October 30th, 2006

International Kittens of Mystery

Outlines, Characters and the Art of Twisty Writing

I thought it might be fun to add the occasional snippet or thought on the writing process as I work on my time travel - or is it? - mystery novel, Hidden in Time.

Currently I'm immersed in teen 1969. A time before the school run. A time of black and white TVs, Chelsea Boots and hipsters. Zaegar and Evans are at number one with 'In the year 2525' and, as my opening lines convey, my protagonist has had an unusual start to the day.

14 year-old Jack Murray had a problem - when he'd fallen into bed the night before he'd been the 52 year-old Jack Murray.

He stared at his face in the wardrobe mirror. A face he hadn't seen for nearly forty years. No beard, no moustache ... and hair. Lots of it. Not the thinning fluff he'd grown used to but real honest to goodness hair. He looked like a young Beatle.

As the day progresses, the mystery deepens. Now some authors like to assemble their characters, pose them a problem then stand back and see what happens. I don't work that way any more. Characters have a nasty habit of wandering off, missing the really good turn off they could have taken and talking too much. So I give them an outline. For tightly plotted mysteries I find it essential. Things have to happen at the optimum time, pacing has to be perfect, twists appear when the reader - and the character - least expects it and the denouement, when it comes, has to be slick, unexpected and satisfying.

Hence the outline. The outline is the skeleton of the book around which the characters must weave the flesh.

Which brings us to the often problematic topic of flesh weaving. For a book to work the characters have to be believable. And interesting. Engaging and unusual helps too.

Which can make them opinionated. I want them to do x, they want to do y. It's usually over a minor plot point. If the outline's any good character motivation has been taken into account and all the major plot points nailed down. But as you flesh out the story all kinds of minor wrinkles appear. Take the one I have at the moment. Jack is trying to figure out what the hell is going on. Waking up in 1969 was bad enough but his day has got progressively stranger. It's not quite the 1969 that he remembered. For one thing it has a girl called Emma in it. She claims to have been dragged back from 2007 too. But then she also claims to be Emma Peel. And she's turned up at his home looking for answers.

Jack's desperate to talk to her. She's desperate to talk to him. Plot points are queuing up to be divulged...

But Jack's mother won't leave them alone. Jack's never had a girlfriend and, now, suddenly this Emma - who she's never heard of - appears on her doorstep claiming Jack invited her round for tea. She's intrigued. Any mother would be. Which makes it difficult for Jack and Emma to talk about what happened to them without sounding like lunatics. They can't wander off to talk in private as some of the information they want to check is in Jack's living room. As is Jack's mother.

It makes an interesting scene but it also makes a complicated scene as I have to juggle the various motivations, keep the pacing tight and construct a multi-layered dialogue where Jack and Emma are having a conversation within a conversation - all while being grilled by Jack's mother.

Such is an author's life.