Friday, February 7, 2014

Debs and the Unexpected Encounter

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I loved Rhys's post this week on flying by
the seat of her pants.  Readers-- and writers--are always fascinated by how writers manage to put books together.  Do they plot, or do they, like Rhys, fly by the seat of their pants?  (I've always referred to that as the "headlight method"--you only know as much as you can see by a car's headlights in the dark, but you keep going anyway.)

Frankly, it terrifies me.  I am a plotter. I have always been a plotter.  When I start a book, I know who the main characters are, what they did, why they did it, and pretty much what I want to happen at the end of the book.

And frankly, this is pretty terrifying, too, because you can't always figure out how to get from the beginning to what you envision as the end of the book. But one of the joys I've discovered of the plotted journey is the Unexpected Encounter.  In a crime novel, you know your detectives, either amateur or professional, have to find out things that will move the plot along.  So you invent people who will be helpful in some way--they give the detectives a snippet of something they saw or heard or knew.  And sometimes, these characters just jump off the page and insist on being something other than a convenience.

I've had two of these characters go on to feature as main characters in their own books and become incorporated into the series; Erika Rosenthal, who first appears in A Finer End to give Gemma bit of information about cults, and Andy Monahan, who was invented as a witness to a murder in Where Memories Lie, and immediately demanded his own book. He got it in The Sound of Broken Glass, and he seems determined to stick around for a while.

Here's a snippet from about midway through Kincaid/James #16, To Dwell in Darkness (I've had to try hard to find something that isn't too big a spoiler...) where Duncan simply goes to get a coffee and meets a gentleman named Medhi Atias. (And here is the real version of my fictional chicken shop.)

The building in the Caledonian Road looked even less appealing in the cold gray morning light. It had stopped sleeting, for which Kincaid was thankful, but the wind was still blowing down from the Siberian steppes as if Britain had become its designated funnel.
Nick Callery was waiting, stomping his feet and drinking coffee from a polystyrene cup. Beside him stood the uniformed PC who had been posted on the flat overnight, and a balding man wearing a heavy anorak and carrying a metal case.
“The chicken shop’s already open,” said Callery by way of greeting. He held up his cup. “The coffee won’t kill you, and at least it’s hot. This is Mel.” He nodded towards the other man.
“Locksmith,” said Mel. “Good to meet you.”
Kincaid took off his gloves to shake his hand. “Can I get you a cup? I take it we’re waiting on the SOCOs.”
“On their way, apparently,” answered Callery.
When Mel accepted the offer of coffee, Kincaid went into the chicken shop. Even this early, the odor of hot grease made his throat tighten. How did anyone eat fried chicken for breakfast?
But when he looked at the menu board, he saw that the place did bacon and egg sandwiches. With chips. The though of bacon reminded him that he had skipped breakfast. His stomach rumbled.
The man behind the counter was Middle Eastern, middle-aged, with a paunch that hinted he indulged in his own fare. But the apron over his expansive middle was clean, as was the serving counter and what Kincaid could see of the kitchen. “I’ll have the bacon and egg sandwich, no chips. And two cups of coffee.”
“I cook the bacon and egg fresh,” said the man. “Mind waiting a minute?”
Kincaid saw that there was a griddle in the back. “That’s fine.”
The man, who Kincaid guessed was the proprietor, put two slices of bacon on the griddle, cracked an egg onto the hot surface, then sliced a soft roll in half and added it. He then poured two cups of coffee into polystyrene cups and added snap-on lids. “Cream and sugar are over there.” He nodded towards a side counter as he handed Kincaid the cups.
Kincaid took his at it was. He hadn’t asked Mel, but the locksmith could come in and make his to his liking. “Cheers,” he said, accepting the cups. “Back in a tic.”
He walked outside and handed Mel his coffee. The locksmith took a cautious sip, then raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Not bad stuff.”
“There’s cream and sugar inside.”
Mel shook his head. “I like mine black as black.”
“Anyone else for a bacon and egg sandwich?”
When Mel and Callery both refused, Kincaid went back inside. There was no sign yet of the SOCOs, and he was glad of the respite from the cold.
“Good coffee,” he told the proprietor.
“We know coffee where I come from,” the man said as he deftly turned the eggs and bacon.
“Where’s that?”
“Morocco. But I’ve been in London for thirty years, and in this place for a decade.”
“Know anything about the group that lives upstairs?” Kincaid asked.
The man gave him a sharp look. “Cop?”
Kincaid nodded. “Detective.”
“I wondered what all the commotion was about last night, and the copper on the outer door all night. I gave him a cup of coffee on the sly when I opened up,” he added with a wink, then said, “They’re a quiet enough bunch. What have they been up to?”
“We’re not sure yet. Do you own this building?” Kincaid added as he took the wrapped sandwich.
“Me? No. Corporate landlord. KCD, Inc. Stands for King’s Cross Development, which means that when this building goes under the wrecking ball, I’ll have to find a new place. Or maybe retire.”
A corporate owner? Interesting. Kincaid typed a note into his phone before he opened his sandwich. Then, taking a bite, he said, “Um, delicious,” through a mouthful of perfectly cooked egg and bacon.
“Ta.” The proprietor wiped his hands on his apron and held one out over the counter to Kincaid. “I’m Medhi. Medhi Atias.”
Kincaid set down his coffee and shook Atias’s hand. “Duncan Kincaid. So, is this place slated for redevelopment?”
“Has been for years. But things haven’t progressed in King’s Cross as fast as the planners thought they would. Good for me, as I get business from the corporate offices that have gone into the area. There’s The Driver for upmarket meals, but not many places that serve decent ordinary fare.”
“I’d say it’s more than decent.” Kincaid popped the last bite of sandwich into his mouth and fished a card from his wallet. “I expect we’ll be coming and going from the upstairs flat for a bit.” Through the window, he saw the SOCO van pull up. “Hopefully we won’t disturb your business. If you do think of anything unusual going on upstairs, you can always give me ring.”
Atias took the card, his eyes widening as he read it. “You didn’t say you were a detective superintendent.” His tone was suddenly wary. “I hope something terrible hasn’t happened upstairs.”
“Not upstairs,” Kincaid said noncommittally. “At least as far as we know.”

 There is such fun in this--having a character come to life under your fingers as you type. I don't know that Medhi Atias will get his own book, but I realized as I wrote this that he will have a bigger part to play, and that he solved a plot problem I'd been wrestling with.

REDS, does the unexpected encounter happen to you, whether you are a plotter or a "headlighter?"


  1. I knew I was going to like your chicken shop proprietor the minute he cooked bacon [and egg] for Duncan’s sandwich. And the “We know coffee where I come from” didn’t hurt, either.
    It’s always a treat to read a book in which a “convenient” character springs to life as has happened here in this snippet of your book . . . I’m looking forward to discovering how Medhi fits into the story, but it’s going to be tough waiting until September to find out . . . .

  2. Good stuff, Deborah.

    I think it was E.L. Doctorow who came up with that headlights analogy -- plotting just enough so you can see where you're going, but not the ultimate destination. I don't know about other pantsers, but for me, making it up as I go is the fun of it. I can't imagine enjoying writing as much as I do if I knew everything in advance. Hats off to you.

  3. Wonderful scene, Debs. Thanks for sharing it with us. Moroccans definitely know coffee!

    I LOVE it when the unexpected happens. A couple of days ago a delightful new character made her way into my historical (1888) WIP as my Quaker midwife protag's best friend (where had she been hiding for 30,000 words?): a wiry, petite, blond, happily unmarried postmistress of 35 who rides a horse and lives in a Boston marriage with Sophie. I'm so happy she inserted herself!

  4. This is wonderful Debs--such a treat to get a look behind the scenes. And yes like you and Edith, I get the unexpected encounter sometimes too. In my case, it's often a real-life person that clamors to be in the book. Then I have to figure out how they can be useful to the story.

    Can't wait to read this one--thanks for sharing!

  5. I love when minor characters start to become more important. It makes the book seem so much more real to me.

    After all, every friend was once a stranger.

  6. I love this excerpt, Deborah, as well as the concept you're talking about.

    YOurheadlights pick up someone in the distance, and as soon as you draw alongside, they jump onto your page and start informing your story.



  7. Yeah, honestly, I got nothin' of value to add to the discussion. But I am such a huge fan of Deb's work that I couldn't let this excerpt pass without comment. Very tantalizing! I've been uber-busy of late and haven't even made it to this blog every single day -- so grateful I grabbed the few minutes for it today. Even though it makes September feel like such a long way down the road!!!

  8. Debs, I call it my AHA moments--when suddenly someone says something they shouldn't and you get chills because you realize something important.
    You can't plan an AHA moment. It just happens.
    But as usual this excerpt is FABULOUS and I can't wait to read.

  9. Hooked! Completely hooked, Debs. Love Medhi Atias.

    Like you I'm a frustrated plotter. But the story (and characters) get away from me. Which usually turns out to be good.

    And now I'm going to make myself a bacon and egg sandwich. Yum.

  10. Now I've made myself hungry too:-) And homesick for London... I'll bet I could get a bacon and egg sandwich... Not that we don't make them here in the US, but they're not the same.

    And now I hope you're wondering what Medhi Atias saw, or heard, or knows...

  11. Dear Deb,

    I love this term: the unexpected encounter. It is SO perfect. In THE MAP OF LOST MEMORIES, Clothilde was that encounter. She appeared from nowhere, demanded attention, and in fact, she will be one of the main 3 characters in the sequel.

    So excited to read this new book, and your latest for the Tucson Festival of Books - we're going to have so much fun!!


  12. You took me there, and I love it -- the brief exchanges, so full of nuance and history!

    I have only read "Broken Glass" but absolutely loved it. Should I begin at the beginning of the series? (I didn't even realize it was a series -- the book stood alone so well.)

    Thank you!!

  13. I am a headlight writer for sure; I find out what I think by writing it down. I've had the Doctorow quote taped to my computer for years, to rely on when I my writing is not actually producing any thoughts at all.

    This is a very nice description of what happens when a character takes on a life of his/her own. Outliner or by the headlights,it's one of the best parts of the writing process. I had one character who was in the book just to be a victim, but turned out so interesting and so entertaining I had to change my plans. Now where the heck did that come from? (???)

  14. Medhi Atias sounds like the kind of competent, unassuming person that Duncan would value. Of course, his perfect egg and bacon sandwich won me over. I see much possibility for him as an astute observer that will come in handy in Duncan's investigation. I already trust and am drawn to this character, which speaks to your writing ability to accomplish so much in such a small space. I feel that this unexpected encounter will prove a tasty morsel indeed.

    I'm so happy to have a glimpse into the upcoming Duncan and Gemma book. And, while you didn't give anything away, Deb, you did allow me to let out the breath I've been holding for so long, worrying over Duncan's fate from the clifffhanger in The Sound of Broken Glass. I have many questions still about Duncan's job status, but at least I know he's still in the game. This excerpt was wonderful, and my eagerness to read To Dwell in Darkness is even more urgent.

    Denise Ann, I would advise you to run, not walk, to your local libray (or bookstore) and gather all of Deb's Duncan and Gemma books, then start at the beginning and experience the evolving world of these two amazing characters in its well-thought out progression. As someone who came to Deb's series only last year, about this time, I had some of my best reading ever starting at book one and reading straight through. I prefer to come to a series earlier, but the advantage is non-stop reading.

  15. Debs, there is no one like you One thing I love about your writing--is that it is instantly recognizable as you, and only you. Fabulous..