I’ve lived long enough to believe in ghosts, not to say I’ve ever met a vaporous shade on the stairs. I’m haunted by memories of people I’ve loved and hated who are dead now; by regrets of actions done and left undone; by unwritten story ideas that don’t go away; by a deepening knowledge that someday I will go away. This time of year, as light dwindles and leaves fall, I appreciate the leering jack-o-lanterns and tilting headstones appearing in neighborhood yards. It’s the perfect time to exhume more thoughts about plot threads.
We’re advised to write about what we know. We’re told to read everything we can of the fiction genres we like. When I suffered the fatal writer’s epiphany, throwing a novel I’d been reading across the room, declaring “I can do better than that!”, I’d read lots of mysteries and figured I could write one.
But what did I know? What could I write about?
I knew how it feels to be so angry at a person I wanted to kill her. I understood how someone could feel outside his own life, as though he were acting a part instead of interacting with the people he saw everyday. I’d worked with cops and social agency staffers, and I knew several distinct personality types who end up in those jobs. I knew a lot about feeling uncertain and yearning to accomplish something I wasn’t sure I could do. Those personality traits gave birth to my first protagonist, Finny Aletter, the burned-out Denver stockbroker who discovers by accident that she really loves rehabbing her old house and might want to make the activity her new career. My husband and I were making our century-old house livable, and I used my own work stripping and refinishing wood, sanding and painting, caulking and polishing to supply Finny with a desire to use her hands instead of her killer instincts as a broker.
Finny had to be more than conflicted about her job, so I gave her an ex-lover, who was also her boss, a lingering affection for him standing in the way of her giving notice. The police detective investigating the requisite murder let me use my own lustful thoughts (but not actions–sigh) toward several men who, in composite, became Chris Barelli. His occasionally asshole behavior was based on several men I’d known. The killer, and motives thereof, gave me the most fun, since I was able to channel vitriol I’d built up over a lifetime of swallowing anger to convince the world I was a “good girl.” I added some ragpickers wandering through Denver alleys and a lost literary manuscript (a nod to my English lit degree) and wrote and revised for years. A wonderful editor at Arbor House, Liza Dawson, took me under her wing. Finally, Scavengers, now titled Scavenger Hunt in ebook form, came to be.
Plot threads are woven from dandelion fluff in the mind, bits and pieces observed, felt, wished. When such ephemera is combined with years of reading, and with what is learned from teachers, a novel can come to be. The most influential for me was Lawrence Block, whose fiction column in Writer’s Digest taught me the basics. He is the most insightful writer on writing I’ve ever encountered, and one of the best writers, period.
So, what do you know? What do you feel? What have you observed? What can you weave from those threads?