Thursday, May 10, 2007

It's Hard to Write a Mystery

Elizabeth Zelvin

I wrote a poem the other day. I’m well qualified to do this. I have been writing poetry for 30 years. I’ve had two books published, I Am the Daughter (1981) and Gifts and Secrets: Poems of the Therapeutic Relationship (1999). I turned to writing mysteries a year or two after the second book came out, putting the poetry on the back burner. I never sat down to write poetry on a regular basis, the way novelists have to do if they want to produce a completed manuscript. I waited for the poems to come to me. Here’s how my creative process worked, from a poem called “Night Poem” that appeared in Gifts and Secrets. As you’ll notice, besides being about writing, it’s a love poem.

it’s like The Red Shoes only instead of dancing
I keep getting up to write poems
a dozen times between 3 and 6 AM
I curl back around you in the dark
and pull the blankets up
but then a line tugs at my mind
and I go stumbling through the hall
groping for light and pen
each time I lie back down
the images pop up like frogs
clamoring to be made princes
and you grumble and roll over
as I shuffle into my slippers once again
and go kiss the page

That’s pretty much how it worked this time, except that it happened in the daytime, so I didn’t lose any sleep over it. (I have a light-up LED pen on my bedside table nowadays, anyhow.) If I have a muse inside my head, that’s how it gets my attention: it tugs. I rushed to the computer, the images already forming in my mind. In 20 minutes, the thing was done. I felt as I imagine a hen might when she’s laid an egg. There it was, a whole poem. I didn’t need to change a word, and I was ready to cluck with satisfaction.

Writing a mystery, on the other hand, is a messy process. It takes time—lots of time. No way can it come out all at once. It involves reams of scribbles and cryptic notes in Word files. If you’re an “into the mist” writer like me, the plot dribbles out bit by bit onto many post-its. I also carry a digital recorder, especially when I run, so many of my pearls of prose get recorded in jerky syllables with panting in between and the slap of running shoes on the track in the background. My protagonist’s voice frequently starts talking in my head, but there’s no guarantee that I’ll use what he says on any one occasion. The good news is that after writing three full-length mysteries and a short story about him, I’m finally convinced I don’t have to worry about his having nothing more to say. The bad news is that I’m never finished.

Then there’s the story. Many of my poems are stories, too. But they’re short stories. Very, very short. Furthermore, as I have said to audiences at many readings over the years, everything in my poems is true. As my husband once said to an enthusiastic fan who burbled about how wonderful it must be to live with a poet, “Yeah, well, now you know I snore and get kicked out of bed for it.” A novelist can’t get away with that kind of candor. Instead, we say, “Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” And that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. We make it up. Yet we have to get it right—“it” being anything from forensics and police procedure to beekeeping or quilting or whatever occupation our fictional protagonist happens to take up. For mystery writers, “they do it on CSI” is on a par with “the dog ate my homework.”

Above all, our fictional characters must ring true. One of the characters in my mystery has a few traits in common with my husband. It would have been fun to make this character a bit of a curmudgeon. But my husband, whom I love dearly, is a bit of a curmudgeon. So my character had to be sweet. In fact, I had to work hard not to make him so sweet he was too good to be true.


Julia Buckley said...

Neat poem, Liz. And I know what you mean about things getting into your head. Although I don't think I get up as much as you do in the night, it's often when I'm relaxed that an idea occurs to me. But I'm generally too lazy to get out and write it down. :)

Anonymous said...

Wow, I had no idea you were a poet. Beautiful poetry.