Anatomy of a Mystery
A little less than a year ago, I began to write my first straight-up murder mystery.
After my agent signed my first manuscript, Diary of a Small Fish, she made a point of telling me that “I really love it, but…” it mightn’t be an easy sell, since it wasn’t really a mystery, or crime fiction, or literary, and editors at publishing houses are really, really focused on knowing right out of the box where on Borders’ bookshelf it will “be at home.” (These publishing euphemisms can go the way of Borders, as far as I’m concerned.) Anyway, that genre-muddle mogul was something I wanted to avoid, and crime fiction was what I wanted to write, so I put a dead body on page one and proceeded to figure out who murdered him.
I say that because, being a panster, as I described the horrid scene that detective Martin Bishop encountered, I had no better idea who did it than he. That’s when Ms. Diana Lavonn began to talk to me.
I’d always been a bit cynical about this idea of fictional characters “talking to” their authors. Surely it was a sort of dramatic metaphor, not to be taken literally. For an author to claim such a thing would be evidence of schizophrenia, for certain. You don’t actually hear a voice, do you?
Diana lives across the street from the murder scene. She’s a filthy rich heiress, living alone in a huge mansion on the ocean. She is the first person Marty Bishop interviews, because she called the gunshot in to the Barnstable police. She is an older woman, in her mid-60’s, exceedingly attractive and elegant. She oozes a gaudy sexuality that is a grave threat to Marty, whose career and marriage are on the rocks after the revelation of his sex addiction.
Once Diana revealed herself to me, she wouldn’t pipe down, even as I knitted the intrigue surrounding the murder. There were the business competitors of the victim – all drug dealers. The lawyer to all of them, whose tax evasion was under investigation. And the entire staff of assistant district attorneys, not one of them able to resist the lure of free drugs, booze and sex. All of them with motive and opportunity. But a twelve gauge shotgun to the chest from 10 feet was a little extreme! Must have been the competition. Still, she was somewhat miffed that she herself was not a suspect.
I put up with Diana’s interruptions while the manuscript grew and the story evolved. Then in November, I attended the Crime Bake writers’ conference at which Dennis Lehane appeared. He sat up there on the raised dais and spoke matter-of-factly about how Amanda McCreedy, the 4 year old kidnapping victim from Gone Baby Gone (1998), had begun to speak to him and wouldn’t leave him alone, compelling him to write The Midnight Mile.
So is that how it happens, really? I wasn’t a bit of a loon for letting this fictional character pull me away from my story and tell me I should look at this or look at that? Is it perturbation or the muse that locates a remote, frivolous connection between a shotgun blast on Cape Cod and Diana’s grandfather in Philadelphia? Or is Diana that vain and self-centered that she’d insist on getting the credit, even if it might destroy her?
The manuscript now stands just shy of 60,000. So tell me – do you think she did it? I thought I knew, but now I’m not so sure.
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Tags: characters, crime, fiction, murder, mystery