Monday, December 8, 2014

When a story comes alive

One of the favorite discussions among writers on a mystery panel is the question of how we write. Are you a plotter or a pantser? Do you work out the details of the story beforehand, sketching out the details scene by scene, or do you begin writing and discover the story as you go along? We compare notes, laugh at each other's stumbling ways, and talk about revising and editing. This question seems to get at the core of how writers view creativity but for me there is another question, one that is equally if not more important. When does the story feel alive?

I don't know how to explain this question, or even the answer. Some writers will not even recognize it as a relevant question because the story is alive to them when they begin writing. By this question, however, I don't mean the coherence, atmosphere, or flow of the story. These are merely qualities of the "aliveness," and can exist independently of it.

The Mellingham mysteries featuring Chief of Police Joe Silva are traditional stories of small-town crime and detection. The first novel took several chapters and rewrites to cohere, but the third mystery came alive before I even started writing. I could barely keep up with it.

It took me several tries of mysteries set in India, and half a short story, before Anita Ray came alive to me. And since that short story she has been unfailingly consistent as a character, as has her Auntie Meena and their environment.

At present I'm working on a mystery about a woman living in a farm community. She is something of a mystic though she would never call herself that. The world she lives in, a rural backwater populated by people whose incomes are dependent on two or three jobs and small farms passed down through generations, is familiar to me. As I wrote, the story moved along as I wanted it to. But halfway through the first major revision, I found something more happening, and the story was alive. Felicity Obrien is real, and her world is real. In ways I don't quite understand this changes how the novel will develop. Felicity has taken over, and now I have to follow her.

This is an exciting moment for a writer. The development of the story seems less mechanical, the characters less created and more discovered. I've read and enjoyed plenty of stories that are competent, clever, and satisfying, but I also recognize that they are throughout only stories. And then there are those in which something more is happening. That's what I hope to achieve in my stories. Sometimes I think I do achieve it, and others I know I don't. Nevertheless, this quality of aliveness remains a clear if elusive goal for all of us who write, and a remarkable feeling when it is met.

 The setting of the mystery is a town I've called West Woodbury, where I set another, non-criminous story. "Love Takes a Detour" tells the story of a woman named Zellie who lives on a remote farm, an isolated life that satisfies her until an unexpected event reminds her of the world she left behind. Zellie is a swamp Yankee, a character that has all but faded from New England and current life. This story was alive and vivid from the moment I conceived it. As I write now about Felicity Obrien I feel the same quality of the richness of a real life, and I hope I will capture all of that for readers to enjoy.


  1. Susan, I truly enjoyed your Christmas memory of being in India and enjoying an uncomplicated, yet totally fulfilling Christmas. Best wishes for you and your books!


    1. Barb, thanks for your comment. I enjoyed "strolling" through your website--very nice. Good luck with all your books also.