A BLOG ABOUT WRITING BY ALISON DANIELS
When they compile the lists of the best-selling authors of all time, Dame Agatha Christie is always either number one or second only to Shakespeare. I have never had cause to doubt it. I would think that at least one of her two very different detectives could satisfy any reader. When I was younger, I devoured a number of her Hercule Poirot mysteries. I vastly preferred his arrogant persona to that of the self-effacing Miss Marple, and I found the intricate plots, and Poirot’s biting remarks and clever solutions fascinating.
But although I always knew I wanted to be a writer as well as a reader, I never once imagined myself tackling what appeared to me the impossibly demanding genre of the mystery novel. I am not a writer who plans ahead.
As Dame Christie puts it, “There is no doubt that the effort involved in typing or writing does help me in keeping to the point.”
When I start writing, I generally have nothing more than a vague concept and no specific idea of where the plot is headed. I am not a writer of mysteries. And yet, in the past year, I have written not just one, but four, murder mysteries, all featuring two entirely fictional New York detectives. They resemble no one I know, and their sleuthing skills seldom go beyond what I gleaned from my religious viewings of Law and Order.
Francis Xavier Declan O’Hara, known as Deke, is well past middle-age and of Irish extraction. He sometimes seems to get more Irish with every birthday, and he never hesitates to make use of his gift of blarney when he thinks it might coax a suspect or a witness into greater confidences. He is polite, almost formal. In my mind, he resembles the actor Robert Mitchum, who adopted an Irish brogue for his role in David Lean’s film, Ryan’s Daughter. Deke’s partner, Naomi Loomis, is twenty years his junior. He is a seasoned homicide detective. She’s a rookie. And although she may lack Deke’s old-fashioned good manners, Naomi Loomis is smart, efficient, comfortable with technology–which Deke hates–and she doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She knows how to get to the point and doesn’t waste her time with pleasantries. Deke calls her Lou.
Today, Deke and Loomis are my partners as we three interrogate and investigate and try to put the pieces of a puzzle together. But these two detectives, who have grown so important, were originally just a literary device. I had started writing a mystery called In Sycamore Hall. There was a murder and someone had to solve it. Hence Deke and Loomis, casually named and sloppily conceived–perfect clichés–were nevertheless essential to the story.
The evolution of that first mystery novel was tortuous. My friend Dean had told me a story that provided the inspiration for what seemed ideal mystery territory. She and I were supposed to write this book together, wary but undeterred despite the rocky road of our previous collaboration.
Agatha Christie knew better and issued this warning: “I’ve always believed in writing without a collaborator, because where two people are writing the same book, each believes he gets all the worry and only half the royalties.”
That was not exactly the situation between Dean and me because we weren’t expecting any royalties. Amazon’s self-publishing service, though a boon for aspiring writers who don’t want to go through the agony of trying to get published, has a convoluted formula for royalties that results in earning maybe a few cents per book.
Dean and I have different styles and different ideas, and I was starting to write fast and furious without a direction in sight. Meanwhile, Dean was writing her first Jessie novel, and it was consuming most of her time. I was trying to figure out how to write a mystery and still assuming that Dean was carrying half the load. No such luck. One day her email arrived, both cajoling and demanding: You write this book. (I think she added a Please). And so I kept going, creating a group of characters that Dean and I had brainstormed together to be the victim and suspects. We had added one chapter of ominous narration from an observant Neighbor in Apartment 4A, who started out with Dean’s voice. I gradually turned her into someone far less benign. I had all these characters and their backstories to write about. Deke and Loomis were an afterthought. They stepped in because someone had to do something.
But then the strangest thing happened. Because these two detectives had to solve the crime, they became aspects of How Alison Would Solve the Crime. And of course, they became the novel’s heroes and in a way, its conscience. I ended up feeling enormous sympathy for my first victim, Rosemary Watson, a woman who had wreaked havoc on her neighbors but who had her own disappointments in life. In the mysteries that followed, I almost always felt deep regret that the victim in the novel actually had to die. In the Prologue, the murder victim might well have been just a dead body, but before long I would have applied the full force of my psychology major and a complex and moving backstory would have emerged.
At any rate, within no more than six weeks I had completed my first mystery novel and published it on Amazon. What a relief. It had been such a struggle to figure out who had committed the murder, and how it would be solved, that I vowed never again to try writing anything that difficult.. I am not a writer who ever has a plan. You have to start planning something when you write a mystery.
One of the pleasures of Amazon’s self-publishing service is that you can design your own book cover. For In Sycamore Hall, I happened upon the paintings of Modigliani, whose work is not only intriguing and wonderful, but is also in the public domain. With each novel, I search out a portrait of his that will suit. Modigliani has not failed me yet. I think if there were only blank pages between those book covers I would still just love to look at them. I was very proud of Modigliani and In Sycamore Hall. It was to be my first and last mystery novel. I was simply ignoring the fact that, at the last minute, Dean had talked me into including, on my beautiful cover: “A Deke and Loomis Mystery.”
She waited a while, then said, “Deke and Loomis is a series. You have a formula for this and should write more.”
I told her firmly that I had no intention of writing more, and I immediately started my second mystery, Behind the Curtain, which opened with the murder of an actor in his dressing room. A show business setting: now that was more like it. Maybe writing this book would be a little easier. But again, although I had a victim, I could not for the life of me figure out how someone had killed him in his dressing room during a rehearsal of A Streetcar Named Desire. So I just kept typing. Later in the book an ancillary character showed up and demanded to be a villain. Later still that villain got an accomplice in the form of a perfectly innocuous character who was never intended to be any such thing.
Agatha Christie: “You don’t invent your settings. They are outside you, all around you, in existence – you only have to stretch out your hand and pick and choose.”
I gravitate toward artistic or literary settings – a theater, an art gallery, a posh school for girls. I’ve learned that there is a kind of ease in following a formula, and that helps me get from Point A to Point B. All the mysteries have short prologues revealing the murder. Different characters may narrate some chapters. Various characters will have their backstories to explain their connection to the victim. At some point one of those characters will hold up a hand and say “I did it.”
But the glue that holds all the ideas and concepts and false starts together are the detectives, Deke and Loomis. I’ve slowly begun refining their personalities. They now have a distinct way of speaking to each other; they have their private jokes; they have a history. They have their particular ways of diving into the murder investigation. Neither one is anything like me, but they are both probably exactly like me, if a shy intellectual with book smarts and considerably less world smarts were going to solve a murder on Law and Order. I am currently writing mystery novel number five, which arose from a title I thought sounded brilliant and a vague idea about a possible serial killer involved with online dating and singers. In this novel, I have decided to give Deke O’Hara the pleasure of adopting a cat with attitude who decided her name was Miss Houdini. I look forward to developing their relationship and I am fairly sure that this feline will have a nose for crime.
“There always has to be a lapse of time after the accomplishment of a piece of creative work before you can in any way evaluate it,” Agatha Christie said. I don’t think I have yet reached that point; I never read these books after I decide I just might as well publish them. My mysteries will never be in Miss Christie’s class – not even close. But I do know why she enjoyed writing hers, because I am having quite a lot of fun writing mine.