If I could be anything, if I could have any occupation in the entire world, I’d be a mystery writer.
As a reader, I’ve been devouring detective fiction for over four decades. I started, as so many readers do, with Nancy Drew (her shift dresses! Her convertible!), and then quickly switched allegiances to the more effervescent and adorably human Trixie Belden (her brothers! Her curls!). In high school, it was Agatha Christie. In college and grad school, Sue Grafton’s alphabet series. Discovering Dorothy Sayers was like money falling from the sky (Gaudy Night is still a near-annual read), and now, in my fifties, I am in love with Tana French’s Dublin murder squad, Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brody books, and Louise Penny’s Gamache series. Do I get excited about other genres of fiction? Of course. But this summer, during my head-first plunges into the new Jackson Brody and then the new Gamache, I forgot to eat, which in my world is just this side of a miracle.
And then there is my utter devotion to Law and Order in all its incarnations and to Foyle’s War (when I imagine God, he looks exactly like Foyle), and my much mocked but unshakeable infatuation with Murder, She Wrote.
But I am ninety percent sure that I will never write a mystery, let alone a mystery series, and that little, leftover ten percent is almost certainly composed entirely of wishfulness.
It’s a shame, too, because there are aspects of writing detective fiction that I think I’d be good at. Building suspense, for instance. I could do that, creating sentences like live wires running through fog, sentences full of tension and sibilants and ominous hush. And bringing a detective to full-blown, complex life, with her obsessive nature and her dark past? I could do that, too, although given my sensibilities and track record, she’d more likely be fresh-faced and optimistic with a quick wit, a faith in fundamental human decency, and a happy childhood. Still, that could be interesting, right? A detective like that?
There is a large part of me that believes I was born to write those sentences, to create that detective. Detective fiction is my calling. The problem, of course, is plot.
Once, starry-eyed, I asked the author of an ingenious and intricate historical mystery series how she writes her books, and she said, “I start with the body, a dead body that was murdered in a cool way turning up in an interesting place, and then I work backward to figure out all the twists and turns and chess moves of how it got there.” I could tell by her voice, by the way her eyes gleamed, that she found this piecing together of plot not only fascinating but also fun. To me, however, it sounded not only impossible but also—boring.
Plotting is hard for me. Plotting is not my natural habitat. I don’t like it. I came to writing through a love of playing with language and then, while writing my first novel, realized that I loved, equally, characters: discovering them, spending time in their company, seeing the world through their eyes. I did not, as many fiction writers do, come to writing through a love of storytelling.
This is never more evident to me than when I am in the position that I am in now: putting together a book proposal. Putting together a book proposal is writing stripped of almost everything I like about writing. The questions you must address are things like: what happened, and then what happened, and then what did she do? And when I’m sitting at my desk trying to confront the question And then what happened?, I tend to respond with something like: I don’t know, but she dips Cheez-Its in mustard; she loves thunderstorms and small dogs, and the time she was most convinced she was going to die was during a sailboat trip with her husband on the Chesapeake Bay; she smooths her eyebrows when she’s nervous; she reads obituaries and collects aprons. But when they read a book proposal, editors want to know what is going to happen, and no amount of repeating, “Yes, but she eats Cheez-Its with mustard” is going to distract them. When it comes to book proposals, editors want plot.
And, honestly, I don’t blame them because I want it, too. I need it. Not just as a reader, but as a writer. I cannot just create characters and put them in a room and set them in motion. Before I begin a book, I need to know, not everything that happens, but at least maybe five things, five big plot points: A, B, C, D, E. (E is always especially hard.) Once I know that, I can do the parts I love: I can craft sentences full of fog and hush or ones that tap dance or keen or come down hard like a hammer; I can know my characters and listen to them and love them and be surprised by them.
I have a friend who used to ghostwrite Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books. The publisher would send him the chapter-by-chapter plot, the blueprint, and he would write the books. To me, this sounded wonderful. It wasn’t really, since he also had to write them in a very particular way, not his way. But the idea of someone handing me a plot still sounds wonderful. I want to be the opposite of those wildly successful and prolific thriller writers who come up with stories and then turn them over to someone else to write. I have dreams of co-writing a book with one of my author friends and saying, “Listen, how about you come up with the story?” I want a doppelganger who figures out points A, B, C, D, and E, while I hang out over here with Jackson Brody and Detective Benson. When it comes to this book proposal and every book proposal, I want to say: Wake me up when it’s over.
But I can’t. I can’t not just because most of these scenarios are improbable at best, but because, in the end, the story has to be mine. If I am to have any hope of bringing it to life, I need to be invested in it, all of it, points A, B, C, D, and even E.
So I do it. I’m doing it. Weary, grumpy, impatient maybe but here. Sitting at my desk and asking, again and again, What happens? And what happens next?