In last week’s post I discussed how much of yourself goes into your fiction and listed overall guidelines, especially when the idea isn’t taken from your life. Today, I’m going to show how I gelled a plot idea with the main characters to write a story.
“The Couch,” the first story in my mystery story collection Beyond the Tripping Point, originated with something I kept reading in mystery novels that annoyed me. This was 11 years ago – “The Couch” was previously published in an anthology – but the idea is still relevant today. Too many fictional private investigators seemed to have a hard time making ends meet. I decided to turn that issue around – my PI, named C.U. Fly, called “C.U.”, would be raking in the money from too many clients and was burnt out. C.U. first tried conventional means to downsize and when that didn’t work, C.U. turned to an unusual take on crime. I also used the axiom of “crime doesn’t pay” as my underlying theme. C.U. was 25, so the good fortune wasn’t from many years of work. I threw in one more main “character” an old horsehair couch – that idea came from a horsehair couch that sat in the living room of my late grandfather’s farmhouse. Of course, Grandpa’s couch didn’t have adventures like the fictional old horsehair.
Here’s the beginning of “The Couch.”
I blamed the whole business on that old blue couch. An heirloom on my mother’s side, it was stuffed with horsehair. She’d given it to me when I opened this office. “Old Horsehair” settled in permanently until the bitter crackling end.
How else could I explain my actions? I had no choice. Some days I spent 20 hours in the office. No partner took the load off my shoulders. Only that damn three-seater couch, which sucked in my clients like a magnet. I had repeat clients related to repeat clients.
Or was Ms Everglades to blame?
The story’s theme is set up with the first sentence. The main character’s name and profession aren’t revealed until a few paragraphs down and are done in two ways: first, the PI’s name and a reference to the profession in Ms Everglades’ dialogue.; second, the profession is revealed in a short backstory in Fly’s mind to show how the situation started. How the state-of-affairs progresses is shown in a parade of clients – via dialogue, action and C.U’s inner thoughts. The point of view stays with Fly.
Here’s another excerpt with one of these quirky clients.
Take Guido “Ratty” Rattali, a self-professed blackmailer. Ratty hired me to dig up dirt on well-heeled people. Then he threatened them with their dirt, collected the payoff and limped into my office. He heaved his Blue Jays cap onto the floor, shoved his greasy locks behind his ears and pushed his grimy beige trench coat off his shoulders and down over his ass. Then he dived face-down onto the couch. His sobs alternated with sneezes as his nose rubbed into Old Horsehair.
“I’m only the poor son of a poor greengrocer, achoo, excuse-a-me,” he said.
When his sinuses were completely blocked, he jumped up, tripping on his trench coat, and handed me a wad of cash for my fee—less his take, no doubt. (both excerpts copyright 2012 Sharon A. Crawford, from Beyond the Tripping Point, Blue Denim Press, 2012)
You can also see how Old Horsehair fits in. And Ratty is an example of the type of clientele, although he is more bent than some of the others. I also add a dog who chews into Old Horsehair and a furnace repair man who comes in to check the furnace downstairs – all necessary developments that foreshadow and lead to the credibility of what Fly eventually decides to do.
Does it work? You’ll have to read the story to find out.
From the above, we can learn the following:
- Use a combination of what annoys, scares, or concerns you with perhaps one other item from your life (I used the complaining poor PI’s from fiction and the horsehair couch from my past.)
- Use your imagination for your characters – you don’t want a replica or yourself or someone you know – but you can “steal” a few characteristics here (I used imagination only).
- Devise a plot for your characters that is not run-of-the mill. (I turned the situation around, using the “what if?” approach.
- Lighten it up with humour – it can balance some of the nastiness in the story (It helped with the presentation of a quirky story with quirky characters).
- Make sure your story follows its theme (mine was “crime doesn’t pay) but do it in an original way (sorry, not telling here).
- Use “show the reader” features – dialogue, action, inner thoughts but some narrative is okay.
- Let your readers be surprised by the unexpected – but make it credible.
The first part of No. 7 occurred in a well, unexpected way. Tuesday evening I did a reading presentation from Beyond the Tripping Point entitled “Where do characters come from?” at the Runnymede Branch of the Toronto Public Library. When introducing me, the head librarian mentioned that her husband had been reading the stories and then looked at my photo on the back cover and said, “I can’t believe that sweet-faced woman wrote those stories.”
It’s the same photo of me as at the top of this blog page. The stories in BTTP contain murder, sexual assault, missing persons, kidnapping, revenge, suicide, vehicular mishaps, etc. You be the judge.
Sharon. A. Crawford