As you can see, compared to yesterday's post, the lists of scenes for the second, third, and fourth quarters are growing. Partly that's the result of asking what must logically follow from the scene before.
But much of this growth depends on the new list of notes on the right. I learned some years ago from a book by James N. Frey that the story of a murder mystery starts with the murderer. The book may start with the sleuth's investigation, but the story starts earlier.
So, the extra set of notes on the right outlines what happens between the victim and the killer leading up to the murder. These are the events the sleuth, Nicole, will discover in the course of her investigation.
At this stage I need to spend some more hours thinking through cause-and-effect to fill out those four columns. Then I'll expand each of these sticky notes into a short paragraph, creating a step-by-step outline. Then I'll start a first draft.
There are plenty of great writers who do not outline. Instead they just start typing and keep going until they get to an ending. Most of them cheerfuly admit they write perhaps 500 pages to get a 300-page book.
I'm not one of them. Isn't it great we can all do this the way we want.
In yesterday's blog post about outlining the fourth Nicole Tang Noonan mystery, I showed four columns, representing the four quarters of a story according to Matt Bird in The Secrets of Story.
The gray notes in the first column, represent scenes. This list of scenes outlines the plot for the first quarter of the story. But without some structure, the plot might be a monotonous list of events. Things would happen but we might not be getting anywhere.
Those small gold sticky notes remind me of Bird's notes on the structure of the story. For instance, the third gold note by the first column says, "The hero discovers an intimidating opportunity to fix the problem." That's a good structural point to aim for early in the first quarter of the story.
I like being reminded that a story needs both a plot and a structure.
Bird developed his lists of points relating to concept, structure, characters, etc. by analyzing over a hundred successful films to see what they have in common. In his book, he arranges these into "The Ultimate Story Checklist," a way of testing the integrity of your story.
I'm using the points related to structure in planning this book. I'll use the other lists of points after I've written a first draft to diagnose problems to fix in the second draft.
At least, that's the plan for now.
A year and a half ago, I discovered The Secrets of Story by Matt Bird. At that time, I used his "Ultimate Story Checklist" as a tool for content editing, evaluating a draft of Dark Mural for further revisions.
Now I'm using Bird's book as I begin outlining the fourth Nicole Tang Noonan mystery. Each of those gray sticky notes represents a scene: Nicole goes somewhere, meets someone, tries to accomplish something, and fails (or only partly succeeds). She must therefore proceed to the next scene to take the next step toward her ultimate goal, solving the crime.
The column of gray notes represents the first quarter of the story, which Bird calls, "The Challenge." Next to it are place-holder sticky notes for three more columns, representing the second, third, and fourth quarters of the story. Bird calls these "The Easy Way," "The Hard Way," and "The Climax."
By itself, the plot could be represented by one long list of events. Breaking it into four quarters is Bird's way of helping the writer hit certain marks along the way.
When I used this idea to evaluate a draft of Dark Mural I found I had mostly hit those marks without thinking about them because I had read a lot of murder mysteries had a feel for how they unfold. Still, I had to make adjustments.
I hope outlining with these four quarters in mind will let me write a first draft that is closer to being an entertaining story. As the outlining proceeds, I'll post new photos.
By the way, that circular object in the lower left corner is the thing you put your fingers into when you want to slide the closet door open.
My friend, Liz, and I visited Blackbird Guitars in the Mission District. This factory, about the size of a typical auto body shop, builds acoustic guitars and ukuleles using sheets of linen fiber strengthened with resin.
Blackbird says their product is sustainable because it doesn’t require harvesting hardwoods like mahogany and rosewood, which come from rainforests. True enough: flax, the source of linen fibers, is a part of traditional agricultural.
We gave their guitars and ukes a good workout, and they are very fine instruments. For all the romance about traditional wood construction, there is no reason good-sounding instruments cannot be made from other materials.
Playing guitar remains an important part of my writing life. After pounding out as many pages as I can, I play a few tunes. When I sit down to write again, it seems as if my brain has organized the words that come next.
It’s not unusual for authors to write in sprints, alternating with some activity to refresh the mind. Some take walks. I know one writer who plays pool. Patricia Highsmith writes about how important naps are for a writer. “I go to sleep with the problem and wake up with the answer.”
I sometimes take naps or go for walks, but focusing my brain and my fingers on rhythm, melody, and harmony seems to have an equally clarifying effect.
I volunteered to staff the table for the Mechanics' Institute Library at The San Francisco Writers' Conference this weekend. It was fun. Along with telling conference-goers about the library, I got to chat with them about their writing and mine.
Being there had an extra resonance for me. The SFWC was the first writers' conference I attended after retiring from academic life and starting to write mysteries.
It is a supermarket-style conference, covering everything from poetry to genre fiction, with journalism, and literary fiction along the way. It offers everything from how-to-write sessions to how-to-promote consultations. I got a good sense of what was going in the world of writers.
At SFWC, I met and talked with a fellow writer about my wish to join a writers' group. That writer told me the Mechanics Institute Library hosts groups for writers.
Four years later the Mechanics' has become my literary home. I've been in a mystery writers' group for three-and-a-half years, and have participated in many other writerly activities, including Writers' Lunch, every third Friday.
Representing the Mechanics' at SFWC reminded me of something I heard recently from fellow writer Ethel Rohan. Writers must be in community with other writers. One must be a good literary citizen. Hear, hear!
As I prepare the third Nicole Tang Noonan mystery for publication, I am thinking about how the series will sell on Amazon. For one thing, the books must look good when shoppers use the "Look Inside" feature.
That means the potential reader must see Nicole discover the murder at the end of about twenty pages. With this in mind, I checked my new book and saw the murder was discovered on page thirty-one.
So I picked up my pen and marked everything that could possibly be removed from those pages or postponed until later in the story. I found that by doing so I could make the murder visible in "Look Inside."
I don't mind rewriting for the sake of marketing. Writers have always had to do so, especially writers of genre fiction.
By the way, traditionally there is no hard and fast rule about when the murder must be discovered. Agatha Christie puts the murder on page forty of The Murder at the Vicarage. Of course, she wasn't publishing on Amazon.
At my library the other day, I was working on publication of the third Nicole Tang Noonan mystery (more on that later this month). I needed to be sure about the physical dimensions of the book, but I hadn't brought a copy with me.
Then I remembered the library has a copy in its collection, so I went downstairs to the second floor where fiction is shelved alphabetically by author. After scanning past "Hoffman" and "Holmes," I came to where "Homan" should be and found . . . "Hopper."
After wondering why my book wasn't on the shelf, I ran to the catalogue, looked up "Dark Mural," and discovered it is "Due 01-18-19." It's checked out. Someone is reading it. The first Nicole Tang Noonan mystery, published last September and placed in the collection shortly after, continues to attract readers.
I know this is what we expect books in libraries to do, but this was the first time I became aware of my book doing it.
Last fall I was thrilled every time someone emailed a photo of paperback copies of Dark Mural and Dark Exhibit, along with the padded envelope they arrived in.
I've been thrilled every time someone tells me they got the ebooks.
I've been over the moon when someone says they stayed up late to finish one of the books so they could find out who done it.
Compliments and favorable reviews on Amazon are great, and it's nice to sell copies. But the real thrill is just knowing that people are reading them.
"Where Bush Street roofed Stockton before slipping downhill into Chinatown, Spade paid his fare and left the taxicab." This is Dashiell Hammett's description of Sam Spade arriving at the scene where the body of his partner, Miles Archer, has been found in The Maltese Falcon.
In this photo, we are looking north on Stockton Street, through the tunnel. Bush Street runs across what looks like a bridge. Thus "Bush Street roofed Stockton."
Before the tunnel was opened in 1914, Stockton street rose steeply up one side of Nob Hill and ran down the other side. The part of Stockton the crests the hill can still be seen at the top of the photo. The original purpose of the tunnel was to create a level roadway for street cars.
The scene continues: "Spade crossed the sidewalk . . . went to the parapet, and resting his hands on the damp coping, looked down into Stockton Street." Sam Spade would have been standing at what looks like a stone fence on the bridge, facing in our direction, looking down.
"An automobile popped out of the tunnel beneath him, with a roaring swish, as if it had been blown out, and ran away." The white van in the photo did what Hammett is describing seconds before I snapped the shutter.
The scene changes as, "Spade turned from the parapet and walked up Bush Street to the alley where men were grouped.." That is, he walked to the left, as we view the scene. Today, at the mouth of that alley there is a brass plaque marking it as the place where, "______ shot Miles Archer." The plaque actually names the murderer. I refuse to do so.
The pages describing Spade's actions at the murder scene give much more detail about stairways, railings, buildings, and other details of this intersection. Obviously, Dashiell Hammett, who lived in San Francisco when he wrote The Maltese Falcon, walked this intersection and took detailed notes for this scene.
Somewhere I read that Elmore Leonard said, "I write about Detroit because I live in Detroit. If I lived in Buffalo, I'd write about Buffalo." Lessons from the masters.
I grew up going to a library and taking notes for my school reports. I thought I was doing this simply to gather information, but there was something else going on.
Coin-operated photocopy machines showed up when I was in college. Instead of taking notes, I made copies and highlighted them. I thought this was more efficient.
The World-Wide Web came along, and I started cutting-and-pasting and downloading. Later I started bookmarking web pages. This seemed like a super-efficient way to gather information.
As my browser's list of bookmarks got longer, I had lots of information at my fingertips, but I found it harder and harder to use it.
Recently I decided to slow down the information-gathering and take notes . . . longhand . . . in a notebook.
I'm finding this very satisfying. It takes time and effort to read a blog post, for instance, and decide which parts to write down verbatim, which parts to summarize, and which to ignore. I become very selective because It takes even more time and effort to write the note or quotation in my notebook.
When I take notes, I not only gather information, I also think about it. I move some of it from short-term memory into long-term memory, and somewhere in my brain I must be connecting the new information with things I already know. Now I'm ready to use it when I want to write something new.
I see now that all that photocopying, highlighting, cutting-and-pasting, downloading, and bookmarking was only postponing this process. Some things you just can't automate.
This place cracks me up. The words over the door say, "The Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute." It is a serious institution in that field. But then there are those oval windows above the entrance.
I've wondered if the institute just happened to buy or lease a building with that eccentric, but strangely appropriate, feature. Or whether they had this one built and went along with a whimsical gesture by the architect.
The history on their website refers generally to raising funds for buildings since its founding in 1959, but makes no mention of this particular building. However, they do use an image of the windows in the background of their header.
Accidental or deliberate, this is another of those instances in which reality is not believable. If any novelist set a scene at an eye research facility and described it as having a pair of oval windows, most readers would say, "Do you expect me to believe that?"
Last weekend we went to our favorite place for breakfast. When I was done eating, I looked across the street and noticed the morning light was beautiful on the buildings and the tree.
I started snapping, noticed people were walking by, and managed to catch the woman in the baseball cap in front of the red doorway.
When I got this picture up on my computer screen, I noticed there was a second woman just stepping out of the shadows on the right. She wears a headscarf and carries a yoga mat.
Baseball Cap is wearing yoga pants, so maybe she is walking to a class at the place Headscarf has just left. But Baseball Cap doesn't have a yoga mat. Maybe she's going to another kind of exercise class.
Of course, Headscarf could be carrying that yoga mat as a distraction. She might have been hiding in that dark doorway, waiting for Baseball Cap to walk by, intent on attacking her.
If so, she has a problem. Again, when I got the photo up on my computer, I noticed Baseball Cap is not alone. Look just behind her front foot and you'll see another foot. Someone is walking next to her.
Did Baseball Cap get word that headscarf was laying for her and bring backup?
As Yogi Berra once said, "You can observe a lot just by watching."
I saw this stairway and liked it so much I had to take its picture.
It's in the Metreon, a building in downtown San Francisco where Ann and I had gone to see a movie. The wall of green outside the windows is the edge of Yerba Buena Gardens, a lovely place to linger if you're ever in town.
It reminds me of the one in the Museum of the African Diaspora, which (come to think of it) is only one block away.
Stairways like this are not hard to like especially for a guy who prefers to take the stairs and counts himself lucky in being able to do so.
But for me, they are more than just pretty. They are somehow theatrical. When walking on them, I see people outside the building and they can see me. I feel exposed, but somehow aloof at the same time.
Such a stairway might serve well for an important scene in a story. A pursuer (sleuth or assassin) might spot the pursued. The pursued might feel safe from the pursuer, but only if he can get to a higher floor and hide.
Hmm . . .
Recently I discovered that reading my book in Kindle Direct Publishing's ebook previewer taught me some lessons I hadn't learned by reading and re-reading my book in a word processor and on paper. Specifically I learned to use paragraph breaks in a new way for e-publishing.
Preparing my book for publication as a paperback has yielded still more lessons. Perhaps because throughout my life I've done most of my reading on single-spaced, facing pages, I never had to think of how the eye and the mind work together to turn those ink-blots into images and thoughts.
I've been over Dark Mural so many times in the past two years, I have parts of it memorized. Yet, when I saw it in the familiar form of a printed book, it looked different and read different. I became aware how parts of a scene fit together and raised questions that would be answered on the following page. In a few instances, I saw how the scene could be better built, and I've made changes.
Of course, most writers say they always want to change things, even after a book is published. So perhaps this was just one more opportunity for me to see such things. But I really don't think I would have seen them without reading it in book form.
As previously reported here, I have seized the opportunity attend a trial in criminal court as research for a book about a guy who reports for jury duty. I figured if I was going to write about it, I needed to make notes on the nuts and bolts of the process of conducting a trial.
So far I have watched as the judge and attorneys question potential jurors regarding their fitness to serve in this particular case. The process is called voir dire, a French term meaning, "speak the truth."
This is an important part of any trial, and I am glad to be reminded of how it works, but I'm learning much more about how it feels to be one of those called for jury duty. For however long it takes, your life is not your own.
On the whole, the judge is considerate of jurors' comfort, never remaining in session more than an hour and fifteen minutes. Beyond that, anything can happen: a fifteen-minute break can last twenty-five minutes; the session no sooner begins than the judge and attorneys withdraw for five minutes (stand and stretch, but don't leave the room); an attorney can spend twenty minutes questioning one juror, five minutes questioning another, and excuse both. Or neither.
Having no choice but to comply with orders that are unpredictable and seemingly arbitrary is stressful. The only thing keeping me in the room was curiosity, and I still felt trapped.
Perhaps the title of this blog post should be, "Writer Gets More Than He Bargained For."
Several years ago, I was called for jury duty, selected, and served on a jury in a case of sexual assault. We deliberated and returned a verdict of guilty.
For the first few days, I tapped out a description of each day's courtroom proceedings, so I would have the research done if ever wanted to write a story about a juror. But I stopped because I didn't think I ever would.
Big mistake. Let all us writers resolve never to repeat it.
Recently I returned to my notes and I saw how I could turn it into a story, but I would need the nuts and bolts of the trial process for my hero to work with.
So I emailed a writer friend with some background in law, and asked how I could find out when a criminal case was going trial so I could be there at the beginning and take notes. My generous friend wrote me a long email about how that is public information, but difficult to track down . . . databases, incompatible systems, etc.
Then, just last Thursday, a neighbor said she had to report for jury duty today for a murder case.
And here I am, taking notes.