Saturday, February 8, 2014

Form follows Function, or, How my books come together

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING:  Here's the thing about how I structure my writing: I don't know the mystery, I have no idea whodunnit or how or why, and I often have a very vague idea about the non-mystery portion of the book. (I believe my entire plan for THROUGH THE EVIL DAYS was "Clare and Russ trapped in an ice storm.") However, before I begin, I must know what the book is about, and how it's going to be structured.

For example, THROUGH THE EVIL DAYS  is about parenthood, and the things parents will do for their children. It's structured in six day-long segments, moving ahead in a very straightforward chronolgy, and each day ends with a section from the missing girl's point-of-view. ONE WAS A SOLDIER was about the difficulties of returning veterans, and is structured with a series of framing sections, consisting of the veterans' support group meetings. The action moves back and forth in time in a way that requires the reader to pay attention (sorry if you got confused!)

HID FROM OUR EYES, my current work-in-progress, is about fathers and sons and those near father-son relationships between teacher and student, or mentor and mentee. 
The structure for HID FROM OUR EYES is based on the concept of “four stories.” You've heard this before – there are only two, or four, or five plots in the world, and every story originates in one of them. I'm using the four stories concept: Someone goes on a journey, someone comes to town, someone is born, someone dies. Every building block - I'm not sure yet if these will be chapters or sections or some other-named organization - is comprised of these four elements, at least metaphorically (since I'm not writing about a maternity ward, most of the births are more symbolic than literal.)

See if you can tell which of the four stories is referenced in this excerpt.

     “Chief,” his sergeant said again. “We've got the perp in custody. Some drifter on a motorcycle banged on the MacLarens' door before daybreak asking to use the phone. Claimed he found her here.” The sergeant lowered his voice. “Viet Nam soldier. Probably high. You know what those boys come back like. Stone killers.”
     Jack sighed. “Any other reason to suspect him? Other than the fact he's a soldier?”
“MacLaren held him on the porch with his shotgun while his missus called us. This guy pulled out a knife the size of your arm and threatened to gut MacLaren with it.”
“That may be, but he didn't use it on this girl.” At the expression on his sergeant's face Jack held up a hand. “Okay. I'll talk to him.”
     “Davidson took him down to the station house. We've got the impound truck coming for his bike.”
     Jack considered stopping at his house for a shave on his way to the station, but weighing a scratchy face against getting a cup while the first pot of coffee of the day was still fresh decided him on the latter. He barely managed the cup of joe – Davidson, who had more enthusiasm than brains, practically frogmarched him to the interrogation room. “We got that knife off him, chief.” Davidson handed him a manilla folder with his preliminary notes and the tape recorder. “No track marks on his arm, but he's definitely on something.”
     The something was Old Granddad, by the smell that greeted Jack when he entered the room. The kid was folded over the table, head buried in his arms. He was wearing a wrinkled olive drab army jacket over blue jeans so new they still had fold marks in them. Army boots on his feet. Not just another 'Nam vet, then. This boy looked to be straight off the plane from Saigon, or wherever they flew them from these days.
Jack pulled out the chair on the other side of the table and sat down. “You're in a spot of trouble, son. Why don't you tell me what happened up there in Cossayuharie.”
     The soldier lifted his head. Sandy hair growing out of a military cut, wary blue eyes. A bruise starting to purple up on his temple.
     Holy Mary, Mother of God. It was Margy Van Alstyne's boy. “Russell?”
     “Chief Liddle.” Fatigue, yes, and also anger in the boy's voice, and barely-leashed violence. He smelled of liquor, but whatever he had drunk the night before had burned off him.
     Jack stopped himself from saying the first thing that came to his mind, and the second, and the third. Just because he knew this boy, had known him since birth, didn't mean he wasn't involved in the young woman's death. The fact she had been dumped on Route fifty-seven, the missing panties and stockings – these were all details a copy-cat could have taken from the old newspaper stories. Russell had been a good-natured kid when he left for the army two years ago, but he had also been a hell-raiser, and God knew what two tours of duty over there had done to him.


  1. It always amazes me, the ability your writing has to evoke those “I never saw that coming” moments that instantly shift my perception of what is happening in the story . . . and I didn’t get this one right away, not until the “The something was Old Granddad” . . . .
    So the as-yet unidentified girl is the "someone dies," and Russ has become the "someone goes on a journey" as well as the "someone comes to town" . . . and I cannot wait to read the rest of this story. Thanks for the intriguing glimpse into your new book . . . .

  2. What a treat to get this excerpt, Julia, and to know we'll get a bit of Russ's past in the next book, too. Someone goes on a journey, I'd say.

    I've always loved and admired the way you vary the structures in your books (although I didn't realize until you said so that the girl's POV took place once a day). I don't know of anyone else who does it that way. The book that took place in a 24-hour period (I don't recall names of anything anymore, sorry). The one that kept alternating present with past, reaching farther and farther back each time. And so on. Thank you!

  3. Thanks, Julia. That's a terrific excerpt. I like the way you write very much. xo

  4. Love this post Julia, especially the description of how you must know what the book is about. The quotes are wonderful too!

  5. This makes me want the new book even more, which is saying something. Keep up the good work--I'm happy to wait as long as it takes!

  6. Julia, I love the quotes. Easy Reading is damned hard writing. Ain't that the truth?
    I'm so glad to know that someone else works like me. I too know the essence of the book when I start but I've no idea how that will come out in the plot.

  7. What a great peek behind the curtain and insight into how you write, Julia!

  8. You always blow me away, Julia.

    And the "theme" thing is fascinating. I do the same thing--I ask--what is this ABOUT.

    But then I heard David McCulloch speak, and he was asked--do your books have themes? And he said "Yes, indeed, and I write them to find out what they are."

  9. Love the post, Julia, and the quotes. I am always aware that the structure of your books varies, but had never realized it was so deliberate.

    Such an interesting way to organize a story. And I LOVE the snippet--can't wait to read more!!!!

  10. I learned something VERY NEW today, and something that I believe will really help me with my writing.

    I love Julia's books -- I am a new reader who has read four, and not in "order."

    I love the setting and character so much, and enjoy reading something that has deep back story. Now I can think about structure!!!!


  11. Bam! It's Russ. As Joan stated, I didn't see that coming. I so can't wait to read this book. A journey into Russ' past and a dead girl whose murder coincides with his return to town. What a teaser! Buckle your seat belts cause it's going to be a wonderfully bumpy ride.

    Julia, your explanation of your writing process is fascinating. The structure you talk about reminds me of when I worked with students from grade four through grade twelve. I preached organization of writing as the key to arriving at an acceptable piece of writing. Of course, the students always thought that fiction would be the exception and the easiest piece to write. I just smiled, as I knew that they were in for a rude awakening. Fiction was always the hardest, without few exceptions.

    Like Jack, I wasn't aware of the girl's pov being so strategically placed either. Now, I am eager to use my new-found knowledge of your deliberate structure in reading this next amazing adventure.

  12. Thanks for the kind words, everyone. I'm back at the hotel after the day-long Murder in the Magic City conference, and it's been fascinating to hear so many other authors talking about their process.

    Jennifer Crusie, a writer whose work I adore, teaches fiction, and she frequently reminds her students that "there are many roads to Oz." Important to remember while we may have similarities, there's no one way to write your book!

    Now...downstairs to the function room for the cocktail party!

  13. What a treat to get a tiny preview of the next one. Every book gets better and more full of twists and turns. Keep up the good work. I can hardly wait. But don't take too long. I'm 79.

  14. So Julia -- you could have told me you posted this the day before our panel at Murder on the Menu -- then I could have given everyone the link and we could have repaired to the nearest bar -- oh wait it was Sunday-- in Alabama -- probably no bars open, except maybe at the casino.

    Great to meet you in person.

    ~ Jim

  15. I'm a little late to this party, but, WOW! Excellent post, Julia! It's amazing the paths we take to making those words leap off the page and connect with the reader, making the story and the characters and the place come alive!

    I confess, your title let me know immediately that this book was about Clare and Russ. I couldn't see you stepping away from them at this particular point in the series. Loved the excerpt, already has me waiting on the edge of my seat for more!! Thanks so much for sharing!!