Character vs. Plot Puzzles: The Two Sides of My Fictional World

Puzzle Pieces Pic

Photo Credit: Multi-colored puzzle pieces, uploaded 17 February 2017: Pixhere/CC0 1.0

Last week, I announced in a live Facebook post on my author page that I’m exploring new directions with my fiction. I also created a Coming Soon page on my website with more details about what I’m doing and why and what readers can expect in the future.

Right now, I’m primarily focusing on a genre that’s new and exciting for me: historical mystery fiction. My approach to the genre utilizes my passion for psychological reality and working with characters from the inside out so it’s not just about telling stories set in the past or even about putting characters in the context of the past. Rather, I’m looking at the way mystery puzzles are solved and the motive behind them that goes deeper than the surface in the way we usually think of mystery fiction. Later, I’ll be blogging more about the type of mysteries that I love to read and am writing and why.

I realize my sudden shift in focus from literary psychological fiction to the mystery genre might seem like a random decision but it’s actually been festering in me for some time. I’ve been a fan of classic mystery fiction since I was a teenager but the idea of writing one always seemed overwhelming to me and I shied away from it, thinking I couldn’t write a story that kept readers guessing as to who committed a crime and why.

In 2013, I had been working intensely for some time on psychological literary fiction, mainly the original novel that evolved into the Waxwood series and some of the short stories that would eventually become a part of my first book, Gnarled Bones and Other Stories. As much as I loved what I was doing, I felt creatively and emotionally burned out. So when National Novel Writing Month, affectionately known by writers as NaNoWriMo, or simply Nano, came along in November, I thought it would be a great opportunity to try something different. I’ve always seen Nano as a chance to stretch your creative boundaries and jump out of your creative comfort zone and I’ve used it many times in that way.

When I was taking a novel-writing course in grad school, the professor gave us an interesting first assignment. Based on a writing sample we submitted to him, he assigned students to read a book that was in a completely different style and genre than his or her own writing and discuss it with the class. Because my style was at that time primarily poetic prose, the professor asked me to read John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. It seemed like an odd choice at first, since Steinbeck is also a psychological fiction writer. But the experiment turned out to be very instructive for me because Steinbeck’s straight-forward, direct style and his economy of language merged character, story, and setting in a way that was very different from my writing at the time.

For Nano 2013, I wanted to write a book that wasn’t so much an imitation of Steinbeck but my own voice in a more straight-forward, economic style and I wanted to shift my writing focus to plot rather than character. The idea of merging history and mystery immediately came to mind. I wanted to get completely out of my comfort zone and I wanted to have fun with it.

I knew I would need to use very different skills to write a mystery. For one thing, mysteries, especially the kind of traditional mystery (think Agatha Christie) I wanted to write are almost entirely plot-oriented. Characters matter but in a very different way than they do in psychological fiction. Instead of creating character puzzles (like the orphaned brother and sister in the title story of Gnarled Bones and Other Stories), I would need to create a story puzzle. Rather than the dark and ambivalent characters that people my psychological fiction, these characters would need to be more comprehensible (though not necessarily flat or one-dimensional), more identifiable, and more likable.

I approached the project in my usual way — that is, I brainstormed some basic ideas for the story, main characters, setting, and jotted down some key scenes I knew I wanted to include in the book. Since the book was to be historical fiction, I also had to decide what era I wanted to set the book and do some preliminary (though not extensive as of yet) research on the era.

As I was working on the project during the month of November, I came to see I had a problem. With psychological fiction, the story grew organically from the characters and I could only really discover the story by writing it. But with mystery fiction, there was a puzzle to be solved that had many concrete moving parts (like suspects, clues, red herrings, etc.) and I quickly got lost in the little details. I realized if I wanted to write an engaging and complex mystery, I would need to know everything from the beginning, even if the creative process offered up to me different things as I wrote the first draft.

So after Nano was over, I went back and, for the first time in my writing career, I wrote a novel outline. I’m talking about a plan that included a scene-by-scene blow that took me through the entire mystery from beginning to end, from when the body was discovered to who did it in the end and why. The outline included all the clues and suspects, what the crime scene looked like and what would be found there, and the solution to the crime and how the parties involved would reach it and react to it. Then I began the book over again.

I know the word outline makes a lot of writers shudder but my goal wasn’t to restrict my story or stump the creative process (in fact, I strayed several times from the outline as the story and characters developed) but to keep track of all the balls that were up in the air so that in the end, all the puzzle pieces would fit together. As a reader, I find nothing more annoying than to get hooked on a suspect or a clue only to have it disappear by the end of the book or turn out to be not important at all (red herrings are different, though, since their purpose is not irrelevance but misdirection).

The outline completely changed the game for me. I was actually able to have a lot of fun with building the mystery and I could really get to know my characters because I didn’t have to be anxious all the time about trying to figure out who they were or whether where they were going made sense to the story. I grew to love the characters of the book and realizing they really belong in a series because if I love them, I know readers will too. The mystery itself intrigued me and I loved doing the historical research.

Looking back at my creative process for that project, I realize what I was doing to build the mystery wasn’t all that different from what I did to build the psychological reality for my literary fiction characters. In both cases, I create a story out of a puzzle. The only real difference is a mystery is a plot puzzle where the pieces fit together to form a concrete reality (someone has committed a crime and it must be solved) while psychological fiction involves character puzzles with more abstract and philosophical puzzle pieces for readers to put together which create the tapestry of the story.

I finished the first draft of the historical mystery in the summer of 2015. By that time, I knew I wanted to be a self-published author and I knew I wanted to venture out into the world of psychological literary fiction. I put the mystery aside, knowing I would eventually come back to it when I felt ready and I don’t regret doing that. After having been so immersed in character puzzles, I’m enjoying being immersed in plot puzzles for now.

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