What I think about, when I read the first chapter of my (draft) mystery novel
What do you think about? Do you agree that I'm thinking about the right things?
“I’m not going to choir practice tonight,” Larkin told her mother.
“Yes, you are,” Josephine Day said, not looking up from her laptop. “I already told Ed you’d be there.”
“You can’t tell people I’ll be places,” Larkin said, not getting up from the sofa. “That’s not how this is going to work.”
“I think I get at least some say in how it’s going to work,” Josephine said. “Since you are living in my house.”
“Temporarily,” Larkin said.
“I’m well aware.”
[I like this opening very much. It’s efficient, it establishes character relationships, it establishes character conflict, and it sets up Larkin’s BIG ISSUE.]
“And I’m supposed to be taking some time off,” Larkin continued, projecting her voice towards the kitchen table in the hopes that it would loom over her mother and withdraw with some sympathy extracted. “To think about what I want to do with the rest of my life.”
[The reader doesn’t yet know that Larkin has a theater background, but I foreshadow it with “projecting her voice.”]
“Are you thinking about it?”
“I’m thinking that I don’t want to sing in community choir.”
“It’s not a community choir. We’re bringing together all of the choruses in the Corridor for this concert.” At least her mother had not called it the Creative Corridor this time, emphasis on creative, as if that would entice Larkin to get off the sofa and get back to creating. Larkin did not want to make art in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She didn’t want to make art in any city where you had to say the name of the state afterwards.
[That last line, “She didn’t want to make art in any city where you had to say the name of the state afterwards,” made L laugh out loud. Then I told him that it had originally been a pandering Music Man joke — “She didn’t want to make art in Dubuque, Des Moines, Davenport, or any of the other cities they listed in The Music Man” — and I was very pleased with myself for having made a better and more specific choice.]
Larkin didn’t even know if what she did qualified as making art, anymore. At one point Larkin was very sure she was going to make art, staging plays and musicals that revealed truths that no one in her audience had ever considered. At a different, slightly later point, she’d told herself it was just as worthwhile to teach other people how to make art—although she’d also asked herself how she could teach something she hadn’t actually done. Larkin had considered this truth and then ignored it, not that it mattered. At this point, nobody was interested in hiring Larkin to teach or make anything.
[This was not in the original draft of the first chapter. I’m not sure it will make it into the final draft. I want to set up what’s going on with Larkin, but I don’t think this is actually what’s going on with Larkin. I mean, I think it might be what Larkin thinks is going on with herself, because she’s not yet ready to think more critically. In a later chapter I hint at what is really going on with Larkin, which is that she isn’t making any active choices about her own life. She doesn’t even know what she wants for, like, 60 to 80 percent of the book.
This could turn out to be a problem. L was asking me if I could put a little more “edge” into my story, the way Tana French’s mysteries have edge, and although my particular variation on the genre is way closer to Three Pines than Dublin Murders, the real reason I can’t put edge into this story yet is because Larkin literally has no edge. She is an unformed lump of anti-agency. Later in the book I have her realize that all of her decisions thus far have been based on what she thinks other people want her to do. THIS INCLUDES THE DECISION SHE MAKES IN THIS CHAPTER, BTW. She goes to choir practice because Mommy says. She whines and grumps the whole way there, but she goes because she has no other method of interacting with the world.
Can you write a book about this kind of person and also give it “edge”?]
“Are we getting paid?”
“Of course not.”
“Then it’s a community choir.”
“It is a community event,” Josephine said, finally looking over the top of her laptop. Larkin was thirty-five years old; her mother’s glare could make her feel thirteen again. “Do you know how often orchestras perform Beethoven’s Ninth?”
“Did you know before you looked it up online?” Now she was acting thirteen again, too.
“The Corridorchestra is going to be a very big deal for us, and I think you should participate.” Josephine shifted her gaze back down to her laptop, and Larkin knew that meant her mother assumed the argument was over. That’s how she would have staged it, back when she had assumed she would become a theater director at a university, a tenured faculty member, and the second Dr. Day. Instead, she was Dr. Day’s daughter, on Dr. Day’s sofa, watching Dr. Day return to academic administrata because her mother knew that Larkin was, in fact, going to choir practice tonight.
“Did you tell them I haven’t sung in a choir since high school?”
“It’s Ode to Joy,” Larkin’s mother said. “I think you’ll know the tune.”
[I love that I coined “Corridorchestra.” I also love that I gave the reader the one piece of information they need to recognize Beethoven’s Ninth, if they aren’t already familiar. This little section of the story works, because by the end of it we know a lot more about Larkin’s backstory, her current story, and her relationship with her mother. In many ways, that’s all we need to know at this point — the rest will be revealed through Larkin’s actions.]
Three hours later Larkin found herself thirteen pages into a thick green score, struggling to sight-read the alto line while mentally rehearsing various devastatingly clever ways to tell her mother that Beethoven’s famous melody only took up a small portion of the last movement of the symphony. None of this was familiar, not to mention that it was in German—though right now they had been instructed to sing the entire thing on “no.” It felt exactly like what Larkin wanted to shout at her mother, at Ed the choral director who had waved at her like he already knew her, at her dissertation adviser who had suggested she take a break, at all of the department chairs at all of the interviews who had politely listened to her ask questions about their various campuses even though they all knew there was no chance in hell that she’d get hired.
[I don’t explain why they’re singing the word “no.” It’s a choral thing; when you learn music for the first time, you often sing everything on a single syllable so you can focus on melody, tone, blending, etc. without getting tangled up in lyrics. My previous choir director loved “no,” although he sometimes used “dah.” Do I need to add a sentence explaining all of this? What about something like “Right now they had been instructed to ignore the lyrics and sing the entire thing on ‘no.’” Yeahhhhh I’ll make that edit.]
Larkin glanced up at the framed portraits that hugged the speckled ceiling like a wallpaper border. The Cedar Rapids segment of what Ed had called the “megachoir” was in a church basement, because of course it was, and they were surrounded by visages of previous pastors who, as the decades proceeded, shifted from stiff lips to soft smiles, sepia to grayscale, male to female. All white, of course; Ed, wearing a T-shirt that read “This is my choir rehearsal shirt,” was the only black person in the room.
And now Ed was looking at her, because she’d lost her place. “Focus,” he said, just like her mother and her dissertation adviser and everyone else in her life. The tiny towheaded woman sitting to Larkin’s left, who had introduced herself as “Anni with an I” in the kind of voice that made Larkin suspect the I had a heart on top of it, quickly and quietly pointed at the correct part of the score. “Nooooooo,” Larkin sang, sustaining the note and letting it crescendo.
[We learn a bit about Ed and Anni and a bit more about Larkin. It is interesting that Larkin feels like so many of the other characters — and I almost wrote “so many of the adults in her life,” which is telling in regards to how she sees herself compared to people like Ed, even though Ed is fairly close to her in age — anyway, it’s interesting that they keep using words like “focus” and “pay attention,” which is to say that it’s interesting that I chose those words for them to use. Is Larkin unable to make specific, informed choices simply because she isn’t paying attention? Or is there something else going on? That’s the kind of big philosophical question that L and I will discuss over dinner tonight…]
At the break, while Larkin was reaching into her bag for her phone and hoping she could spend the next ten minutes learning about celebrities who had worse lives than hers, Ed walked right up to her metal folding chair and introduced himself. “I’m Ed Jackson,” he said, holding out his hand. He was younger than Larkin had figured a man named Ed would be. Also jacked, which she wasn’t expecting. She watched his bicep expand and contract as they shook hands. “I’m so glad you’re here,” Ed told her, and Larkin’s eyes quickly went up to his face. “Your mother’s said so many good things about you.”
Larkin could no longer imagine what her mother said about her. My daughter, who’s in Los Angeles pursuing her PhD in theater would have become my daughter, who’s working on her dissertation and now my daughter, who lives in my guest bedroom. It didn’t even have the decency of being her childhood bedroom; when Larkin was growing up, they’d lived in a bungalow that faced the Puget Sound.
But Dr. Day had wanted to be a college president, and was willing to move to Iowa to be a college dean, and when Anni-with-an-I said something about Dr. Ed being an excellent choral director, Larkin put it all together: she was in this church basement right now because her mother wanted her to do something besides take up the length of the living room sofa, and because Dr. Ed Jackson wanted her mother to approve his bid for tenure.
[If you are not already familiar with academia, do you understand in general how the tenure process works? Do I need to explain it more? I don’t want to bog this section down, and we cover it in more detail about halfway through the book.]
So Larkin stood up, because the folding chair was uncomfortable and because she was taller than Anni by two heads and taller than Dr. Ed by two inches. “I’m only here for a couple of months, really. But I’m glad I could help.” Her theater training, as useless as it had turned out to be, had at least taught her how to tell a convincing lie.
Then she walked up the stairs, past the line of women waiting to use the restroom, and out the door. It was still light out, and still warm; a cluster of gnats hovered in front of the glowing church sign and the air felt like the city had just taken a shower. Easy for Larkin to forget that it was September; that everyone was back in school except for her.
[I love so much of the language in this first chapter. “The air felt like the city had just taken a shower.” L loved that one, too.]
“Want a light?” It was the accompanist; salt-and-pepper hair, rolled shirtsleeves, leather satchel slung across a slim chest. Slender fingers holding out a lighter. The cigarette was in his other hand; when Larkin looked up she saw him looking her both up and down.
“I don’t smoke.”
“So you’re just out here to enjoy the night air.” He took a drag off his cigarette; exhaled. “Sorry to pollute the City of Five Smells for you.”
As Larkin’s mother had explained, Cedar Rapids was called the City of Five Seasons (the fifth one was “time to enjoy the other four”). The internet had already tipped her off to this alternate slogan.
“Which one is it tonight?” the accompanist mused aloud.
“I’m thinking Mount Trashmore,” Larkin said, though all she could smell was cigarette smoke and humidity.
[I don’t think I ever mention Harrison’s cigarettes after this opening scene.]
The man sighed, exhaled again. “It can’t always be Crunchberries.” He offered the hand that had previously held the lighter. “I’m Harrison,” he said.
“Larkin.” They shook, and then Harrison reached into his satchel. “Don’t tell anyone,” he told her, as he unscrewed the top of a battered flask.
[I do mention Harrison’s drinking habits. Everyone does.]
“I don’t know anyone,” Larkin said, watching him drink and then shaking her head as he held the flask in her direction.
“I thought I hadn’t seen you before,” Harrison said, and Larkin saw his body tense just enough to reveal the truth; he was well aware that he hadn’t seen her before, and was pretending to be casual. Still, he was doing a good job of it. Larkin didn’t often get the chance to flirt with people. She had her father’s height and her mother’s hips, which seemed to ward off the majority of men; plus, as a theater director and graduate student she had been exceptionally sensitive to the power dynamics, unethicality, and general ickiness involved in pursuing a relationship with anyone in her cast or crew or classroom or cohort, male or female. So she’d enjoy this opportunity, even if Harrison was a little old for her.
[L laughed after “She had her father’s height and her mother’s hips, which seemed to ward off the majority of men.” However, several chapters later he said “wait, Harrison isn’t in his 30s?” This might suggest that I need to re-emphasize or directly state Harrison’s age at some point, since it plays a significant role in the mystery.]
Larkin smiled, with subtext. “I suppose I’m new in town.” She wished she had an excuse to shake her long, dark hair out of its last-minute ponytail, but that would be the kind of staging that she would describe as a gesture overused to the point where its symbolic meaning prevents the audience from experiencing the truth of the moment—the academic way of saying cliché—if someone else did it. She let her weight shift onto one leg instead, angling her torso and positioning herself to share the scene.
“Where are you from, Larkin?”
It had been years since Larkin had known how to answer this question. “Los Angeles,” she said. “New York. Minneapolis, for six months. Cambridge”—which had also been for six months, but she left that part out—“and Portland and Seattle.” She’d actually grown up south of Seattle, in Tacoma, which meant that she had just listed six cities without naming the one that most people would consider the correct answer to “where are you from,” but she figured nobody in Cedar Rapids would know where Tacoma was. She hadn’t known where Cedar Rapids was until her mother moved there.
[In two sentences I make it clear that 1) Larkin thinks she is more worldly than the people who live in Cedar Rapids and 2) she actually isn’t.]
“A rolling stone,” Harrison said. “I admire it. Sometimes I wish I’d lived in a few more places.” He glanced at Larkin again, eyes crinkling to match his smile. “I suppose there’s still time.” Then he glanced at his watch; silver, not smart. “Speaking of which—”
“We should go.”
“Yes,” Harrison said, stubbing out his cigarette under a scuffed leather shoe, adjusting his satchel, and opening the church door. “Oh, joy.”
[If the back of the book doesn’t already tip readers off to the fact that Harrison is the one who dies under Mysterious Circumstances, I’ve done my work with “Sometimes I wish I’d lived in a few more places. I suppose there’s still time.” Whenever a character says anything like that, they’re TOTALLY DOOMED, right?]
Over the next week, mostly to spite her mother, Larkin only left the house to go to choir rehearsal. If it wasn’t Thursday evening or Sunday afternoon, she stayed indoors and under the air conditioning vent; outside felt like walking through one of the thick, chewy brownie mug cakes Larkin kept microwaving for herself, shaking a mug’s worth of brownie mix out of the box at a time. When Josephine suggested that Larkin go pick up some groceries, Larkin downloaded an app and ordered them online. When Josephine asked if Larkin had gotten a chance to check out the library yet, Larkin said that she could still use her Los Angeles library card to check out ebooks—“and I bet they have a better selection.” When Josephine asked if Larkin was making new friends in the choir, Larkin said “well, some old lady named Marlene baked us all scotcheroos, which is apparently what this town calls chocolate-covered Rice Krispies treats, which is what I called them, and I’m pretty sure she hates me now.”
“No one could hate you,” her mother replied, the two of them at their usual spots; Larkin with her phone on the sofa and Josephine with her laptop at the kitchen table. “You’re so pleasant.”
There was silence, for a moment, and then Larkin’s mother spoke again. “There’s also butterscotch,” she said. “In a scotcheroo. And peanut butter.”
“I’m just saying—”
“I know,” Larkin said. Her mother had just said it often enough. “Pay attention to the details.”
“Well, they’re important,” Josephine said. Her specialty, before it was administration, had been poetry; she had no patience for any Shakespeare production where the actors spoke the language naturally, and loved telling her students—and her daughter—that the feelings were carried on the feet. Dr. Day was all about feet and meter and iamb and caesura; she’d never had to worry about making art because she’d been so good at explaining what it was made of.
[There’s that “making art” thing again. It doesn’t feel like the right thing for this book. That was what my whole other book was about: how ordinary people can make art. This book is about moving from stuckness to possibility (or, as I realized at the very end of the story, from vagueness to specificity).]
“Especially in a place like Cedar Rapids,” her mother continued, still explaining. “The way you treat people, the way you behave—people remember. For years, sometimes.”
“You’re not doing a very good sales job, Mom.”
“I love it here,” Josephine said. “It’d be nice if you tried to like it.”
“I don’t have to like it,” Larkin said. “I have to get my life together.”
“Fine,” Larkin’s mother said. “Then get your life together. Did you get any work done today?”
“Yes,” Larkin said, because she had spent roughly fifteen minutes looking at open faculty positions that she no longer considered herself qualified to pursue, and then spent roughly fifteen seconds asking herself what kind of job she could get with a resume that included four years of alternating theater and food service gigs followed by seven years of graduate school. Then she’d opened her bank app and closed it before she could see just how much interest had been added to her student loan and credit card debt over the past month, and spent the rest of the afternoon watching Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet on her phone. Her mother was wrong about Shakespeare, which meant she could be wrong about anything.
[The idea that Larkin’s mother could be wrong about anything has no payoff. It needs one, because it’s a great setup. What I really need is for both Larkin and her mother to realize that Larkin can manage her life on her own — but first, Larkin needs to learn how to manage her life on her own. Thank goodness she has a whole book in which to do it.]
“I’m not going to stay here forever,” Larkin said, staring at the sofa.
“I never said you would,” her mother said, looking at her laptop.
“I’m going to finish my dissertation and then leave,” Larkin said, but although she put plenty of dramatic emphasis into the words, she was fairly sure that her audience didn’t believe her.