Writing Destroying Angel

Posted on May 10, 2016

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“I think the only reason I’ve ever found success at anything is because I greatly underestimate the amount of work something takes and so I just start.”

Deconstructing a Genre

For a year, I worked near a Barnes & Noble, so every couple of weeks I would pick up one of the pulp fiction magazines, Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Fantasy and Science Fiction, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Gradually, I was shifting from science fiction, a genre that seems to be increasingly inhabited by authors whose stories don’t require any science or “what if” universes to work (and which thus entirely fail the entry bar), to mysteries.  I was liking exploring the various types, including those that have no mystery at all, and studying how they are constructed. Gradually I became interested in trying my hand. I’d already written a few and I found that building them was very straightforward. I toyed with the idea of submitting some stories. Then in Ellery Queen I noticed an ad for the Black Orchid Society’s annual Nero Wolfe competition. I know the character from movies, so I did some research, got a few novellas and novella collections, read them and then deconstructed the method, which is maybe best summed up by this little gem I found during my research.

Create a cast of vaguely suspicious (usually financially well off) characters.  Kill one of them.  Give the remaining characters motive and opportunity to commit the murder but provide none with an alibi.  Archie cracking wise and Inspector Cramer getting ticked-off.  Throw in a paragraph about the orchids and Fritz’s  cooking.  Bring in  Saul Panzer and company if the investigation stalls.  Have Wolfe concoct an elaborate stratagem to expose the killer.  Gather everyone in the brownstone for the dramatic solution to the case.

http://www.speedymystery.com/rex-stouts-nero-wolfe-novellas.html

Lester Dent, inventor of Doc Savage, wrote, there are 4 things to have in your mystery:

  1. A DIFFERENT MURDER METHOD FOR VILLAIN TO USE
  2. A DIFFERENT THING FOR VILLAIN TO BE SEEKING
  3. A DIFFERENT LOCALE
  4. A MENACE WHICH IS TO HANG LIKE A CLOUD OVER HERO

Then again perhaps the best plotting advice I ever heard came from the story Acres of Perhaps, Will Ludwigsen, “What the fuck? Holy Shit! Oh my god.”

It seemed really simple. It was like a framed in house that just needed finishing and once that happened I could sell it to some occupants. I was confident that the rest would take care of itself, I merely needed to cast around for a plot. This was interesting because for the first time ever I had totally decoupled the outline of the story from the plot. The fact that you can do this was a huge revelation.

So one day I’m driving home and I hear this absolutely horrific story about this woman from the Dominican Republic who gave all of her money to coyotes to smuggle her to the US, leaving her daughter behind to go make a better life for the two of them in America. Instead, the coyotes sold her to a brothel and she spent three years there making a mark on the wall for every man she slept with, before she finally escaped. But that didn’t actually solve her problems because she can’t get her daughter here to the states and we are trying to deport her. Well, that became my premise. Entirely. I didn’t even know where the Dominican was, I had to go look it up on a map.  I spent some time learning about the natural resources, the food, the most common names, the slang, the fly fishing (because, don’t you know it’s going to be a fishing story as well – might as well kill multiple genres here). I don’t know why, but it just seemed important to stick to this part of the story. Maybe it was just expedient, to have the back story all picked out. So I just surfed around and gleaned things from various sites to make it all work.

http://www.studentsoftheworld.info/penpals/stats.php3?Pays=DOM

http://www.thatsdominican.com/dominican-lingo

Somewhere I read the advice that the murder method has got to be unusual, but believable. And it turns out that Agatha Christie used poison in approximately 50% of her books. Being an avid mushroom hunter, I know a little bit about mycology. I thought a little about this and decided that killing somebody with mushrooms would be interesting and believable. (I was going to use Iocane powder, but it doesn’t really exist.) So late one night I posted to a mycological facebook page I frequent and asked if there were any chemists there because I was wondering if you could extract mushroom toxins in a tincture. I honestly thought this was a simple and interesting question, but the post got pulled and I nearly got booted from the board for it. Like I’m going to go online and get instructions on how to make poison for a real murder. Seriously people. However, before that happened, I got my answer from a guy who is a chemist, a brewer, a fly fisher, and who works for a living with yeast. So along the way, I also made a new friend.

At this point I have the outline, the premise, and I have a few ideas about the means. Now I need a cast of characters who all have motive, means, and opportunity. It made sense to isolate a group of characters at a fishing lodge. Who would these people be? Well I needed the woman from the NPR story, of course. She certainly had motive. And I needed the murder victim. And then I just needed four other people who also wanted this guy dead, because the Wolfe stories I’d read all had four or five suspects. And, probably it would make sense to have a lovers’ triangle with the girl and two of the other characters. Then I need to give everybody access. So basically I just created a grid. Which I sketched out at lunch and iterated on for a while. Here is an early draft.

Character Victim, Negro Maid Business Partner (US?) Guide/lodge owner Gardener/love interest Abel  ?
Relationship Has mixture of legit and illicit businesses Kidnapped and sold into slavery Business partner Guide/lodge owner Father of Maid’s daughter Ladies’ Man American Partner
Motivations Murder victim was coyote who originally imported Maid Forced into prostitution Seize business, black mail maid as killer Abused and left for dead by victim on previous trip What happened to wife and daughter Jealous of father. Wants out
Opportunity Cook

Access to room

Fishing

Dinner

Access to room

Fishing

Dinner

 

Dinner

Access to room

Drinks in town Dinner/Fishing
Tie to method Cook chemist outdoorsman Plant guy, degree in biology Could’ve gotten it from the cook. Outdoorsman Chemist
Scene/evidence in support of guilt Upon hearing her daughter is going to suffer fate similar to hers, she immediately packs including a gun, and is found about to flee Tells maid that Victim is talking to maid’s daughter, gives her the poison to do the deed.

BUT

He also knows how Negro fishes, putting the fly in his mouth.

Tied the poisoned fly Laboratory in apartment Witnesses to tie them together in bar, heated conversation, threats heard
Reveal back story
explanation Off to save daughter Overheard conversation and took poison Starting mushroom business
Suspension of disbelief. Why wouldn’t victim recognize?  

 

It’s rough because, well this was my fist cut, and also because I don’t want any spoilers!

Also, the Nero Wolfe stories are all narrated by Archie Goodwin, a la Holmes and Watson. Archie is a badass wiseguy with some brains of his own. It’s like him and Wolfe come at the solution from different angles. A wiseass narrator you say? With authority issues? The only problem I have with this is that this is the character I always write and it would be nice to break out of that. Still, for the sake of the competition, I took it as an advantage.

It’s a novella, so I could’ve easily gotten away with four suspects, but along the way I realized that Abel, my narrator/Archie character actually had the motivation, means, and method too. This seemed to me to be a fascinating way to develop the character, to also make him a suspect. Especially since he’s the narrator and you have an empathy for him, but now he is what is called an “unreliable narrator,” which is fun and let’s me think about developing this character for future stories. I mean, at the end, you kind of what to know what else these guys get up to. Or, at least I hope you do.

Now the rules of the competition state it should be in the “spirit” of the Wolfe novels, but not in the Wolfe universe. IE, you can’t use the Wolfe characters. Well, this is a fly fishing story and it happens that the most famous fly fisherman of all time was a guy name Lee Wulff, so the name Theo Wulff just jumped out of my head one day and I ran with it. I doubt many Ellery Queen readers will get it, but I like things neatly tied up. It’s an Easter egg, if you will.

The thing about good old Nero is he is kind of an ass. You don’t really like him in any of the novels. He barely manages to redeem himself in each story through some honorable act. So, I cast my character in that vein as well. The name Abel came to me like that too. The name Negro has a great provenance, explained in the story, but I’m still not sure I will use it because I’m sure people will read it as Neegroe and not Naygro, and I don’t want that to stick in their heads. It’s a conundrum and I need to go back and research it. Most of the other names changed as I went along. I started with generic names and replaced them as names suggested themselves. Word is great like that. Andy was Bob two seconds ago in 41 places in the document.

Then I just started writing a timeline. Like the quote at the beginning says, the Wulff stories have a pretty consistent timeline. So all I had to do was commit the murder and then walk the timeline back to it.

TIMELINE:GUESTS ARRIVE

GUESTS HAVE DINNER

GUESTS GO FISHING AND GET VIDEOED

NEGRO IS MURDERED

ABEL COMES TO WULFF

DEPUTY BLATHER INTERRUPTS

WULFF SEES VIDEO

ABEL AND WULFF GO TO LODGE – Is Crowley not there? Are they waiting on him? This has to happen before they get locked down.

ABEL SEARCHES CABINS – Put hospital scene next? If A is true, and B is true, then C must be true, but A & B both have to be true.

ABEL GOES TO PICK UP ROSARITA

HERSCHEL MEETS HIM THERE – need her to lawyer up before cops talk to her

ABEL HAS COFFEE WIH ROSARITA SHE CONFESSES – says she has to confess or Ella will be in danger

ABEL TAKES ROSARITA TO LODGE AND DOWNLOADS TO WULFF

BLATHER ARRIVES AND SEARCHES

WULFF EATS LEFT OVERS

BLATHER INTERROGATES

Of course you read all the time about Pansters versus Plotters, the magical people who can sit down and write a story versus the equally magic people who can also sit down and outline an entire story before they write.

http://www.openculture.com/2014/07/j-k-rowling-plotted-harry-potter-with-a-hand-drawn-spreadsheet.html

Which I think kind of misses the point. I think these matrices show the relationships between the different things which move the characters and result in plots, not plots per se. I like to know the beginning middle and end of a story before I write, sometimes rolling a story around in my head for 20 years before I type it up, but for me the writing of the story really is the outlining. Then it’s a matter of iterations to keep refining it. These are not edits so much as filling in the details.

So even outliners constantly revise the outline.

Behind the Scenes of a Bestseller: How Rowling Revised ‘Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix’

In fact, it is said Rowling spent 5 years outlining the 7 Harry Potter books before she ever started writing them. For me, once I’d told myself the story to that depth, it would be a typing exercise. I like Steven King’s concept of the author merely being the first person the story gets told to.

So here is the thing. I now have a premise and I have characters which are starting to live in my head, but I still don’t have a plot. Normally I’m a plot-first kind of guy. But yet I still wasn’t worried, because I figured there is a formula, and I’m an engineer and we know all about executing formulae. It seemed pretty simple: commit the murder, fill out the grid, and write the story.

By and large that is what I did. Except I did it thirty times. Because you are not writing one plot, you are writing five parallel and intersecting plots. This I did not foresee. But, I had a beginning, a middle, an end – and most importantly a deadline – so I started writing. I’d write the big chunks and as I went I didn’t even use Word’s comments which as an editor I have become very attached to(mostly because in Word 2016 they completely suck, like the rest of the UI and I was writing at work so I was stuck with it). Instead, when I hit a snag, I would just type inline in all caps and keep going. I use this a lot. The story is over when the all caps note are all gone. So my draft looks like this:

He looked me in the eyes and held his chin. “That’s a tough one. On the one hand, we want to clear Rosarita. On the other, I don’t much care who offed this bastard.”

ABEL RUNS INTO CRAWLEY AT THE HOSPITAL

HOSPITAL SCENE

CALL FROM HERSCHEL

“Go to the hospital and get those waders. Go through the pockets. Get any flies that are in them.”

It seemed strange, but by now I knew better than to second guess Wulff, and I had a good 30 minutes to figure it out rather than ask another dumb question. I WAS STILL SMARTING OVER THE POISON REMARK. “Got it.” I opened the door to my car and got in.

MOVE FOLLOWING:

and started to get in, right when Blather showed up, followed by his second detective, Bertand, parking me in.

Plus it’s full of links and cut-and-pasted information on the Dominican, Immigration Law, Archie’s gun and other Wolfe trivia, toxic mushrooms, and anything else I needed to know, but don’t want to stop and digest. You don’t want the plot to get in the way of the story, after all. These are all things I weave in later to enrichen the fabric.

Among the Amanitas are some mushrooms that can kill you with a few bites, like the pure white, eloquently-named “Destroying Angel”, Amanita virosa et al., and the equally lethal “Death Cap”, Amanita phalloides (which was likely introduced to the US on nursery rootstock). But the family also contains other mushrooms both reputedly delicious and consumed since antiquity, like the “Caesar’s Mushroom”, Amanita caesarea.I think the only reason I’ve ever found success at anything is because I greatly underestimate the amount of work something takes and so I just start.

DESTROYING ANGELA FLY FISHING STORY NEEDS FLY FISHING

HOW TO HANDLE HER IMMIGRATION STATUS?

http://www.alllaw.com/articles/nolo/us-immigration/can-undocumented-illegal-immigrant-marry-citizen.html

“It doesn’t hurt that she’s married to a U.S. citizen, with a that and her petition for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), they can’t hold her.”

Did you notice there in the middle, “DESTROYING ANGEL?” I mean come on, I would’ve written the entire story if I’d just gotten the name first. The fact that it turns out to be the name of the mushroom used to kill the victim (or was it?) and also a very Wolfeian title (which were often double entendres for femme fatales), and there is no way I could not write this. It’s just so noir.

Look there is even a quote to myself midstream there that I didn’t at first notice when I randomly cut-and-pasted this into the blog:

“I think the only reason I’ve ever found success at anything is because I greatly underestimate the amount of work something takes and so I just start.”

Ha!

And of course, since my brain is on fire, bits and pieces of other stories also pop into the draft as they pop into my head. Namely I’m writing one story called “Fishing the Dorian Gray”, about a fly that is one hundred percent effective, but corrupts your soul a little every time you use it (you know, like nymphing beads); and another about a guy whose life hits rock bottom as a result of fishing and who ends up in a 12 step program for troutaholics. These three stories now wind together up and down the page like vines, and you know I wouldn’t have it any other way. I even thought maybe the other two stories might get combined, an idea I never would’ve had were they separate.  I also have ideas for these three stories in two notebooks that I carry everywhere with me, bits of paper, on the inside cover of whatever books I’m reading, wherever. If I had an editor, she would be mental.

I would write, take a walk and go to lunch, or think about it on my commute, and then try to solve these plot points in my head. And I always did. Often in very unusual ways. I worried sometimes that I was blocked or that the story was getting too far away from me, but I kept the faith that my subconscious mind would eventually sort it all out. A few lessons:

    • I rarely deleted scenes. However I often changed the characters who did the same actions, or moved the scenes. For instance the dosing of the poison rotated through multiple characters. Something which became a plot point all by itself!
    • Often the solution was in the problem. This is something I see over and over again when I write. For instance, the cops bring our protagonist to jail to question her. But I can’t get her out of jail if she’s an illegal immigrant even if she’s innocent of murder. It might be a small thing which I could’ve ignored, but it’s the kind of thing that as a reader I would trip over. It would break my suspension of disbelief, so now I need to do a little research and see what her status really would be and how that would get resolved. Solving her immigration problem also gave one of my other suspects his motive, so it turns out to be not unimportant at all, but rather a pretty big thing. But when I originally wrote the scene, I just noted the issue and moved on. I didn’t work out the bits I didn’t know: I wanted to capture the parts I did know as they came to me. Another example is how did the villains end up at the lodge? The coincidence, as Wulff points out, it just too huge, that they end up at the one lodge where their escaped prostitute lives. The solution, it turns out is that the lodge owner, who also has history with them, invited them. Any why would he do that?
      An early iteration (not the one in the story now) laid it out like this:
  • CROWLEY WAS INJURED BY NEGRO.
  • WHEN HE RECOVERED, HE STALKED HIM FOR REVENGE.
  • HE HELPED ROSARITA TO ESCAPE, GAVE HER A JOB, AND A PLACE TO LIVE.
  • OVER TIME, STARTED TO HAVE FEELINGS FOR HER AND SPONSORED HER CITIZENSHIP.
  • WHEN ANDY ARRIVED AND WON HER HEART HE BECAME JEALOUS.
  • INVITED NEGRO TO THE LODGE/NEGRO CAME TO LODGE TO MAKE AMENDS.
  • CROWLEY KILLS NEGRO TO FRAME ANDY (CHEMICALS FOUND IN ANDY’S APPARATUS)
  • Lots of timeline issues get solved by combining scenes. Instead, well if A happens then B has to happen later, turns into make A&B happen together.
  • Getting in and out of scenes fast actually makes writing easier. In other words, we can really get bogged down in switching scenes, description, stupid introductory dialog, etc, but if you just write the main points they are much easier to connect up.
  • Usually I would write the plot point and the note would be about going back to set it up. So for instance a lot of interesting stuff turns up in Abel’s search. But I rewrote that search almost every time I added another scene because there is a lot of set up there. This is much easier than having some completely detailed outline thought out ahead of time. I think this was probably my biggest take away. I started with a rough outline and wrote a story, then I went back and answered all of the questions the story made me ask.
  • Actively pursuing story ideas during my commute time has done more for my productivity than any other single thing. It’s a discipline and easily missed, but when I get into the flow, it really works.
  • At the time I was also writing some white papers for Microsoft on the side, and it turns out, this is exactly the same method I’ve been using to write exposition for years: start with a premise, layout the argument, rearrange the argument order to be cogent, support the argument by making all implicit questions explicit. Iterate through the work until no more questions remain. I’ve been training for this.

In the Wolfe mysteries, Nero usually uses some trick to out the one suspect from the herd of suspects. I had a scene in my head for this, the leftover scene, but even though I wrote on this every day for a month, I just could not make this scene work out. Every time I read the story, I was looking for a place to make it happen. It was too good, I had spent too much time foreshadowing it, I didn’t want to let it go. I believed this scene had to be in the story, even though it would’ve been so easy to cut it. As a result I just kept tumbling it over in my mind and inspecting all of the characters’ connections to it. What had to happen to make this scene work? How would it point to the killer?  In the end, it wasn’t the huge scene I thought it was, but I did fit it in.

One example of a lot of things coming together is the ending of the story. I really thought this was going to be a simple denouement. But by then a couple of things had grown into the story both as running gags and plot devices. One was the “two-banana” problem, and the other was the term “ratiocination.” In this scene I first undid everything you think you know about the crime, then wrapped it all back up for you, and then completely destroyed that solution as well. And, it turns out, that indeed, it all did pivot on the leftover scene after all, just not in the way I thought. There is no way I could’ve foreseen or outlined that.

Originally, I really just wanted to leave you with a few hints of back story about Wulff and Abel. I swear for the last five days I thought I have exited cleverly and cleanly and even had 3 versions of the ending for my pre-readers in case I had over written it and should’ve stopped it sooner. But I went to lunch and found that the things that were bothering me in the story were trying to tell me a different story than the one I was writing. So I took a few notes first on the way to a soccer game and wrote that in the morning, reread the whole story and the whole thing blew up in my mind at lunch. It’s either the best thing I wrote or it entirely sucks. The hell of my writing is I can never tell the difference. We’ll see what the readers say.

But you know what the hell of it is? I had to finish the story by 5/31 for competition, but I cannot publish it here because that would break the rules of first publication and  so I can’t post it until December, a year after I started it! If you want a copy, please drop me an email and I can send it to you.

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