[Written at Laurie King’s request for The Arvon Book of Crime and Thriller Writing, 2012.]
Those “Eureka!” moments
Writing successfully is sweat equity. Butt in the chair, hour after hour, grinding out sentences and paragraphs and pages, none of which, one is grimly aware, may make the final cut when it comes time to edit.
That is especially true of crime fiction, because, really, how many different ways are there to kill someone? And how many different motives can there be? In the end it all comes down to money and sex. At most a writer can create an original variation on a tried-and-true theme.
Crime fiction series are, pardon me, deadliest of all. Here we have the same character on yet another case, investigating the same kind of mayhem (Knife? Gun? Blunt instrument?) following the same kinds of clues (Entry wound? Caliber of ammunition? Blood spatter?) to the same kind of perpetrator (Murderous.).
Something that helps me down the narrative road is that one small, seemingly insignificant detail, written in simply to set the scene. Sort of like the spoon in the place setting when the menu doesn’t include soup. Sometimes it’s pretty, sometimes it’s amusing, but it was not as originally written in any way associated with My Master Plan.
Take Restless in the Grave, the nineteenth Kate Shugak novel. Kate’s undercover, looking for somebody sufficiently ept to back the screw off an oil filter on a Piper Super Cub just enough for it to come off in flight, thus causing the plane to crash and killing the pilot. This kind of ept is pretty thick on the ground in Alaska, however, and matters are not helped by the lack of esteem in which the deceased was held by pretty much everyone who ever had anything to do with him, including his wife, his children, and possibly even his dog. So Kate’s really going to earn her fee this time.
She has wangled her way into the mother-in-law apartment over the victim’s garage with an eye toward getting into the house and tossing his office. Yesterday I described the apartment, adding in details of what I’ve seen in real apartments created over real Alaskan garages. This fictional apartment was recently built, and it has some leftover construction materials stored in it, as well as some fishing and camping gear and a chest freezer. Nobody in Bush Alaska ever throws away construction materials, and a chest freezer is a staple of Alaskan life, necessary especially in small Bush towns and villages where a lot of people hunt subsistence. This particular chest freezer is empty and unplugged, stored because it’s too old to sell but too good to toss.
Today Kate headed for her undercover job as a waitress at the local watering hole (And by the way, do you know how physically hard being a professional server is? That was an eye-opening bit of research.).
So Kate’s late coming home, as I shut that bar down at about two a.m., by which time all but the most sincere drinkers should be in bed. She slipped into her landlady’s house and headed for the office, where she found some interesting records that may or may not have something to do with the landlady’s husband’s murder.
She got away clean, which may have led to a certain amount of, shall we say, overconfidence, and headed back to her apartment, accompanied by her sidekick, a half-wolf half-husky dog named Mutt. The staircase up to the door of the apartment over the garage is narrow and Kate had to get to the door first to open it, so she went in first. Whereupon someone who had the same idea she did only to find out more about her drops a gear bag over her head and throws her in the freezer and slams the lid down.
A second later the freezer opens again and Mutt is dropped in on top of her, and the lid slams down on both of them.
I had absolutely no idea why that freezer was in that apartment until that moment.
It is these small “Eureka!” moments that make the writing life worth living.
And this would be the book that scene is in. In addition to being the 19th Kate Shugak novel, it also saw the return of Liam Campbell. Call it Liam 4.5.
Author and founder of Storyknife.org.