This week I’ve been plotting a whole new novel. I read a lot of crime and I’ve wanted to write a novel that includes a crime – not particularly a whodunit, but one that hinges on a murder – for a long time, and a story has been slowly developing on the back burner. But I’ve always been a bit reticent. Have I got the necessary brainpower to work out all the intricacies and tell a story without inadvertently revealing the secret or the perpetrator? It’ll be very easy to drop hints unintentionally, even reveal the whole façade, if I give a character some knowledge they shouldn’t or couldn’t have.
Help is at hand. Several years ago, one of my sisters gave me an invaluable book – The Crime Writer’s Handbook, by Douglas Wynn, and I’ve just spent a very entertaining evening thumbing through this treasure-trove of criminal activities. There’s a list of ways to murder your victims (65 in all), with notes about their suitability and their ease of accomplishment, the weapons or accoutrements required, and the detection rate of each method. They range from the obvious – poisoning, accidents – to more arcane processes like defenestration (my personal favourite) or an attack by a trained animal.
I need a murder in my novel. But for the purposes of the story it has to look like a natural death or an accident. I don’t want any messy autopsies or suspicious policemen cluttering up the place for longer than necessary, so I have to plan everything intricately. (The Handbook also offers useful advice about the circumstances surrounding a death, where intervention by the authorities is inevitable and unavoidable.) It’s all very complicated, and I take my hat off to all those crime writers whose works I’ve enjoyed in the past.
Plotting at this level is new territory for me. I usually operate with a sketchy outline and fill in the details as I go along or as they occur to me. I don’t always know where I’m headed. I wrote my first novel in a very episodic manner, then stitched all the bits together later. I can’t do this with the new one – in fact, I’ll be telling one story, merrily taking the reader up one path, when all the time I’ll know an awful truth that won’t be revealed until the end. Will I be able to keep it to myself?
Can I maintain a plot that turns on a detail that only I am familiar with and still tell a credible story that comes to a satisfying or shocking conclusion? Because that’s the dilemma I’ve set myself. Keeping all the characters on such a tight rein will mean they won’t be able to go off at tangents and write their own stuff (which is what they normally do); they will have to obey me. Actually, I quite like the sound of that.