Wednesday, November 14, 2012


By Tracy Kiely

Last year, my youngest son asked me if I would speak to his second grade class about writing books.  I immediately said yes because A). he’s adorable and B.) the days in which he wants me to not only come to school, but openly acknowledge our relationship are numbered.  My oldest son, now 16, began tossing the parental volunteer slips for field trips when he started middle school, and most days treats us like his personal chauffeur, so I know it’s just a matter of time. Of course, we probably haven’t helped matters by merrily calling out to said oldest child to “make good choices!” on those mornings when we have found him to be particularly vexing. And the last time he informed my husband by text that he could “leave now” to pick him up, my husband arrived and then stood by the car with a homemade sign reading “ KIELY, J.”
But, I digress.
Anyway, while I was happy to speak to my youngest's class, I realized that I’d have to tweak my usual discussion about writing, as I didn’t think the school officials or parents would like me sharing the many methods I’ve learned over the years on how to kill someone. (“Guess what I learned today, Mommy! If you put lilies in water, the water turns poisonous!”)
So, instead I talked about the process of writing fiction, which I basically boiled down to this: Come up with a character. Describe that character. What is special about him or her? Once you know your character, give him or her a problem. I think my son’s class came up with a character named Doug. Doug was an overweight orphan. (I know, right? I do believe I heard Dickens scream in protest.) Anyway, Doug’s problem was, not surprisingly, that he was being attacked by aliens. (I love second grade). From there we just played a simple game of “Fortunately…Unfortunately.” I started by restating what we had created – a fat, orphaned boy named Doug who was being attacked by aliens. Then I had them complete the sentence starting with, “Fortunately…” I believe the answer was that Doug could fly. Next, I asked them to finish a sentence beginning with, “Unfortunately…” (Which, interestingly enough, was that due to Doug’s unhealthy BMI (not their words) he fell out of the air a lot.)  We continued in this vein until Doug had conquered his intergalactic enemies and eaten a lot of pizza.        
            Now while this may seem a bit simple, it is an effective way to flesh out your initial idea. Personally, I tend to start with the murder. I think of who I’d like to kill (hey – don’t judge. It’s cheaper than therapy). My first mystery idea involved killing my then boss. (Trust me, he sooooo deserved it. My opening line was a spoof of Rebecca “Last night I dreamt I killed my boss.” Seriously, had I’d finished the book, that line would have killed! ) 
I digress. Again. Anyway, from who gets killed, I shift into how they were killed.  I think I watched a lot of Colombo episodes in my youth, because I need to know what the killer did wrong – what mistake he or she made that ultimately leads to the solution.  From there I determine the characters in play. Who was the murderer? Why did they kill? Then I think about the victim some more. Were they well liked? Who else might have wanted to kill them? The characters that this question creates have their own lives to flesh out. Who are they? What do they want? What do they want to hide? Are any of these characters connected? What is their relationship to each other? Would they lie for each other? Would they frame each other? 
I remember once reading an interview with Agatha Christie in which she said that she tried to give every one of her characters a secret which they didn’t want the police to know. This secret might have nothing to do with the murder, but is still made their actions suspicious to the reader. Then I read elsewhere that it was always a good idea to make one character seem to have no motive, no means, and no method in which to have killed the victim. It was argued that most readers will hone in on this character as the real murderer. So, that means you have another character to create and flesh out.
All of these steps help create the story around your first idea, whether it is how Doug escapes the alien or how you’d love to kill your boss. And if you get stuck, try the old “fortunately…unfortunately” method. You’ll be surprised what you come up with.     


Alan Orloff said...

Good advice, Tracy! (And I mean about creating plot points, although I'm very tempted to use your chauffeur-with-sign idea on my teenager!)

Grass Oil said...

trace, i think you just saved me. by the way, i've been waiting by the gas station for an hour now. it's cold.