View from the terrace of the family's Brooklyn Heights apartment

Monday, February 21, 2011

Better Late Than Never

When I retired from teaching, I felt I’d done just about everything I’d looked forward to as an eager undergraduate who’d been turned on by poetry, fiction, ideas, and the life of the mind--everything except write the Great American Novel.

I’d spent two semesters as an exchange student at a Swiss university studying Chaucer, German classics, and even the New Testament in Greek; I’d been the first teaching assistant in the English department at Boston College; after doing a stint in the artillery, I married the love of my life, taught literature at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, and took courses at night at NYU;  and with a year of research at the University of Munich, I (finally!) finished my Ph.D. and found a home at Eastern Connecticut State College, where I chaired the English department and directed the honors program

But what about writing?
There were of course book reviews, academic articles, a chapter in a book, papers read at American studies conferences here and in Germany, as well as articles on an avocation, sailing. But the Great American Novel, after a meager false start, was abandoned. In the 70s I did somehow manage to publish a novelette in Galaxy, one of those garish pulp magazines that flourished in the heyday of hardcore science fiction. But publishing fiction in an ever-dwindling market began to seem much like expecting to win a lottery.  

A lot changed when I retired. I found I was no longer interested in reading serious classics--lengthy accounts of a young man’s sentimental education, the plight of adulterous lovers, or the pathetic fate of the humble. What I now enjoyed, I discovered, was sprightly entertainment that kept me alert relishing characters I’d begun to root for and a story that moved forward with twists and surprises.  

Mysteries and novels of detection, which I’d thought trivial, now seemed just the thing for me. When I discovered a writer I enjoyed, I read everything by him, or more often her, available at my local library. My problem was that I could not help but notice opportunities the author had missed or neglected to develop, implausible episodes, and forced or unsatisfactory endings. Maybe I could do better myself?

So I gave it a try and learned in the process.    
I learned that characters in a novel take on a life of their own. I found myself writing to find out what my characters would do next. It is something like not knowing what’s going to happen in a dream. Whatever orchestrates dreams became the co-author of my book. The unconscious? Too tepid an expression. Das Unbewuste? Though that sounds a bit more mysterious, I prefer the Greek myth of a Muse or a Daemon. Mozart, after all, felt his melodies came from heaven.

What else did I learn? I learned why there’s usually more than one murder per book. Why? When your story threatens to bog down, there’s nothing like another corpse to stir things up and reduce or introduce   complications, and if the victim is the reader’s prime suspect, even better! I also learned why so many good reads have far-fetched, disappointing endings. Why? Because the author is trying all too hard for a thumping conclusion (Ha! You never thought she did it, did you?) or is having difficulties pulling all the strands together. I learned that the unraveling of the mystery ideally should take as much time as constructing the initial complications. I also decided that any reasonably alert reader should have a good idea of who-done-it before the sleuths do. And finally I realized that all the twists, surprises, and suspense--even the mystery itself--depend upon revolving point-of-view characters and manipulating time sequences. 

I began writing with two images in mind: a character knocked overboard when a sailboat is forced to jibe suddenly; another character thrown from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade into the traffic on the expressway below. I discovered my title, Double Trouble, and my plot only after writing about seventy pages. As it worked out, I used the image of the sailboat jibe, but in the book the plunge took place not from the Promenade but from the 18th-floor terrace of a hotel room in Washington, D.C. 

So, did I write the Great American Novel? Of course not. But I did write an entertaining page-turner that is cheerful, romantic at times, and full of surprises. And I learned, half way through Chapter 3 of a sequel, that writing mysteries is addictive!

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