distance from Ice on the Bay, so that I can evaluate and revise it.

The job change means I won’t have writing time on board the commuter train anymore. Much of Ice on the Bay was written while riding the rails. I won’t know how my writing life will be arranged until I see what the new position is like in terms of schedule, commute, and work load. In previous positions, I often wrote on my lunch break. That may or may not be possible this time.

Either way, change provides new inputs for writing: new people, new experiences, new settings. All parts of life are interconnected, even if only in subtle ways, and any of it could be fodder for the next story.


Assaulted By Ideas

Based on anecdotal evidence, one of the most common questions asked of fiction writers is, “Where do you get your ideas?” I’ve never been asked this. I may have been asked a time or two where a specific idea came from, but not ideas generally. But let me answer anyway.

Generally speaking, ideas sneak up and attack without warning. Later, I may not remember in any detail how a given idea arose. Nevertheless, they originate in three ways.

First, they fall out of the environment. A news report, an observation, or an experience might plant the seeds of a scene or story or novel. My third Howard County mystery, Ice on the Bay, arose as I drove over the Francis Scott Key Bridge one January day and discovered the Patapsco River frozen over, a first in the 20 years I’d lived in the Baltimore region. Another idea came to me just yesterday while reading about this weekend’s tragic flooding in Ellicott City, Maryland. It’s possible that incident will work its way into a future Howard County mystery.

Second, other people occasionally offer ideas. My wife suggested one to me many years ago involving the startling discovery of a murder victim in an unusual place. I haven’t used that one yet, but I expect it to appear in a future Howard County mystery. Writers also say they steal ideas from each other, although “steal” is not the proper term. It’s cross-pollination, not theft. Ideas can’t be copyrighted, only their implementation in words or images. That flooding I mentioned above? That’s only half of the idea. James Lee Burke’s novel The Tin Roof Blowdown takes place in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, and Archer Mayor’s Three Can Keep a Secret is set in the midst of tropical storm Irene, which struck Vermont.  I’ve read both. That’s why the weekend news clicked as a potential story element. But I’ll be telling my story, not Burke’s or Mayor’s.

Finally, ideas just pop into my head without any clear connection to anything. Often these are story-shapers rather than story-makers. In the midst of writing a scene, I’ll throw in some spur-of-the-moment thought to add interest. Sometimes that’s all it turns out to be. Sometimes I remove it later, because it doesn’t work out. Sometimes it proves significant. In a fantasy novel I wrote in the late 1990’s, the heroine finds herself wondering about her vanished family. Until that moment, I hadn’t given any thought to her family, much less known that they had vanished! Later, they proved important to the plot.

Bottom line: when all is well, ideas tend to crawl out of the woodwork. And when they don’t? Well, then it’s time to do something else for awhile. Sometimes the best way to attract ideas is to avoid looking for them. They don’t like to be ignored, and sooner or later they’ll let some passing writer know it.