When we think about how our novels and stories come together, it is usually after the event. We tend to look at the ‘big’ elements. ‘What comes first, character or plot?’ Or at least how do we balance such elements when we’re finding our way towards a story? Of course, in the hands of great writers the divisions between different elements of storytelling are not only arbitrary, as they are for all of us up to a point, they often mean very little. It is probably one of the measures of greatness that there are no joins! But in writing about how stories ‘start’ however, how the process of putting them together begins, there is something more elusive that often comes before any of the main elements. Before talking about that, it’s worth saying what those elements are, for me.
I think there are four things at the ‘business end’ of what we do. The distinctions are blurred, but they have enough identity to be marked out. I am looking at them particularly from the perspective of crime fiction (which covers everything in the mystery canon)
First is ‘character’. However deep things may get along the road, there is a basic level of immediate engagement and interest that has to be at the heart of our heroes, villains and even ‘walk-ons’. Character can mean a lot of things. But complexity, change and development are by no means as critical to storytelling in crime fiction as they are at least supposed to be in literary fiction. However rounded a character Sherlock Homes may be, for instance, no one can claim he ‘develops’ in any meaningful sense in the course of Conan Doyle’s stories. Character can be as complex as you like, of course, but a bottom line is that our characters are rounded enough, interesting enough, to matter to readers.
Second is ‘story’, a slightly fuller world than ‘plot’. In crime fiction I don’t think the importance of story can be overemphasised. Character and story drive one another, but ‘What happens next’ is somehow in the DNA of the mystery genre in a way that needs to be up front. It’s story that is the petrol in the engine. Stories can be a million things, but even in crime fiction they don’t need be continually surprise-and-twist, blood-soaked, though even the gentlest ‘Cluedo’ mystery needs a little bit of that to oil the gears!
Third is the ‘world’ a writer creates. It is important because the reader has to want to stay in it! One of the measures of a good book is that when you get to the end you don’t want to leave it. That’s not simply because of an investment in the characters and a resistance to seeing the story resolved, it’s because of the ‘place’ the writer has taken us to. It’s something we may be more aware of as children. I watch my own play out their various games based on Tom Sawyer, The Borrowers, The Hobbit, Matilda, and much more, not to mention the movie-inspired, adventure-friendly Batman and Avengers. It’s not just about a peg to hang a game on; it’s keeping the world of a story that has absorbed them alive. That sense of being drawn into the world of a novel stays with us, even if we tend not to play Pride and Prejudice or Farewell My Lovely or Ulysses (there’s a thought) as adults! The ‘world’ of a book isn’t an easy concept to explain, but we all know what it is.
Fourth is writing itself. The simple (ah, if only it was!) business of putting one word after another, just like laying bricks. We sometimes forget when we discuss how we create stories that this is the real point of creation. Whatever else we bring to that act, the words are the breath of life. And probably it is in the slog of laying down the words that the real greatness of great writers is to be found. In crime fiction, however engaging and entertaining Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe is, however good the stories, however absorbing his Los Angeles, what distinguishes Chandler from other good, even great writers of the same noirish instincts, is the sheer quality of his prose. It is often forgotten, because of the genre, that he is one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers of prose, whatever the genre. Of all the elements we balance trying to write good stories, putting one word after another is the most mysterious and the one over which, ultimately, we have least control. No one can tell you why a dozen words put together in a certain order are great prose and a dozen similar words aren’t. All most of us know is that we’ll never have the trick of it!
But none of that is really where it starts. It’s how we put things together. Where it all begins is not with any of those ‘big’ elements. It is in our heads, with small things that we may have carried in our minds for half a lifetime or stumbled on the day before we start writing; small things that may appear to have nothing to do with one another; small things we don’t even know we are going to put together to create something at all.
The best way to illustrate what I’m talking about, is with a concrete example, the second of my historical crime novels, set in the 30s and 40s, about Garda Detective Gillespie and about Ireland in the years leading up to the Second World War, The City of Strangers.
I first wrote about Stefan Gillespie in The City of Shadows, and about a story ‘world’ that combined ordinary and not so-ordinary life in an Ireland that was still struggling to find out what it was as an independent nation, with the looming threat of the world war to come. Part of the way the stories are told involves at least some action outside Ireland, in cities with a role in events of the time. In The City of Shadows it was German Danzig (now Polish Gdańsk); in The City of Strangers it is New York. As I started to think about the second book I already had my main character and part of the ‘world’ I wanted to create, but I found my way to the new characters and to the new plot, even to parts of the ‘world’, in a series of things that were really not much more than the clutter of my mind.
A story my grandmother had told me, about something that she remembered (or thought she did) as a girl in Inishowen during the War of Independence; a Black and Tan repaid for an act of brutality by being buried up to his chest on a beach and left to die when the tide came in. A newsreel I had seen, many years ago, of New York’s 1939 St Patrick’s Day Parade, with the NYPD marching past the cathedral on 5th Avenue. An overnight train journey we made with our children on Amtrak’s Silver Meteor, from Orlando to Manhattan’s Pennsylvania Station. A black–and-white movie (no idea what) that had a woman locked in an upmarket sanatorium somewhere in America. An Irishman found guilty (but insane) of killing his mother in the 1930s. Several visits America’s Clan na Gael president, Joseph McGarrity, had paid to senior Nazi leaders just before the outbreak of war, to persuade them (erroneously) that the IRA had a serious role to play in sabotage in Britain. A recording of Duke Ellington playing Caravan in a night club in Harlem. Some bitter words I found in Stefan Gillespie’s head and didn’t use in the first book, not knowing exactly what it was that prompted them. That for some time was it.
I had no story as such; no new characters to add to my Garda sergeant and his family in West Wicklow. All I had were a few images, memories, phrases, sounds. Then one day I started to put them next to one another, maybe in a way that is analogous to the process of writing. When you put a word next to another, the words that follow are no longer entirely a matter of ‘free choice’. You have already done something that makes demands on what the next word can be, and the word after that, and the word after that, etc. In the same way when I put a trumpet player in Small’s Paradise next to a woman locked up in a sanatorium on Long Island, I had started my story, even though I didn’t know what it was yet. In The City of Strangers those random thoughts came together to shape the more comprehensible business of developing characters and plot. But without them there would have been nothing, or at least there would have been something entirely different.
I have a feeling that’s how we all start to find our stories. Later we bring into play the bigger elements of plot and character; later we make it all into a coherent, hopefully engaging and page-turning world. But doesn’t it begin in a more mysterious place, with the clutter our minds won’t let go of, with small, half-remembered, half-forgotten things?
(c) Michael Russell